Ⅵ. Kyushu, A Spiritual Island
by: Vicki L. Beyer
Kyushu has always played a central role in Japan's spiritual or
religious life. Many of the legends surrounding Japan's ancient origins are set
in Kyushu and commemorated at Shinto shrines and other sites across the island,
meaning these special locations can actually be visited. Buddhism and
Christianity also first entered Japan via Kyushu. Sites associated with the
early impact of spiritual Buddhism will be examined below. For Christian
historical sites, see "Ocean and Islands".
Legends of Japan's origin stem from a period known in Japan as the
"Age of Gods", which ended when Jimmu (711BC-585BC) became Japan's
first emperor in 660BC. These ancient oral legends were recorded in the
earliest histories written in Japan: the Kojiki (7th century) and the Nihon
Shoki (8th century).
The legends are quite fascinating and in some ways resemble the
origin stories of other major cultures of the world. One Westerner recently
observed that if it weren't for the long, complicated names of the various
gods, these tales would probably be quite popular even among non-Japanese.
Let's find out as we explore what makes Kyushu a spiritual island.
According to legend, after the gods Izanagi and Izanami fished the
Japanese islands out of the sea, they had four children:
Susanoo was a bit mischievous and prone to causing trouble. He
shares some similarities with Loki, of Norse folk tradition. He had a
particular rivalry with his sister, Amaterasu, who was naturally wary of him.
At one point, bored with his heavenly life, Susanoo vandalized Amaterasu's rice
fields, threw a flayed horse into her loom, and brutally killed one of her
maidens after a quarrel. Amaterasu was so upset by these actions that she hid
herself inside a cave known as Amano Iwato, pulling a rock across the entrance
to seal herself inside. When the sun goddess enters a cave, it naturally follows
that the world is plunged into darkness, a situation that threw the remaining
world into chaos.
The world during this Age of Gods was made up of a vast pantheon
of deities, but none of them knew what had happened. After searching high and
low for Amaterasu, eventually they realized that she had hidden herself in
Amano Iwato. But she wouldn't come out. Different gods tried a variety of
tactics to entice her out, but she consistently refused. Eventually
Ame-no-Uzume, the goddess of dawn, performed a bawdy little strip-tease dance
atop an upturned wooden tub, so amusing the other gods that they all began to
laugh loudly. Hearing the laughter, Amaterasu grew curious and peaked out of
her cave to see what was happening. At that moment, Ame-no-takijarao, a deity
known for his strength, pulled back the rock blocking the entrance and grabbed
Amaterasu out of the cave, restoring light to the world.
Amano Iwato Shrine, just outside the town of Takachiho in northern
Miyazaki Prefecture, stands guard over Amano Iwato cave and this legend. A
statue of Ame-no-tajikarao holding a massive stone over his head, presumably
having just opened the cave, stands near the shrine's entrance as a testament
to the tale. The central shrine is located across a gorge from the Amano Iwato
cave, which mere mortals are not permitted to enter. But upon purification by a
priest, visitors can walk around to the back of the shrine to view the cave
from across the gorge.
Nearby stands the Kagura-den, a special stage where Yokagura dance is performed.
Yokagura is a story-telling dance developed as a night-time offering to the
gods. But it is also greatly enjoyed by humans. Most dancers wear masks
portraying their character, nearly always a god. It is often said that the
dancers undertake a ritual before performing that allows them to become their
character, a god, while they are dancing. The dances are accompanied by drum,
flute and chanting.
A full Yokagura performance of the legend relating to Amaterasu
and the Amano Iwato cave comprises 33 dances and takes six to eight hours,
lasting through the night. It is performed at Amano Iwato Shrine every year in
On the opposite side of the shrine's courtyard is a very old Ogatama
(Michelia compressa) tree, with moss covering its trunk. This tree's name means
"to invite the gods" and it is a popular sacred tree in areas where
the Sakaki, another sacred tree, doesn't grow well. Twenty-fourth generation
priest, Eishu Sato, has pointed out how the berries of the tree resemble the
handbells used by priests in performing Shinto rituals.
