Hidden Sado

The air in Sado is full of fading history, a history that is never far away for the people born and raised there. Their history is like an acquaintance, a somewhat distant cousin or neighbor and the interconnectedness is everywhere: the proprietress of the inn where you happen to stay is a relative of the wife of the Konponji Resident Priest, and so on.

They take great pride in their history, always eager to tell it. Not in the boring book way but the living oral way of stories passed down through generations. ‘Did you know that Mitsui got its real start as a Zaibatsu because of Sado?’ they will tell you casually. They don’t mince words and have that down to earth directness usually found in people who live by the sea. So when I told my travel partner and guide, a Sado native, that I wanted to visit Zuisenji in the Aikawa temple district on the way to Sado Gold Mine, he asked a question echoed by every Sado native we met along the way, “Why on earth do you want to go there?” 

He phoned his mother who said, “Don’t go if you don’t have to, and only go in the morning, don’t be caught late” The elderly Okaimisan of the inn where I stayed had a sharp mind full of current information for the whole island, “All the resident priests fled those temples around there long ago for better places and only show up when they need to.”

Aikawa was a castle town built by the Tokugawa Shogun to operate the Sado gold mine. One interesting fact you can learn by going there was that the Aikawa population of the Edo era was more than 50,000. To understand the significance it helps to know that the entire population of Sado in 1970 was about 90,000, today it is just below 60,000. If you go there it’s mind boggling to imagine the current population of Sado crammed into such a small moutainous area. That’s how important the gold mine operation was. That’s why so many temples were built there.

I have driven many narrow and dangerous mountain roads in Japan but nothing prepared me for the road to Zuisenji. A crooked little side road away from the main temple area that detoured through a steep tiny valley it was like going down a rabbit hole into another world. A road so narrow that the only place for residents to hang laundry was along the road inches away from passing cars.

I parked the rental car in a tiny abandoned field near a side road turn off for Zuisenji and walked a last steep climb. The air was unpleasant and full of flies. We passed a Jodo Shinshu temple. Directly across the road from the temple front gate was a small alcove carved into the earthen mountain wall containing what appeared to be Jizo. I almost took a picture but stopped. There were moldy old half rotten Japanese dolls crammed into it along with the Jizo.

We reached Zuisenji but nobody was there, just a dusty small car with flat tires in the parking space. I started taking pictures and noticed my travel partner looked ill and sweaty. “Go wait in the car” I said and gave him the key. I took pictures in the unpleasant gloomy air with buzzing bugs, surrounded by strangely dark forest then walked back down to the car passing the rotten doll temple.

“Are you okay?”

“I was upset by the voices of those old ladies talking in the temple.” The doll one.

“What do you mean, it was empty.”

“I know.”

We drove on to the gold mine and he went to wash out his mouth and nose. Later on he explained.

“That area is too narrow for proper sewers. Did you see the bit of broken pottery in the earthen walls along the temple road?” I had. “They mixed human manure with dirt and pottery shards as a way of getting rid of it. That was the smell.” A relic of an older poorer part of Sado history that had no place in these times, a sign that somebody doesn’t want to spend money on proper upkeep.

The next day he took me to Myosenji and Sesonji and was saddened by the look of borderline neglect. The temples felt like museums without a life of their own. “The Sesonji head priest taught calligraphy to school children, it was such a lively place back in my school days.” His sentiment was echoed by the sharp old proprietress of Minamikan inn who laughed and said,

“We always love to have Nichiren Shu followers but they leave Sado feeling a little let down after visiting Myosenji and Myoshoji. Nobody’s really lives there to greet and show them around. So they don’t came back. Nichiren Shu should spend some money on refurbishing temples instead of those big statues and anniversary ceremonies.”

There was nothing to say, all I could do was reflect on the fact that ‘saying’ you honor Nichiren Shonin and ‘doing’ honor to Nichiren Shonin are two completely different things. The people in Sado have a saying, Sado is a miniature of Tokyo and Japan. What’s happening to the temples in Sado will happen in Tokyo. The honest words of Sado bite deep.


