History Preserved and Lost: Nichiren & Lotus Culture

Shinji Ebinuma , Assitant Curator of Yamanashi Prefecture Museum stands next to the exhibit he helped create

The “Nichiren Shonin and Lotus Sutra Culture” exhibit that ran from October 2 until November 23 at the Yamanashi Prefectural Museum was one of the last Nichiren Shu events in connection with the celebration of the 800th Anniversary of Nichiren Shonin’s Birth. The exhibit is co-hosted by the Niigata Prefecture Museum of History in Nagaoka City and was on display there during July and August.

Shinji Ebinuma, Assistant Curator of Yamanashi Prefectural Museum, who is also a part-time lecturer at Minobusan University, gave me a tour and explained the importance of the items on display. The exhibit also honors the 750th anniversary of Nichiren Shonin’s Sado Exile and there were many rare, and rarely seen, pieces including many in Nichiren Shonin’s own distinctive handwriting. The most moving one for me was well preserved humble pilgrim’s ‘Goshuin book’ with the page open to stamp of Keishiin temple on Shichimensan.

Ebinuma san explained, “It belonged to a Sado woman believer in the Edo. Iems that illustrate the spiritual life of ordinary people are extremely rare.” It’s impossible to imagine a person in this day taking the journey from Sado to the top of Shichimensan and back, on foot. The most amazing things is that those kinds of pilgrimages were extremely popular enough to support some 180 shukubo in the Minobusan area alone, spread out far and wide compared to what you can see today clustered around Kuonji temple. In the Edo period pilgrims did not hike to the top of Shichimensan and stay at Keishiiin Temple like they do today. Instead they stayed at a pilgrim’s temple/inn (Shukubo) near the base of the mountain and a priest would climb to the top lugging the pilgrim stamp books, perform a ceremony, get the books signed and stamped, then go back down, do another ceremony for the pilgrims and the stamp books, then finally hand them over.

I asked Ebinuma san how he would explain this exhibit to a visitor from abroad with no knowledge of Nichiren Shonin or the Lotus Sutra. “I would first show them the statues of Shakyanumi and Many Treasures Buddha and the 4 Bodhisattvas from Underground and explain the background. Then I would show them Nichiren Shonin’s Gohonzon Mandala and what they mean.”

He also explained the preparations necessary for the exhibit. There are 175 items that cannot all be displayed at once, either due to space restrictions or the short loan time from temples. “We would go to each temple to assess  handling and transportation issues. Sometimes it took two on site days to get the job done.”

When asked what his personal favorite item was Ebinuma san looked slightly apologetic saying, “Niccho Shonin’s books impress me the most. His output was tremendous.” In addition to producing hundreds of books, Niccho Shonin also moved Kuonji temple from its old location, now the Gobyosho, to the current one we use today by cutting and clearing the mountain. His effort is amazing when you consider he did this in the Sengoku period when Japan was in constant civil war.

From famous mandalas of great priests to household Goshuin books of ordinary followers, the Lotus Sutra culture of Nichiren Shonin was a special sight to experience.

A quick video tour

History Lost: Fire destroys Myoshoji Temple

Two weeks after the Nichiren and Lotus Culture exhibit was over, a disaster struck: on December 6, 2021, Myoshoji Temple in Ichinosawa Sado, Niigata Prefecture was destroyed in fire. This temple has particular importance to all Nichiren Buddhists as this was place that Nichiren spent the 2nd year of his Sado exile (1271~1274), where he first inscribed the Mandala Gohonzon in the familiar form that we see replicated today, and where he wrote his most important treatise: the Kanjin Honzon Sho, A Treatise Revealing the Spiritual Contemplation and the Most Venerable One. None of the treasures were lost but the Edo period temple structures were all destroyed and cannot be rebuilt.

The temple itself has not had a resident priest for some time, a growing crisis for temples in rural areas with declining populations. The preservation of Japanese Buddhist culture is becoming more difficult and challenging with each passing year.