A little higher in the gorge, after a pleasant walk along a
bubbling stream of clear water, visitors will come to a large, deep cave
opening into the cliffside. This is a satellite location of Amano Iwato shrine,
perhaps standing as a surrogate for the cave to which entry is forbidden. There
is a torii shrine gate at the entrance and a small shrine building stands
inside. But it is the floor of the cave that is most intriguing. It is littered
with small towers of stones erected by visitors as they offer prayers. Priest
Sato explains that in the spring flood waters often rise so high that all the
stones are washed away, but more towers are soon erected as new visitors come
with their prayers.
A second satellite shrine, apparently the original shrine
location, stands a little way downstream and on the other side of the water.
Like the entrance to the central shrine, a statue from the legend stands guard.
This time it's Ame-no-Uzume on her upturned wooden tub. A motion sensor causes
her to turn to music whenever anyone approaches, I wonder if she will make you
At Takachiho Shrine in nearby Takachiho town, a 50 minute version
of Yokagura is performed nightly from 8 pm. Four dances are performed in a
dance "hall" within the shrine's grounds. In addition, Takachiho
Shrine hosts the all night version of Yokagura in late November.
From mid-November to early February (with a slight break across
the New Year's holidays) the long version of Yokagura is also performed at a
number of local shrines in the area. Yokagura is always performed by amateurs
who have rehearsed diligently to learn their role. Apparently locals often
perform in homes for each other; perhaps this is part of their rehearsal.
Undoubtedly all of these performances ensure that the legends and the tradition
of the dance continue from generation to generation.
There are other legends about the interactions between Susanoo and
Amaterasu. At one point Susanoo persuaded his sister to exchange their favorite
items. He gave her Totsuka-no-Tsurugi, a kind of sword, while she gave him her
favorite necklace. While Amaterasu held the sword, it gave birth to three
daughters. At the same time, her necklace now in Susanoo's possession gave
birth to five sons.
The three daughters are sea goddesses who reside in three separate
shrines in Munakata, a coastal town northeast of Fukuoka. Tagori, the eldest,
lives on Okinoshima, a sacred island some 60 kilometers (37 miles) offshore
from Munakata. The youngest sister, Takitsu, lives at Nakatsu-miya (the middle
shrine) on the island of Oshima about eight kilometers (5 miles) offshore. The
middle sister, Ichikishima, is enshrined on the mainland at Hetsu-miya (lower
shrine), also known as Munakata Grand Shrine. Together they are known as the
Munakata Sanjoshin. According to legend, they were sent by Amaterasu to
Munakata, an ancient fishing harbor, to help and protect fishermen and women,
along with their boats. They are now commonly known as deities which protect
humans from all forms of transportation accidents.
The sacred island of Okinoshima and associated sites in the
Munakata Region received UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2017. Sitting far out
at sea, Okinoshima is regarded as a particularly sacred guardian site. It is
constantly occupied only by a single priest, sent from Hetsu-miya on a 10 day
rotation schedule. Women are never allowed on the island or on boats bound for
the island, but men are permitted to visit at certain times of year for
specific rituals (see "Festivals").
Amaterasu wanted to dispatch one of her sons to earth to carry
peace and rice cultivation to humans, but he objected, suggesting instead that
his son, Ninigi-no-mikoto, be sent in his place. As the legend goes, Ninigi
descended to earth (this is known as the tenson korin) at Mt. Takachiho, a volcanic peak (1,573 m.) in the Kirishima
volcanic cluster (see "Volcanoes"). He arrived with three gifts: a
sacred sword, a sacred mirror and a sacred jewel. Ninigi is the
great-grandfather of Emperor Jimmu, who founded the dynasty that continues to
this day. His three gifts ultimately became the imperial regalia that is still
held by the imperial family of Japan.
Ninigi's tenson korin is commemorated at Kirishima Jingu, not far
from Mt. Takachiho. According to Akihiro Kamimakise, a priest at the shrine,
the current shrine location dates to 1715. Earlier versions of the shrine,
built higher up the mountain near the actual site of Ninigi's tenson korin,
were destroyed by fires (including from volcanic eruptions), so the shrine has
been gradually relocated down the mountain over the years.
