Day 21 – Sasebo To Yoshii, A Day Of Climbing To Three Mountain Temples, The Kyushu 108 Temple Pilgrimage, Japan

Day 21 – Sasebo To Yoshii, A Day Of Climbing To Three Mountain Temples, The Kyushu 108 Temple Pilgrimage, Japan

We started this morning very early because we had to visit three temples, each located on a mountain, with many mountain passes in between them.

The area north of Sasebo is very mountainous, and even the urban city centre of Sasebo, aside from the waterfront and the port, is built on the slopes of many mountains.

The first temple we visited was temple #73 Mt. Totake Saikoji Temple (Totake-San, Saikoji.)
After walking up a steep slope, we spotted a big Fudo-Myoo sculpture standing across the road.

The priest was surprised to see foreigners coming to the temple, but after stamping our book and scroll, he invited us to stay for a Goma burning ceremony that was about to start, and would last for about thirty minutes.

Jules looked at his watch and asked me if we have the time to stay for the ceremony.
I said that regardless of the time, this was a good omen and we must stay and participate in the Goma Fire Ceremony.

I had a back-up plan that if we could not visit all three temples today, we could always start early tomorrow and visit the third temple on our way to Cape Hirado.
It wouldn’t be ideal, but it would be an option.

Goma stick burning ceremonies are done by both Buddhist and Shinto practitioners all around Japan.
The Goma sticks are small pieces of cedar with names or prayers written on them, left at the temple by believers.

The sticks are collected over a period of time and burned during a special fire ceremony.
Three monks dressed in regal robes performed the Goma ceremony.
A monk dressed in green robes with a bright purple Kesa was in charge of the fire and of burning the Goma sticks.
The kesa is a rectangular robe or cape, worn draped over the left shoulder by Japanese Buddhist priests, and fastened on the right shoulder.

The monk that invited us was wearing ochre robes.
He was in charge of the Taiko drum.
His chanting and drumming were awesome, and my heart beat faster with excitement.

The third monk was dressed with a black Kesa, and he was in charge of chanting and sutras.
Beside us, there were three other women in the beautiful old hall above the main hall.
One of the women seemed to be a volunteer, helping the monks during the ceremony.

First was the chanting and the drumming, and then we were invited into the inner shrine.
We had to pick up a cedar stick, and place it under a rope onto the burning fire.

Then we got an opportunity to see and to make a wish and to bow in front of the main deity, Kokuzo Bosatsu.
Kokuzo Bosatsu is a Bodhisattva who grants wishes.
He bestows worldly blessings on all sentient beings.
He represents joy and virtue, and is usually depicted as holding in his right hand a sharp sword which represents wisdom.
Next to him in the inner shrine was an aged Fudomyoo, darkened by 1400 years of incense and Goma fires.

We returned to our seats as the three other ladies entered the inner shrine and burnt their own Goma sticks.
The gentle breeze was blowing on our backs through the open shoji doors.
Sitting in this ancient mountain temple, I had a sense of immortality…
Of having lived for millions of years, and a reassuring calm came over me.
What does war, life and death, have to do with LIGHT….
All there is is light…
Everlasting light….
All the troubles, traumas and death, are nothing but dreams of mortality….
We are eternals in the Heavens, and all there is, is LIGHT…

After the ceremony we bowed to the kind and smiling monks, who were so welcoming to us.
We chatted with the three ladies who could not believe that we were going to walk up the mountains to two more temples.

The lady who volunteered ran to the kitchen and returned with a bag full of cookies and two large bottles of green tea, saying that we might need nourishment and drinks along the way.

The truth is that I had only brought one small bottle of water, hoping we would be able to find drinks along the way, but as it turned out, her gift was a blessing as we hardly came across any vending machines and the day was hot and the path was hard.

Saiko-ji Temple was built in 1687 as a prayer temple of the Matsuura Clan.
The principal image of Kokuzo Bosatsu was originally carved by Gyoki Bosatsu and was placed in a temple in Takeo City.
It was moved here about 500 years ago, because the spirit of Kokuzo Bosatsu appeared in the place of present-day Saiko-ji Temple.

There are large trees and eighty-eight stone Buddhas on the property, along with a koi pond and kind hearted priests.

From there, we walked up a steep mountain.
A man who was working in his garden asked where we were going.
When I told him the name of the cave temple we were heading towards, he said that this narrow mountain road doesn’t lead there.

I have learnt on my pilgrimages not to listen to all the advice that I get along the way.
Local people might never walk anywhere, and what seems like a short distance by car, is usually a very long way when you are walking.

I know how to read maps very well, and I had no doubt that the path that I had chosen would lead us there.
He wanted to see my map, but I knew that in the mountains, the internet is patchy or non-existent, and I didn’t want to lose my mapping route just to be polite, so I told him that we were just strolling around for fun, and continued on our way.

