• 2022/02/07
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Ⅵ. Kyushu, A Spiritual Island

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.


Shinto Legends


According to legend, after the gods Izanagi and Izanami fished the Japanese islands out of the sea, they had four children:


Amaterasu-omikami, the sun goddess

Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto, the moon god

Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the storm god

Hi-no-Kagutsuchi, the fire god


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 November.


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 laugh too?


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 Jimmu.


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 children. 


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 Toyotamahime 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.


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 country.


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 death.


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 Reiwa.


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 area.


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 hermit monk. 


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 national treasures. 


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.


Kamikaze legend


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.