The shrine's buildings are mostly adorned in vermilion and white,
which Kamimakise-san explained has more to do with the period in which they
were built than with the actual age of the shrine as an establishment. He also
said that the bright red color is believed to ward off evil and bring luck.
Throughout the year, various shrine rituals are performed, not
only at the current Kirishima Jingu, but also at one of its previous locations
as well as atop Mt. Takachiho, where a sword protrudes from the peak. According
to legend, this is Amanosakahoko, a sword that Ninigi himself thrust into the
mountain to mark the spot of his descent.
Ninigi was accompanied by three gods (including the dawn goddess
who helped entice Amaterasu out of the cave earlier) and five chieftains, a
party of nine in total. The entire group is commemorated in the name of a local
taiko drum troupe, Kirishima Kumen Daiko, whose closing act is usually a
powerful performance by nine drummers wearing masks depicting Ninigi and his
party. Since its formation in 1975, the troupe has performed all over Japan as
well as internationally.
Ninigi and his companions soon moved down the mountain to the Satsuma
Peninsula, a more suitable location for rice cultivation. There the five
chieftains proceeded to lay out the principles of Shintoism while Ninigi set
about finding himself a wife. It is said that Ninigi met a beautiful girl named
Sakuya and asked for her hand. Sakuya's father offered Ninigi both his daughters,
Sakuya and Iwanaga, but since Iwanaga wasn't as pretty as Sakuya, Ninigi
returned her to her father. As a result, Sakuya's father cursed the offspring
of Ninigi and Sakuya to prosper only "like flowers on a tree". In
other words, they were to be mortal and have only short lives. This provides an
explanation for the fact that Japan's emperors (until Hirohito renounced his
divinity) were simultaneously divine and mortal.
Kagoshima Jingu, which sits on a hillside looking south toward
Sakurajima in Kagoshima Bay, is dedicated to Hoori, youngest son of Ninigi and
Sakuya, and grandfather of Emperor Jimmu. Although Hoori was a hunter, he is
worshipped as a god of grain.
The principal legend relating to Hoori is that he found his wife,
Toyotama, while searching for a fish hook belonging to his brother, Hoderi,
that Hoori had borrowed and lost. Toyotama was the daughter of a sea god. She
and Hoori lived together in an undersea palace but eventually returned to
Kyushu together when Hoori became homesick. By this time, Toyotama was
pregnant. She chose to give birth in a cave on the southeast coast of Miyazaki
and began to build a "birthing hut" out of cormorant feathers inside
the cave. She had made Hoori promise not to be present for the birth as she would
have to assume her true form (a creature somewhere between a dragon and a
crocodile) and did not want Hoori to see. Alas, Hoori broke his promise. When
Toyotama realized, she fled back to the sea in shame, leaving her newborn son,
Ugayafukiaezu, in the cave. Ugayafukiaezu would grow up to father Emperor
The cave is now the site of Udo Jingu, a shrine dedicated to
Ugayafukiaezu. Following the story,, when Toyotama fled, she caused milk to
flow from two breast-shaped rocks in the cave wall, providing her child with
sustaining nourishment. Those rock formations, from which milky-colored mineral
laden water does occasionally drop, are signposted deep in the cave, behind the
striking shrine building that dominates the cave's interior. The cave is in a
dramatic position in the cliffs high above the crashing waves. People come here
to pray for safety at sea as well as for a safe birth and healthy
A popular activity while at Udo Jingu is to try to throw a ceramic
ball into a rope ring arranged on a boulder below the cave. If the ball stays
inside the ring, the thrower's prayer or wish will be granted. You can have
five tries for 100 yen. The boulder resembles a turtle shell, which is
significant because Toyotama is sometimes conflated with Otohime, a princess
who appears in the folktale of Urashima Taro. The tale contains elements similar to both Rip Van Winkle and
Pandora's Box. Urashima Taro was a fisherman who rescued and released a turtle
that was being teased by some children on the beach. The grateful turtle
offered to take Urashima Taro to the famous underwater Dragon Palace, where he
met Otohime. When Urashima Taro became homesick and wanted to leave the Dragon
Palace, Otohime gave him a mysterious box which he was told never to open.
