On September 19, 2020, in the midst of the raging Corona pandemic my wife and I set out on a trip my wife had made reservations for a few months earlier.

After leaving Shinyokohama on a Shinkansen train we arrived in Kyoto about two hours later. A bus from the station took us to Fushimiinari. From there to Kiyomizu-dera Temple only to find out it was partially closed for renovation! We got in, but unfortunately could not get on the butai (stage). Then a walk to Yasaka Shrine, Nanzenji Temple and Ginkakuji Temple – Ginkakuji Temple was terrific and then finally to our hotel Kyokoyado Muromachi Yutone for the night. We were able to relax and refresh ourselves in a bath tub made of Japanese cypress wood. This small, cozy ryokan (Japanese style hotel) provided delicious food and the service was impeccable.

Kyokoyado Muromachi Yutone

Early next morning we left the hotel in a taxi to Kenninji temple. We arrived at the general visitor’s entrance to take part in the early morning visit plan that we had applied to months earlier. This is Japan’s oldest Zen temple (founded 1202) and the large twin dragons painted in its ceiling blew us away.

Twin dragons @kenninji

We also saw the folding screen of Fujin and Raijin – the gods of wind and thunder. The screen on display at the temple is a replica, as the original painting is safely stored at the Kyoto National Museum. I recall that a gigantic Fujin Raijin screen is also on display in Okada Museum of Art in Hakone in front of a footbath. It is absolutely stunning.

Okada Museum of Art in Hakone

There are plenty of things to see in Kyoto so you have to be very selective. This time I was looking forward to visiting Kosanji, Saimyoji and Jingoji temples, in an area referred to as the Sambi mountains described in an essay by Shirasu Masako on Myoe Shonin I read a few years ago. I would have liked to walk the course the author of the essay took, but that is quite a distance and too much for my wife’s knees so we took the bus.

Kyoto is a town where you can get anywhere by bus. The problem is that bus routes are a complex maze and finding the bus to your destination is a time-consuming challenge. After finally getting on our bus, we were taken straight to Sanbi. On the way, we passed Ryoanji and Heian Shrine so I thought we might be able see them on our way back even if they had not been part of our original plan.

As city streets gradually gave way to countryside, the bus started swerving right and left upwards indicating that we were heading into the mountains. The trees we could see through the bus windows were tall and straight Kitayama Cedar, I recollected from her essay. After a 90-minute bus ride, we arrived at Kosanji, our destination. The time was now 1:00 o’clock in the afternoon.

Sambi is the general term for the area that includes Mt. Takao with Jingoji Temple, Mt. Makio with Saimyoji Temple and Togano with Kosanji Temple. As the names of the three mountains end in “o,” they are known as the three “o’s” (尾) that is “三尾,” or Sambi.

Near the bus stop was a restaurant where we decided to have lunch. Or rather, having come this far up the mountain our choice was limited to precisely this one restaurant. And what about the food? … (To quote the late Prime Minister, Kakuei Tanaka) Well, it was… so-so  (^^)

In Kosanji, there is Sekisuiin, a building designated a national treasure where you can see a picture of Myoe Shonin, who founded the temple, meditating in a tree and a scroll of frolicking animals. We found the rear approach not far from the restaurant and walked to the temple. In recent years many visitors use this path to get to the temple we were told.

Entrance to the rear approach to Kosanji
Scroll of frolicking animals

We saw that the area around the main hall of Kosanji, which is at the rear, still bore scars of last year’s (2019) typhoon. Here and there were clearings where trees had been felled by the wind. Surrounded by the mountain forest on three sides, these clearings had numerous stumps, a sad and sorrowful contrast to the rich verdure around.

On to Saimyoji, Makio

Saimyoji is straight ahead
The gate to Saimyoji Temple
Saimyoji – the temple grounds

Smaller than Kosanji and Jingoji, Saimyoji left us with an impression of tranquility and lush greenery. Somehow it brought back childhood memories of the peace and quiet of Hachiman Shrine, which was right across the street from my home. The scenery here in autumn would no doubt be breathtaking.

We had now come to the end of our plans for the day. We headed to Momijyahonkan, our residence for the night. Later in the evening we had dinner at Kawasoko, a restaurant, a short walk’s distance from our hotel.

