It is said that one of the reasons Toki Jonin went to so much trouble traveling all over Japan to collect Nichiren Shonin’s writings and letters was not only to preserve them, but preserve them from being eaten. Much like Nichiren Shonin writing the Odaimoku on the rough sea waters for safe passage on his way to exile in Sado, followers of that time revered his words of the Lotus Sutra teachings so much they believed the kanji characters had special protective and healing powers. They would cut out pieces and eat them.
You can find this today in traditional cures or with Kito blessings, some temple give packets that contain tiny slips of flat edible paper like substance with handwritten Odaimoku on it. Followers take them with tea or water as part of the healing. You can also see it in various protective amulets for people or buildings or even farmers’ fields.
The Buddhist history invoking the power of written sutras is long and varied, but the distinctive Ippen Shudai (Odaimoku Mandala) created by Nichiren Shonin has a special power and style found nowhere else. But the power is not in the object, the paper, the calligraphy, or the priest’s hand. Ultimately, it is the power of the Lotus Sutra expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha transmitted to our eyes and our minds from the heart and mind of Nichiren Shonin.
Japanese pilgrimages are never about just visiting a temple or shrine. It a total experience that mixes religious duty with fun, good food and life on the road with fellow human beings, where all the vexing problems of any given moment ripen over time into warm treasured shared memories.
Shukubo is a lodging for pilgrims attached to a famous temple or shrine but not all temples with a ‘bo’ character in the name indicate a lodging. One example is Hongyoji Daibo in Ikegami Honmonji where Nichiren Shonin passed away. In this case bo was attached to the name to indicate it was the former residence of Lord Munenaka Ikegami.
Shukubo flourished in Japan towards the end of the Edo period and Nichiren temples were no exception with some 180 shukubo in the Minobusan area alone, spread out far and wide compared to what you can see today clustered around Kuonji temple. Since the late Edo early Meiji days the number of Minobusan shukubo has slowly declined to the current 32. Fewer pilgrims and fewer people left in rural areas to take care of them.
An interesting side story is that temples and shrines in rural areas had many shukubo while famous temples in big cities like Ikegami Honmonji had few or any, which makes sense as people of those times wanted to travel and this was enoucourged because traveling people meant money flowing into local economies.
Which brings us to Omiage, the ubiquitous souvenir stores that line the approach of any famous temple or shrine. Pilgrims buying presents supported both merchant and temple as the temple charged rent. Edo merchants also had a keen sense of ‘branding’ which you can see today in all kinds of famous local foods and souvenirs, but there was also a sense of sharing because not everybody could afford travel. Buying ‘omiage’, as the sound of the name but not the kanji characters suggest, was a way to share the travel experience with family, friends and neighbors who returned the favor, and the fun, when they in turn traveled on a pilgrimage. Sharing good things around to all is Buddhist ‘en’ in action, even when it involves money and commerce.