Although Urashima Taro had only been a few days in the Dragon Palace, when he
returned home, years had passed and nothing was familiar. In frustration, he
pried open the mystery box and in a puff of smoke was turned into an old man.
Curiously, rabbit images are also very popular at Udo Jingu. One
of the shrine's priests suggested it may be because the Japanese word for
rabbit begins with the same "u" sound as the Japanese word for
cormorant, which forms part of the name of the shrine. That wordplay is perhaps
combined with the fact that rabbits are a symbol of fertility, in keeping with
the popularity of the shrine as a place to pray for healthy children.
There are also two shrines in Kyushu dedicated to Toyotama. One is
Shrine in Ureshino Onsen (see "Onsen") in
Saga Prefecture. Toyotama's name means "Luxuriant Jewel", which
implies something like a lustrous pearl. Ureshino Onsen is famous as a place
where the onsen water produces beautiful skin, and what could be more beautiful
than an iridescent complexion? Women are often seen praying here, presumably
for the gods to give the efficacy of the water a boost. It is said that by
pouring water over a carving of a white catfish near the main shrine, one can
ensure beautiful skin.
The other shrine is also called Toyotamahime
Shrine and is located in Chiran on the Satsuma
Peninsula, not far from where Ninigi purportedly settled. This shrine, like Udo
Jingu, is a popular place to pray for a safe birth and healthy children. Both
of these shrines are relatively minor, yet it is interesting that Toyotama's
legend lives on with them.
When Toyotama fled, she asked her younger sister, Tamayori to go
to Kyushu and raise her son for her. After Ugayafukiaezu grew up, he married
the aunt who raised him and they proceeded to have a family of their own, three
sons who were born in the Miyazaki Takachiho and later, after the family had
returned to the east coast of Kyushu, a fourth son who went on to become Emperor
Jimmu and his brothers worked together campaigning to expand their
territory. Eventually Jimmu decided he needed to leave Kyushu for the larger
and more centrally located Honshu island in order to dominate the entire
Jimmu sailed from a small port called Mimitsu in Hyuga City,
Miyazaki in approximately 665BC. His venture is known as the "Eastern
Expedition" and it ended with him settling in the Nara area to become
Japan's first emperor on February 11, 660BC. February 11 is now a national
holiday known in English as National Foundation Day.
The place of Jimmu's departure from Hyuga is commemorated with a
large monument erected by the Japanese Navy on the 2,600th anniversary of
imperial rule and claiming the spot as the origin of the Japanese navy. After
all, Jimmu did indeed sail, didn't he?
The monument includes a small replica of the boat Jimmu would have
sailed in, which looks a bit like a Viking ship. The same boat motif adorns
many local mail boxes too. Mimitsu is an historical preservation district
looking not as it did 2,600 years ago, but rather as it did about 200 years ago
when it was a major seaport for the east coast of Kyushu. It is a quaint spot
to wander for an hour; a small museum provides further information.
It is unclear whether Jimmu ever returned to Kyushu after becoming
emperor, but there is a kofun burial mound at Miyazaki Jingu in the heart of
Miyazaki city that is said to contain the burned remains of the ship that
carried him on his Eastern Expedition. Miyazaki Jingu is a major shrine complex
set in lush woodland that includes tropical trees common to this southeastern
part of Kyushu. The shrine is believed to have been established by Jimmu's
grandson, Takeiwa Tatsu-no-mikoto who had been sent back to Kyushu by his
grandfather. The deities honored at Miyazaki Jingu are Jimmu and his parents,
Ugayafukiaezu and Tamayori.
There is another legend relating to Jimmu's grandson, Takeiwa. It is possible that Jimmu sent Takeiwa to Kyushu to avoid
sibling conflict, since it was Takeiwa's brother who was to succeed Jimmu as
emperor. However, Jimmu's ostensible reason for dispatching Takeiwa was that
his aid was needed to improve Kyushu's agriculture. When Takeiwa reached the
Mt. Aso area he found the caldera full of water, forming a great crater lake
(see "Volcanoes"). He thought that if the lake were drained the area
would be well-suited to rice production, so he decided to kick down a section
of the caldera's wall. Eventually he managed to kick through an opening at
Tateno Gorge on the western side of the caldera, the place through which the
caldera's rivers drain to this day.
