Buddhism Q&A: Shukubo and Omiage

Takenobo Shukubo in Minobu

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.

Remembering Ryusho

Rev. Ryusho Jeffus and I were thrown together for a few months in a furious march through the Nichiren Shu priest education system, from the written exam, to Sodo Rin and finally Shingyo Dojo. The powers that be decided I would be the on-call simultaneous interpreter for Ryusho who had no Japanese though it was not an easy job as I had my own studies and practice to do.

Ryusho was kind and cut me free when a lecture or instruction didn’t seem important. “Give me a recap later,” he would say. He was a former Marine and it showed: he was used to receiving orders and dashing around and joked that Shingyo Dojo was “like being in the military again,” even though his health was not robust and it was difficult for him. Twice we had to go to Minobu Hospital to get special asthma medication to get him through the 35 day training.

We had a special Shingyo Dojo shared memory. Near the end as we were to climb Shichimensan, it was touch and go if he could make it but he was absolutely determined to try. I was put in charge as his climbing partner. It was a hard long climb in cool drizzling rain. Just as we walked past the Wakomon Gate, the sun peeked out from a rift in the clouds and we walked in a tunnel of light the last few steps up Shichimensan as though we were entering a mystical world.

That will always be my memory of Ryusho. His memory of me was the next day as hiked down the North Sando trail in beautiful clear spring weather: I walked immediately behind tightly holding onto his obi the whole way down to keep him from tripping and falling, which he nearly did many times from fatigue. But we made it.

It is said that the followers of Nichiren make one last climb up Shichimensan as they leave this world. Gassho Ryusho, I hope you made it okay on your own.

Rev. Ryusho Jeffus passed away on August 11, 2020.