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.

The Other Side of Mt. Minobu: Hiking the Old Akazawa Trail

27th generation innkeeper Kinu Mochizuki runs Edoya, Akazawa’s last remaining inn for pilgrims.

Nichiren Shu followers are well acquainted with Minobusan, site of Kuonji Temple and the resting place of Nichiren Shonin. Both followers and tourists have visited the top of Minobusan via the ropeway to see Shishin-Kaku Temple, breathe cool fresh mountain air and take in the view of Mt. Fuji and the Fuji River valley below.

The more adventurous way to the top for pilgrims, or even trail race runners, is to hike the old trail from Kuonji to Shishin-Kaku Temple. Only the truly adventurous, or hard-core trail runners, then continue on the trail to reach Shichimensan. at trail goes down the other side of Minobusan passing long shuttered inns (bo) for visiting pilgrims, through the village of Akazawa. The name of the town, red mountain stream, comes from the reddish colored rocks found in the Japanese Southern Alps and surrounding foothills.

Akazawa dates back to the Heian period. It has been designated a historical preservation district. Its history is tightly bound to the history of Shichimensan, which was established as a holy mountain and pilgrimage site long before Nichiren Shonin arrived at Minobusan in 1275. The trail from Minobusan might sound romantic, but it long ago disappeared into a quiet country road that zigzags down the backside of the mountain. Only at the entrance to Akazawa does it become a foot path again, a steep stone path winding through the village.

Stone path from the top of Akazawa

Near the top of the stone path is Myofukuji Temple. According to Rev. Chiyu Ide, the head priest of Myofukuji, its history extends back to the deepest roots of Japanese Buddhism. “Have you heard of Shugendo?,” he asked. This was one of the first forms of Japanese Buddhism

It incorporated mystic elements of both Buddhism and Shinto. Shugendo ascetics and priests journeyed through deep valleys and peaks as part of their spiritual practice worshipping huge boulders, giant trees, and the mountains themselves as the sacred vessel bodies of gods, seeking enlightenment and rebirth in the rising sunlight over the mountain.

Myofukuji temple, Akazawa

Shichimensan itself is a kekkai, a sacred barrier, protecting Mt. Fuji. If you watch an equinox sunrise on Shichimensan, the sun rises directly over the peak of Mt. Fuji. On that day, the sun shines in a perfect line across the top of Mt. Fuji, through Shichimensan, and straight to Izumo Shrine in Shimane Prefecture. Izumo is one of the most important Shinto Shrines, said to be older than Ise Shrine itself.

“This was established as a Shugendo temple,” Rev. Ide explained. “In Nichiren Shonin’s time, it was Shingon. Nichiro Shonin, a Senior Disciple of Nichiren Shonin, convinced the head priest of Myofukuji to covert and become part of Kuonji.” Some of the Myofukuji Temple structures today look new. Inside the Founder’s Hall, colorful kifuda line the walls. In the Main Hall, there’s a restored ceiling painting of Shichimen, the protector of the holy mountain. Asked about the number of temple members here in Akazawa, Rev. Ide became quiet for a moment. “I have to travel a lot to support the temple. I’m not here as much as I would like to be.”​

Buddhist priests in country temples usually have to work other jobs to make ends meet. Rev. Ide travels extensively doing Kito blessings and Reidan consultations. It not only supports the temple, but also helps bring new practitioners and pilgrims to Akazawa and Shichimensan.

The path from Myofukuji temple to Edoya inn

Further down the stone path, almost at its end, is the Edoya ryokan, the last surviving inn of Akazawa. It is run by 92-year-old Kinu Mochizuki, the Okami, or proprietress. She is the 27th in her family line to hold this honor and responsibility. Okami is one of the many Japanese words almost impossible to translate into English. The two characters that make up Okami are “woman” and “Shogun.” It conveys a woman general who runs the family business, raises the children and keeps the tradition going. Still today, the longest running Japanese family businesses, some dating back to the Heian period, are invariably run by women generals.