Takeiwa, who is considered a pioneering god for his contributions
to agriculture, is worshipped at Aso Shrine, which continues to have many
rituals relating to successful farming. Aso Shrine is regarded as one of the
oldest shrines in Japan, dating back at least 2,400 years. Although the
shrine's front gate and main hall were destroyed in the 2016 earthquake, it is
currently being rebuilt and remains an active center of worship.
These fascinating legends outline the chronology and genealogy of
the imperial ancestors during the Age of Gods, a time before history. One thing
is clear. Kyushu, the spiritual island plays a central role.
Even after the Age of Gods gave way to the Age of Man with the
establishment of the Japanese imperial line, Kyushu's spiritual role continued.
In the early 8th century, Usa Jingu was established in northern
Oita Prefecture and dedicated to Hachiman, the guardian god of warriors.
Hachiman is a posthumous deification of the 15th emperor, Ojin (201-312). The
name Hachiman means "eight flags". According to legend, once when
Ojin was losing a battle he prayed to his ancestor gods for help and they sent
eight white flags fluttering down from the heavens, giving Ojin a victory.
Usa Jingu is the oldest Hachiman shrine and the governor of the
more than 40,000 Hachiman shrines that now exist across Japan. The vermilion
red and white shrine buildings are scattered across a heavily wooded hillside
skirted on two sides by the Yorimo River.
Another significant Hachiman shrine with a very close association
to Emperor Ojin himself is Hakozaki Hachiman Shrine in the city of Fukuoka.
Ojin was born to Empress Jingu in a town now known as Umi, not far from
Fukuoka. Legend has it Ojin’s father died before he was born and his mother
ruled as regent, spending three years campaigning in Korea before giving birth
to him. His umbilical cord was placed into a box and buried under a pine tree
in the Hakozaki area. The name Hakozaki means "box point", a
reference to the box containing Ojin's umbilical cord. A large pine tree stands
in front of Hakozaki Hachiman Shrine to symbolize the historical pine tree,
although the shrine was not founded until nearly seven centuries after Ojin's
A rather obscure Hachiman shrine that recently attracted attention
is Sakamoto Hachiman Shrine near the Dazaifu Administrative Center (see
"Gateway"). The reason for this sudden fame is the location's
association with the kanji character "rei" that forms the first part
of the era name of Japan's latest reigning emperor, Reiwa. The era name is said to mean "beautiful harmony", but
use of the character "rei" to mean fine or beautiful is nearly as
obscure as Sakamoto Hachiman Shrine and its relationship to that particular
kanji character. The shrine was established in the Heian Period (794-1185) on a
site that had been the villa of Otomo no Tabito (665-731), an official of the
Dazaifu Administrative Center. During that time, Otomo hosted a poetry reading
event at which one of his guests composed a poem using the "rei"
character to mean fine or beautiful. Otomo later included the poem in his opus
poetry anthology, Manyoshu, which is still regarded as a significant collection and which
was apparently consulted by the cabinet committee that created the reign name
Spiritual Buddhist Sites
Buddhism came into Japan in the middle of the 6th century,
bringing some new philosophies previously unknown in Japan. While Shinto
beliefs and practices dealt principally with seasonal observances and daily
life, Buddhism provided an understanding of what happens after death, providing
a yin-yang completion of the life cycle picture. This complementation may have
been one reason the great Buddhist evangelist Kukai (774-835), now known as
Kobo Daishi, suggested that the two religions were really one, just two sides
of the same coin.
Even before Kobo Daishi, a syncretic religion called Shugendo had
already developed, incorporating Shintoism, folk religion and Buddhist practices
into a form of mountain asceticism. Remote mountainous areas of Kyushu were
particularly popular spots with those early ascetic monks. Mt. Sefuri on the
border of modern-day Fukuoka and Saga Prefectures was a popular site for the
solitary hermits, although today the area is better known for tea production
and pleasant hiking.