As we started our dinner, two maiko, geisha apprentices, danced for us. Before their dance, they gave us an explanation of the meaning of the dance and the gestures involved. After the dance, they visited the tables of guests who were staying at the hotel for a two or three minute chat. Of course, they also visited our table and we were delighted to hear their cute Kyoto dialect.

Maiko girls

Next morning we were off to Jingoji Temple. As we were about to leave the hotel after breakfast, a member of the staff told us that we would have to walk up very many stone steps to get to the entrance of the temple. He offered to drive us to a location closer to the entrance and we decided to accept his offer. On our way back we walked down these steps, we realized that climbing up them – 400 steps in all, it is said – would indeed have been quite a challenge for an elderly person.

I had intended to take a few photographs of the Sakuramon (Sakura gate) from the bottom of the steps, but to my disappointment the gate was being repaired (as you can see in the photo below). On this trip, the repair work at Kiyomizu-dera Temple and Kinkakuji were some of the other disappointments we had.

Jingoji, Sakuramon

Let me tell you something about Myoe, the person who inspired this trip. Myoe lost his parents at an early age and at 9 his uncle Jokaku had him join him at Jingoji to start his studies to become a monk. Kenninji, the temple we visited yesterday was founded by Eisai, who introduced the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism to Japan, was a contemporary senior of Myoe. Eisai held him in high regard and wanted him as his successor, but Myoe flatly rejected his offer. Myoe was a student of both the Kegon and Shingon sects and like many of his contemporary coreligionists took a relaxed attitude to sectarian differences.  The Kegon sutra that Myoe studied is said to focus on Shakyamuni’s satori and might have created a deep longing for Shakyamuni in Myoe, so much so that he twice attempted to travel to India, both attempts, but both attempts failed.

Myoe had by this time already become a famous monk and, although we do not know how he came to do so, kept a record of his dreams from the age of 19 and until his death at 60, in a journal called “Yumenoki,” a document of great historical value. To have kept a journal of his dreams for such a long time borders on the amazing.

It is said that Hayao Kawai, a Japanese well-known for his Jungian research were recommended by Hideki Yukawa and Takeshi Umehara to read Myoe’s “Yume no Ki” after a round-table discussion in 1965. At the time Kawai was completely uninterested in Buddhism and did not act on this recommendation until circumstances encouraged him to do so. Deeply impressed, he said “he was convinced he had finally found a Japanese mentor.” This deep conviction led to his publication of “The Buddhist priest Myoe: a life of dreams.” The postscript to Masako Shirasu’s “Myoe Shonin” I read in 2015 was written by Hayao Kawai. Since I had not yet read Kawai’s book on Myoe’s dreams, I obtained a copy before the trip and keep reading it a little at a time.

Myoe has this to say. He said this in criticism of Honen, who in this age when many believed that the world had entered the period of mappo (Decline of the Law), preached that calling upon the name of Amida Buddha was all that mattered and that not even bodaishin, that is aspiration for Buddhahood, was needed. Myoe vehemently opposed this as heretical. Aspiration for Buddhahood, is the aspiration to seek true satori. Although there are many ways to reach the goal, Shakyamuni says that aspiration for Buddhahood is the only way. So his criticism of Honen runs as follows:

I do not want to be saved into the next life. I first want to live this life as appropriate.

And so back to our trip.

On the outskirts of the other temple buildings is a small Jizo-in Temple with an open space that provides a good view of the magnificent Togano Mountains. At a small resting place, unglazed earthenware plates for throwing to ward off evil fortune were sold. Two plates for ¥300. We bought some plates and threw them down the cliff.

As we were walking towards the entrance after plate throwing, a small snake appeared from the bushes on our right, slithered across the path in front of us and disappeared into the grass thickets on our left. Both I and my wife took pictures of it and as we kept following its course through the grass shouting new sightings of the snake to each other, we created quite a bit of commotion. Seeing a snake is sign of good luck my wife said laughing.

We walked down the long stone steps saying good-bye to Jingoji Temple and boarded the bus. After a few minutes, my wife realized we were traveling in the wrong direction. So we got off the bus at a bus stop before we got to a fork in the road and started walking from there. After about 10 minutes we arrived at Ninaji Temple. Not joining a pack tour makes traveling fun and adds extra thrills!

(We got off the bus and started to walk when I received a mobile phone call from KB, our translator who handles the translation of this blog! He had another question for me) This was not quite the end of the trip, but we will stop here.

Front gate of Ninaji Temple

(Translated by KB)

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