I could see signs of wild boars all around the roadside.
They come down from the forest to eat the chestnuts and persimmons that are falling from the trees.
Many of the fields have electric fences, to protect the rice or vegetables from the wild boars.

After a long climb up a quiet mountain path, we joined the main road.
We had to pass through a long tunnel, with the amplified noise of motorcycles and speeding cars.
The revs of the engines of the motorcycles sounded like hell on earth, as the sound bounced off the walls of the long and dark tunnel.
We wore bandanas to protect ourselves from breathing in the exhaust pollution.

After a long and winding road, we arrived at Temple #76 Mt. Tsurumakake Saifukuji (Tsurukake-san, Saifukuji).
It is an amazing cave temple, with a shrine set up between the rocks.

We first came upon the hall that enshrines people’s ashes.
It was open but nobody was around.
Then we climbed up to a small cave shrine, but could see nothing there.

Then we found the entrance to the temple, and the monk who opened the door told us to go visit the cave behind the main hall, while he stamped our book and scroll.

This mountain has been a training ground for Sennin-Yamabushi (Mountain Ascetic Monks) for over a thousand years.

Connecting the ancient ascetic hermitage to the inner temple is a very large cave, where two huge boulders seem to have fallen towards one another, to create this sheltering cave.
A waterfall of clear water is located in the back, providing drinking and purifying water.

Armies of local clans sheltered in this cave while hiding in the mountains.
It was a blood bath fought with bows and arrows. Castles were burnt to the ground, and the spirits of the dead still seek peace.
Every year the temple puts up a Dharma lamp, to guide the spirits of the dead towards the Light.
Since the Meiji period, a miracle performing Kannon Bosatsu was enshrined in the temple.

Today was the hardest day of walking that we have had on this pilgrimage.
Maybe it was the heat, or the many mountains that we climbed, but we felt relieved to be walking to our last temple of the day, along a lovely pedestrian path, with trees sheltering us from the sun.

We stopped at a small farmers market where I bought roasted pumpkin to eat with the rice balls that I had brought with us.
We ate our rice balls and drank some hot green tea that I had brought with me, at a lovely wooden pagoda by the farmers market.

Later, we stopped at the only convenience store we passed that day and the two ladies working there were excited to practice their English with me.

For some reason, Jules was pushing me to get going and not to waste time.
I thought he was being ridiculous, as it seemed that we would reach the mountain top temple way before five, which is the usual closing time at all temples.
But as it turned out, Jules was right.

After a lovely long walk, we crossed over an old bridge and walked up a very steep mountain road to Kannonji temple.

We reached Kannonji temple just three minutes before the lady would finish closing the temple.
We saw her pulling down the shutters, and ran to the temple.

The lady said that the temple was closing at 4pm, because of its isolated location.
She still needed to drive down the steep mountain road and usually nobody came here at the last minute.
Still, she stamped our book and scroll and invited us to chant in the main hall.

She urged us to look behind the temple, at the cave built into the rocks.
We thanked her as she got into her car and drove away.

Temple #75 Mt. Ishibashi Mihashi Kannonji Temple, was established 1240 years ago, by the famous monk Gyoki.
He carved three Kannon statues from a large tree that he found as driftwood.
It is said that the driftwood emitted light when he found it on the seabed.

One of the Kannon statues was swept into the eastern sea.
It is said that the statue opened its eyes and got out of the sea.
The miraculous Kannon statue was the beginning of the Mihashi Kannon-ji Temple, which has flourished as a sacred place until now.

The mountain temple is famous as a scenic spot for Nijo’s Oishi Bridge, lined with cherry blossoms in spring, maple autumn leaves and the Hirado Eight Views during autumn.

The principal image of this mountain is the Eleven-faced Kanzeon Bodhisattva, a very merciful Buddha who listens to the voices of the people, and extends a hand of salvation to all beings.

It was a steep downhill walk on achy feet, to get to the bus that took us to Sasebo station.
We tried to go to the Starbucks in town, but it was so full of people, with a line that snaked out the door, that we gave up.

We tried to go to Sushiro, a conveyor belt sushi restaurant chain that we like, but the lines of people waiting inside and outside were dizzying.
Finally, we found a good soba noodle restaurant that served “Nama Wasabi Root,” a raw wasabi root that you grate by yourself, and we ate a lovely dinner.

Back in our hotel, we soaked in the hot springs, and released the tension in the muscles of our legs.
It was a great day full of beauty and interesting temples, but I was happy to crawl into my futon and forget the world…

Sending you love and eternity of light,

Stats: 39,254 steps
Today’s walk: 27 km
Kilometers walked to date: 381.5
Temples visited:
T#73 Toutakesan Saiko Temple
T#76 Saifukuji 西福寺
T#75 Ohashi Kannon Temple

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