Oita's Kunisaki Peninsula, with its steep mountains and deep
valleys, must have been the perfect place for anyone who wanted to withdraw
from the world. In the eighth century a priest named Ninmon established 28
temples on the peninsula, dividing them into six districts based on which
valley they were in. The region came to be called Rokugo Manzan: the six
districts full of mountains. Even today the area feels remote and deeply spiritual.
On the western flank of the dormant volcano that dominates the
peninsula is Fukiji Temple, built in 718, making it the oldest wooden structure
in Kyushu. Its simple lines and lack of adornment as it sits in a quiet
clearing contributed to a rarefied atmosphere that permeates most religious
sites of the peninsula. Zen meditation sessions take place at 7 am most
mornings, giving visitors a true sense of the wonder those ancient mountain
ascetics must have felt.
Futagoji Temple sits nearly on the top of Mount Futago, the
largest peak on the peninsula. Established at the same time as Fukiji, it is a
much larger temple complex that has been destroyed and rebuilt many times.
Because of its size, warriors often sought shelter at Futagoji during conflicts,
which contributed to its occasional destruction. One of its older buildings is
built into the cliffside and draped with colorful flags. Near the temple's
entrance is an enchanting pair of moss-covered stone Nio guardian statues.
Besides temples, other tangible evidence of the past practices of
Buddhist asceticism in Oita are the sekibutsu, stone statues of Buddha, sometimes carved into living stone. It
seems the ascetic monks often turned to stone carving in caves or cliff sides
while meditating. The relatively soft volcanic rock in the area perhaps
contributed to making the task somewhat easier.
Oita's Kunisaki Peninsula is the site of more than 400 such
carvings, many in living rock.
The largest of Kunisaki's stone Buddhas (sekibutsu) is the Kumano
Magaibutsu carved onto a rock face above Taizoji temple. To reach it, visitors
first walk up a wooded valley, then cross a bridge and ascend into the forest
on a stone littered path. The ascent is steep and the stones serve as steps
without having been arranged as stairs. An ancient legend says this path was
created by a demon in a single night, so watch your step!
There are two large carvings, 6.6 meters (21.6 feet) and 8 meters
(26 feet) in height. Their exact history is uncertain and one cannot help but
wonder how anyone could get up the cliff to carve them in the first place. Did
the monks build a scaffolding on this uneven mountainside, or suspend
themselves by ropes from the top? It remains a mystery to this day. The older
statue, carved sometime before the 12th century, is a placid looking Dainichi
Nyorai, the supreme Buddha of the Cosmos. The larger one was carved a little
later and depicts the grotesque Fudo Myo-o, the Buddhist lord of light whose
job it is to guide spiritual travelers past temptation on their way to
salvation. Notwithstanding his important guardian role, Fudo Myo-o always looks
scary. Further up the mountain stands a small temple that watches over the
Demons also figure significantly into life on the Kunisaki
Peninsula. Perhaps the dramatic landscape of steep mountains and deep valleys
lends itself to imagining demons concealing themselves in its midst. Certainly
the ancient inhabitants of the peninsula thought so! Action by demons was also
a convenient explanation for some of the odd rock formations found in the area.
In those ancient times, it was often thought that demons were
manifestations of the gods demanding appeasement. Accordingly, many of the
temples in the Rokugo Manzan held annual Shujo Onie (correcting the demon) rituals at which dancers masked and
dressed as demons sparred with flaming torches in a purification rite. These
days, the practice has largely died out, with only a few temples still
following the entire ritual, which includes going house to house in the
district. Although the masks remain treasured possessions of each temple.
Fortunately, an annual performance still takes place in nearby Bungotakada.
In the southern part of Oita, where lava flows from Mt. Aso's
major eruption 90,000 years ago left behind easily worked stone, carving
sekibutsu was practiced extensively by early monks. The vast collections of
statues imply more concerted efforts, rather than work by a single meditating
Usuki Sekibutsu Park is in a small valley 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from the castle
town of Usuki. The park contains at least 60 stone Buddha statues, grouped into
four clusters. It is believed that the carving began more than 1,000 years ago,
with many of the statues carved into living rock. They are now registered as
The craftsmanship of these statues is exquisite, with the statues
well proportioned and often aligned closely with each other, even when carved
into living rock. The folds of their clothing are detailed and realistic too.