Mochizuki-san’s back is bent with age. She walks with a cane, but is cheerful, bright and always happy to show you her inn while explaining the history.

“I’m 92, and since last year I’ve had pain in my lower back,” she explained. But that did not stop her from opening up the sliding doors to reveal the big interior room.

“This is where guests chant Odaimoku, eat and sleep.” She pointed out the hallway that ran outside the tatami rooms. “As you can see there is plenty of space for groups of 50 to 60 to put their luggage and other belongings.”

Shichimensan seen from Edoya

“We have groups staying here from May to November, 700 or 1,000 people sometimes, so all the inns (meaning Edoya and the other bo surrounding Shichimensan) have to cooperate and divide them among the inns. We all serve the same food and charge the same price. 60 stay here, 40 there, and so on. When that happens we all sit around making hundreds of onigiri, rice balls. Even though my back hurts, I can do it. I only have these hands, but I endeavor to do my best.” She thrusts out her hands for emphasis, strong country hands that have clearly done a lot of work.

What is the future for the last remaining inn in Akazawa? Mochizuki-san says, “I have a grandson. He is interested, but I don’t know if he is willing to take on the responsibility of running Edoya. I have no say in the matter of what happens after I die. What’s the point of worrying about it?

The Mochizuki family has been running Edoya, an inn for pilgrims, for 27 generations.

“Nowadays, who wants to take on this difficult work when there are easier ways of making a living? There really isn’t anything here in Akazawa. It is 100 Cho (the old distance measure of approximately one cho =109 meters) to Minobu, 50 Cho to Shichimensan. There weren’t that many pilgrims when I was growing up because of the distance. And there were not many pilgrims coming during the war. Those who came had to bring their own rice, and we would cook it for them. They had to have enough for the whole journey because of war rationing.

“It became dangerous here, too. Near the end of the war, several bombs were dropped in the village below, because the B-29 planes had to clear their holds on the way back from bombing Kofu. It’s hard to believe that a person like me experienced that. We had to clear metal debris from our fields. As junior high students, we were required to work in military or agriculture production. There was no freedom. We can look back now and say how stupid it all was, but back then it was simply what one had to do.”

Mochizuki-san went on to explain that modern roads and bridges changed everything. Now people can drive to the bottom of Shichimensan, park their car and start walking. When groups come now, they don’t hike from Minobu. They drive up from below, stay overnight, and then drive back down to the Shichimensan trail entrance. The pilgrims have changed, too. Most of those coming now are from Reiyukai, not Nichiren Shu members.

She waved her hand at the big empty room. “In the old days, the ceilings and walls were covered with silk banners and senjya fuda. They disintegrated long ago. When the pilgrims came, it wasn’t just once. They arrived every year, no matter what.” Nichiren Shu members stopped coming during the late 1980s bubble era, when values changed and Japanese birthrates went into steep decline. A culture carefully built up over centuries can disappear in the blink of an eye.

“There used to be six inns here in Akazawa. We’re the last one. Osakaya had been closed for ten years, but this spring, someone rented it and has opened it as a guest house for backpackers from overseas. There’s even a man from France who wants to live here,” she said, as if a man from France was an unexpected turn of events.

Sunrise over Mt. Fuji as seen from Shichimensan

If you come to Minobusan, Akazawa and Shichimensan, you can experience directly and breathe the air of faith and practice expounded by Nichiren Shonin. You can see all that it built over the course of centuries, one pilgrim, one step at a time. Don’t let these hard earned accomplishments fade away. Come to Shichimensan and hike the same path of countless pilgrims over centuries past. The path is the same, taken one step at a time.

The statue of Lady Oman and the waterfall near the Shichimen trail entrance. Lady Oman prayed under the waterfall then climbed Shichimensan, the first woman to do so.