Unknown Histories of Nichiren Shu Temples in Sado: Zuisenji Temple

By Rev. Sensho Komukai

The Sado Gold Mine began operations at the start of the 17th century. The gold extracted from this mine helped build up the finances of the Edo Shogunate.  As production increased by a remarkable amount, more workers in the excavated pit were brought in, including miners who dug into the earth, putters who hauled ore from the mine, timberers who built supports and other frameworks, and blacksmiths who forged metal tools.  Water drainage was the hardest labor with low pay and long hours.  It required physical strength to remove the water collected in mines.  The deeper a tunnel to a gold vein, the more water was there. Workers were coerced into hauling up 9 liters of water, 9 kg or about 20 pounds, with a wooden bucket in 15 seconds. No one wanted to take on the hard work.

Beginning around 1772, repeated natural disasters caused a plague and a famine throughout Japan. Many homeless people came to the city of Edo from various local areas where there was no food or work.  To improve public safety and to keep an important source of revenue, the shogunate government decided in 1777 to send homeless to Sado Gold Mine as drainage laborers. Those laborers were exploited without enough rest or wages. They rarely survived for more than three years.

Those who could not stand the working conditions tried to escape, but most of them were captured and thrown into jail with harsh physical punishments or even sentenced to death.  A total of 1,874 homeless were sent to Sado Gold Mine. Most died on the island.

Their ashes were buried in the graveyard of Kakushoji Temple. The temple is now abandoned, but their tombs still stand in the same place.  The drainage laborers were only permitted to go out once a year. On this free day, they would pay a visit to the grave for their deceased fellow workers to offer flowers and go to the beach to wash off the dirt from their work. Social restrictions were relaxed for the Obon dance. Everyone from high officials to low laborers danced together with the distinctive Sado straw conical hats that hid everybody’s face.

At the foot of the gold mine is Zuisenji Temple, where a memorial service is held for the repose of the deceased drainage laborers on the third Sunday of April every year.  Ministers and supporters walk in procession while chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo around the site of the mine, the gate to a tunnel, and the grave of the drainage laborers. Finally they come to Zuisenji Temple to chant sutras and offer prayers to their souls.  Rev. Renjo Aoki, resident minister of Zuisenji Temple, tells us, “Drawing water is the most important work in a gold mine.  We owe the prosperity of Sado Island greatly to those drainage laborers.  We must appreciate the service of their labor. We must not forget their suffering.”

In 1989, the operations of Sado Gold Mine were discontinued, since so little gold could still be found.

Obon Okuribi 2021

It’s a shame that the famous Kyoto Okuri-bi send off bonfires will be limited again this year. It’s an outside event and I don’t see the point of caution. Hopefully the souls of family ancestors will still be able to find their way home and back again in these dark times. A friend of mine, Rev. Sensho Komukai wrote a nice article that describes the event and the Buddhist tradition behind it. Hopefully the bonfires will burn in full glory in 2022.


August 13-16 is the traditional Obon period, when the souls of deceased family members are believed to return home from the other world. A fire is burned as a guide sign to welcome our ancestors on the evening of the 13th (mukae-bi) and to send off the spirits on the 16th (okuri-bi).

Great okuribi bonfires are seen on five mountains in Kyoto on the evening of August 16th. Each bonfire has a different character as follows: Dai (大), Myo (妙), Ho (法) a boat shape, and a shrine gate shape. At 8:00 p.m. the character of Dai is lit first. Myo and Ho are then lit ten minutes later.

Myo and Ho bonfires have been prepared for centuries by the Nichiren Shu supporters of Yusenji Temple and Myoenji Temple of the Matsugasaki district in North Kyoto. Myo has 103 burning woodpiles, and Ho has 63. Each woodpile has been traditionally allotted to a family member of the two temples.

One woman who came to Matsugasaki after marriage said with a sigh,

“It is still hot in August. When the bonfires are lit, there is no refuge area from the heat. I was all sweaty, dying of thirst. I helped the bonfire event out of a sense of obligation. Once we finished, I went down the mountain with a sense of great relief. However, when I arrived home, my grandmother-in-law had brought a family ihai tablet out into the garden and was holding her palms together in Gassho toward the bonfires on the mountain, I felt ashamed of myself. People in Matsugasaki respectfully send off their ancestors with all their heart. Their religion and culture have been handed down with high esteem. It was my mistake to think so little of the bonfire event.”

After the bonfires of Myo and Ho burn out in 30 minutes, the Bon dance starts in the precincts of Yusenji Temple. The dance originated in 1307, when a Tendai priest, Jitsugen, who was very impressed by Nichizo, converted his faith to the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Shu teaching.