Many of the statues were painted and decorated when they were first created and
some of the color can still be seen today. However the relatively soft stone
that made their creation possible also erodes easily and the statues have
suffered damage with the passage of time. Most statues are now protected by
roofing and some statues were painstakingly restored in the 1980s and 90s.
Less well known, but no less interesting are some of the other
sekibutsu sites nearby. There are probably too many to mention, but below are a
couple of particularly noteworthy ones.
In the hills near the village of Inukai is the Inukai sekibutsu, a
seated Fudo Myo-o 3.7 meters (12 feet) high, flanked by two attendants. Although
they are believed to have been carved nearly 1,000 years ago, and the faces
have nearly eroded away, red color can still be seen where their robes were
painted. These days, this group of sekibutsu is well protected by a wooden
temple built flush with the cliffside. Large holes in the rock face imply that
similar structures had previously protected the statues too. Outside, a prayer
to Kobo Daishi, "namu daishi henjo kogo" has been carved in large
kanji characters into the rock face next to the temple. The sharpness of the
edges in the stone suggests that this phrase was a later addition.
The Sugao sekibutsu is a collection of statues carved into a
cliffside high up a mountain overlooking the village of Miemachi Asase, or they
would be if the forest surrounding them wasn't so deep. The walk to reach these
more than 800 year old statues is quite steep, but the sight of the five seated
Buddhas, adorned with red paint, makes it worth the climb. Amida Buddha is in
the center, with a thousand-armed Kannon and Yakushi Nyorai on one side and an
11-headed Kannon and Bishamonten on the other.
In the town
of Minamikyushu in Kagoshima more than
200 different Buddhist images are carved into a 400 meter (1,312 feet) length
of cliff overlooking the Manose River. Theseare known as the Kiyomizu
Magaibutsu. The variety of engravings, including Sanskrit characters, and the
style of carving, which is not as three-dimensional as the Oita sekibutsu,
almost seems more Korean or Chinese than Japanese. Regardless of their
technique, the devotion of the generations of people who worked on these
carvings can be clearly seen. It is believed the carvings were made in five
distinct periods beginning over 1,000 years ago, with the last additions made
less than 200 years ago.
Let's look at one last legend that tells us about Kyushu’s rich spiritual history. In the late 13th century, the Mongol Kublai Khan, then emperor
of China, twice tried to invade Japan by sailing to Kyushu. Although Kublai
Khan managed to land troops on Tsushima, Iki and eventually at Hakata, Japanese
resistance led to a Mongol withdrawal that ended badly for the Mongols when a
storm arose, sinking many of their ships.
Fearing that the Mongols would return, the Japanese built a stone
wall along the waterfront at Iki no Matsubara in what is now Fukuoka City,
presumably the spot they felt was most vulnerable to an enemy landing. Known as
Genko Burui, the wall was about 1.8 meters (6 feet) high and extended for 2.5
kilometers (1.55 miles). Although the wall has collapsed or worn away over the
centuries, its foundations and a short reconstruction, can be seen at
Iki-no-Matsubara in the Genkai Quasi-National Park.
Sure enough, seven years after their first invasion attempt, the
Mongols did return, this time with more than four thousand ships and nearly
140,000 men—one of the largest invading forces in human history. The Genko
Burui was instrumental in impeding an enemy landing but it is said that the
real turning point was when the Emperor prayed to his deity ancestors for
protection. The gods sent “kamikaze” (divine wind), another major storm that
wreaked havoc on the Mongol ships. Items from the sunken Mongol ships continued
to wash onto Kyushu beaches, especially around Hakata Bay and Imari Bay, for
centuries afterward. These events left the Japanese with the belief that their
sacred islands could not be invaded and gave rise to the use of the word
kamikaze for suicide airplane attacks during World War II. While most
non-Japanese only know the more modern usage of the word kamikaze, this
Kyushu-based legend shows its more noble side.