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.