All village people of Matsugasaki became devotees of Nichizo and Nichiren Shu. Priest Jitsugen felt joy chanting the Odaimoku while beating the drum. The villagers began to dance, and this “Daimoku dance” became the origin of the Bon festival dance. In modern times, people dance with simple beating of the drum and quiet chanting rather than a joyful dance. They want to think back deeply to the days they spent with their beloved families and silently express gratitude toward their ancestors on the Obon send-off day.

Daimoku Dance

The Four Reliances

One of the sharpest quotes from 2020 was James Lindsay on American life post 2020 election:

It’s rather important that more people take the gift of the Trump era while its fresh: being able to see extremely clearly that “normal” was completely messed up and that “back to normal” politically (and in media) is not just garbage but positively dangerous.

Each and every day it’s clearer that ‘back to normal’ in the USA, and by extension much of the west, is not normal at all. When the heady hysterias of 2020: Pro and Anti Trumpism, racism and COVID misinformation-ism, continue to thrive in the media and political arenas, it means somebody has a vested interest in keeping them alive.

We like to think that humanity has evolved past the witch hunts of the distant past and more recent cultural/political created witch hunts like McCarthyism or the CCP cultural revolution, but we haven’t. We also like to think that computer technology, the internet and social network media have created a new culture of wisdom and awareness. It has not. We’ve created a world of fighting demons.

The world of fighting demons, a never ending struggle of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong,’ is one of sub-human realms in traditional Buddhism. In Nichiren Shu Buddhism these are realms of our mind. You choose to live in the mind of fighting demon or you choose to live in the mind of a human being or bodhisattva. It’s up to you.

The teachings of Nichiren Shonin are based on the Lotus Sutra but he did quote a very useful part of the Nirvana Sutra, known as the four reliances. They are extremely useful in daily life. They are: (1) rely on the Dharma and not upon persons, (2) rely on the meaning of the teaching and not upon the words, (3) rely on wisdom and not upon discriminative thinking, and (4) rely on sutras that are complete and final, not on those that are not complete and final.

The context here is the Buddhist Dharma, the body of Buddhist teachings and practice but if you examine the four reliances carefully you see that it compares things that don’t change vs. things that do, real vs. false. One of the greatest challenges of our era is that we have collectively lost the discerning wisdom of previous generations. It’s impossible to nurture the discerning wisdom true when blindingly reacting to or tweeting something false ‘in the moment’. Let’s leave the realm of the fighting demons to the demons, and choose our better natures.

Remembering 3-11

A recent strong aftershock in a wide area beyond the Fukushima epicenter, that sicking feeling of a very different kind of earthquake, was a rude late night reminder that March 11, 2011 is never far away. 3-11 as the Japanese call it was terrifying on a ground floor Tokyo building, it’s difficult to imagine what it felt like near the epicenter in Sendai and Iwate. But the terror of the quake pales in comparison with the tsunami devastation. I will never forgot the horrifying live TV coverage of a huge fiery wave engulfing Natori. The aftershocks were endless and disorienting. After a few days you couldn’t tell if the ground was shaking for real or was in your head.

There are many tsunami videos, and I have watched countless of them over the years, but there is one taken near Minami Sanriku Irizen harbor that shocks me every time. The location is slightly inland on a hill just behind a Chofu Boiler dealership. The video was taken almost on top of the tsunami as an entire town is completely obliterated in the first 4 minutes. The cacophony of destruction is particularly horrifying with headphones, but even that cannot match the quiet otherworldliness at the 8 minute mark as the tsunami silently peaks then groans back to the sea.

In 2013 I had the opportunity to visit Iwate and see the effects of tsunami devastation. I rode the Shinkansen to Morioka then a local train to Miyako. From there I had to take a local bus to Yamada Machi as the train line beyond Miyako was completely destroyed. I will never forget the disconnect as I watched the scenery looking for destruction but there was none. It looked like a pleasant countryside. Then I finally noticed endless foundations covered in weeds and grass. Everything was scraped clean, of destruction, of life. I wrote an article from the experience for the Nichiren Shu English newsletter and repost it here in memory of the warm friendly people of Yamada Machi to mark the 10 anniversary of the disaster. Their quiet positive outlook in the face of devastation and great loss was a revelation and remains a constant inspiration.


Recovering from the Tsunami Disaster

Yamada Machi in Iwate prefecture is a beautiful area on a bay in the Tohoku coast famous for oysters and scallops. From the top of a steep hill with a commanding view of the bay is Zenkei-ji temple. From there, on March 11, 2011, Reverend Eishin Miura watched the tsunami flow over the top of the sea wall, quickly wiping out the entire village below. “The first wave was was held back by the (7 meter) sea wall, so everybody thought it was safe and ran back to their houses to grab belongings,” he said. “And then the second wave hit….”

Rev. Miura’s tsunami video taken from Zenkei-ji temple was used in a broadcast news segment

The Tsunami
The second wave that crashed over the sea wall in in front of the temple hill was over 8 meters high. One kilometer down the coast it was 15 meters. Further down the highest tsunami was recorded at 25 meters.

“That first night we had over one hundred people staying in the temple,” Reverend Miura explained. “It became an evacuation center for over a week until people could make it to the official evacuation centers.” “There was no running water so we had to haul buckets up from the bottom of the hill everyday when the water truck came,” Rev. Miura’s wife added. The main hall of Zenkei-ji still has boxes of emergency supplies, covered with blue plastic tarp, which spill out into the side-hall.

“Right now the temple is just an afterthought for our temple members. Which is as it should be. The most important thing is for them to rebuild their lives and make a living,” he explained. Making a living applies to Zenkei-ji as well. At present there is not enough work to make ends meet, so Rev. Miura and his two sons all travel to different temples far away from Yamada Machi. They only gather at the temple for special ceremony days such as Setsubun, Higan and Oeshiki.

The 60 temple families of Zenkei-ji are rebuilding their lives as best as they can. Rev. Miura took us to visit and talk with some of them to see exactly how this temple and its community are reconstructing. A short drive from the temple, we visited one of the temporary housing sites where a temple member has lived after her home was swept away.

Miki Sato, 71, lived with her husband in a flat area just north of Zenkei-ji. Shortly after the earthquake hit, her husband drove an elderly neighbor to the evacuation center. “I was waiting for him to come back when all the neighbors started running and yelling for everybody to escape. I barely had enough time to get out before the tsunami came. 5 minutes later and I would not have made it,” she said. “We ran to the North Elementary school with the tsunami right behind us. It inundated everything, even the school playground (in front of the school).”

Mrs. Sato said there were 500 people crammed into the gym floor the first night. “All we had was a single rice ball per person that night. It was 3 days before we finally had hot miso.” She did not hear from her husband after the tsunami hit. The next morning people went out from the school and started searching for family and loved ones. It took 14 days to find Sato’s husband under the debris in the front school yard. 

Shortly thereafter she went to her daughter’s place in Kamaishi and stayed there until the temporary housing facility was completed in August 2011. In early February 2013, the local government was getting ready to unveil a housing plan to Yamada Machi residents. It has taken more time than anybody anticipated to purchase private land in the surrounding hills and mountains. For residents who want to rebuild their home at a designated higher elevation, the local government will buy the old land at 70% of the old value. Nobody wants to take a 30% loss but there isn’t much choice. 

Sato said she would not rebuild. “We had only just finished rebuilding our home when the tsunami swept it away and I still have to pay off the loan. Because of my age it makes more sense to move to the new public housing they plan to build in the hills.”

Rebuilding the Industry
Temple member Masashi Shiohara, a former boxing champ in his youth, is head of the Yamada fishing association and working hard to restore the local industry. Every morning at 2 a.m. he gets up and heads out to rebuild and tend the oyster beds. “It might look nice,” he said waving his hand towards the sea with neat rows of beds floating on the water, “but most of the beds you see out there are empty. It will be 3 years (from the tsunami) before we see income again.”

Shiohara was on his boat when the tsunami struck, and could even feel the earthquake on it. He spent the night there, avoiding and steering away from all the tsunami debris. When he finally got to shore he found his home, right next to the sea wall, had been washed into the mountainside, miraculously intact and spared from the fires that destroyed most of the village. “I found my father hiding in a closet on the 2nd floor, wrapped in a futon. I grabbed him, what dry clothes were left and headed for the evacuation center,” he said.

“Speed is the most important thing,” he said about the rebuilding effort, “the longer you wait the harder it is.” Shiohara said it took 6 months just to clear Yamada bay of tsunami debris. And then there was a year of rebuilding basic infrastructure since all the packing and processing facilities had been destroyed. “Last year was the hardest as we started with nothing. We had to do work on our ships because there was no place to work on shore,” he said. The fishermen have places to work now but they are mostly makeshift tents of blue plastic with wooden stoves for heat.

Labor is also a problem. Older fishermen are getting out rather than starting over, while other people moved away to find temporary jobs. Mr. Shiohara said they can overcome the shortage of workers but will have to consolidate. Before the tsunami, Yamada fishing association shipped 5,000 tons of oysters a year but he is not sure they can or should recover to the same level. Quality and “branding”, not quantity, will be keys to reestablishing the industry, he says, but convincing the other fisherman is not an easy job. As we were leaving Rev. Miura asked “How are you sleeping?” “I only get 2 or 3 hours a night at best,” Shiohara said. “I went to the doctor and got a prescription to help.”

Planning the Future
On the top floor of Yamada Machi Town Hall, Village Council Chairman Teruo Kon briefed us on all the tsunami disaster facts: Fires broke out 3 minutes after the earthquake, the tsunami breached the seawalls at 15:22, 35 minutes after the earthquake. Fires quickly destroyed most of what was left. There were 776 victims, 46.7% of all homes were destroyed. 50% of those will rebuild on higher ground, 30% will go into public housing, 20% are undecided what to do. 

There is 26,700 tons of tsunami debris, 60 years worth of work but concrete debris will be recycled for the new seawalls which will be 9 meters high. “A good rebuilding plan takes time,” Chairman Kon explained. “It takes 3 years to do all the necessary surveying and research, 5 years to plan and 10 years to build.”

Chairman Kon showed us old maps of damage from the 1896 Meiji-Sanriku earthquake/tsunami and the 1933 Sanriku earthquake/tsunami. The areas of damage back then, when there was no seawall, exactly matched the current ones. “When you read the journals of those times, there is so much to learn from. Unfortunately we neglected history and based all our protection plans from the 1960 Chile tsunami,” he explained. “If we had remembered our history, we would have been better prepared. My mission is to make sure our experience is recorded for future generations so that they won’t suffer what we have.”

The role of the temple
On the morning of February 3, the members of Zenkei-ji temple were busy preparing for Setsubun. A group of wives were busy in the side hall preparing a simple lunch. In the main hall, bags with Ofuda and small gifts for the temple members were lined up in front of the altar. Members squeezed in the main hall and sat talking, hand drums ready for the service to begin. The service started and was similar to any service at a small country temple with chanting, a Kito blessing performed by Rev. Miura and his son Rev. Edo Miura, and a Dharma talk.

After the Dharma talk members set up tables in the main hall for lunch. After lunch everybody cleaned up and got ready for the final event of the day: the Setsubun raffle. Prizes ranging from sake and large slabs of omochi, to clothes, candy and more were lined up in front of the altar and raffled off. Everybody got a prize. Everybody had fun and left with a smile. But something deeper was going on.

Rev. Miura explained, “The worst thing in these times is being on your own or feeling isolated. That kills. It is important to remember we are all in this together.” Whatever was going on in the lives of the Zenkei-ji temple members, they were all coming together to chant, to take part in running the temple, and to share good times.

There are still tough times ahead for the community. Zenkei-ji temple could be swept away, literally: there are huge cracks in the hill right outside the small temple kitchen window. “The town hall officials came, took a look and told us to evacuate the temple,” Rev. Miura’s wife explained cheerfully while endlessly preparing huge meals. “The hillside could give away at any time. Any construction work has to be done manually because the road is too small for a hydraulic excavator, but those guys are all booked up for the next year.”

It will a long haul to full recovery, but after after talking with Rev. Miura and the Zenkei-ji temple members, their spirit of endurance and fellowship are remarkable. In the next 10 to 15 years, Yamada Machi could well be reborn into a vibrant and beautiful community.

Buddhism Q&A: The Power of Written Odaimoku

These ‘Senbon Hata’ (One Thousand flags) are found on the trail and around Ichinoike (First Lake) of Shichimensan are offerings for ancestors, a wish for good health, etc. They used to be plentiful but have declined along with the number of pilgrims climbing holy mountains.

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.