Daisen Sample Itineraries
1. Summer Outdoors Adventure (car recommended)
MorningArrive at Akamatsu Lake, a fifteen-minute drive from Daisen-ji Temple, for a kayaking lesson. The boathouse is operated by Daisen Seinen no Ie (0859-53-8030), a publically-run hostel, and the deals are unbelievable. 400 yen per person will get you unlimited time on the lake with a kayaking instructor; for 800 yen, you can camp or stay in the simple lodge three kilometers away AND enjoy unlimited kayaking. Students (through university) are free. The catch is that the deal is only available to groups of five or more and reservations are a must. But at these prices, the chance to enjoy an idyllic morning on the lake is well worth the trouble of recruiting a few friends or family members to join you. The lake is small and great for kids or those with no kayaking experience; boats for one, two, and three people are available. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get to hear the tale of the snake-woman who lives in the lake, and make a wish at the little shrine on the far shore. Watch out for carp and tadpoles!
Mid-dayPack a picnic to enjoy next to the lake, or head up to the Daisen town center for lunch. Only a few restaurants are open mid-day. If you like soba (buckwheat noodles), try the hand-made noodles at Tosa-ya or Misen-so, both near the post office. Another popular soba spot is Asagiri Sanso, which you’ll find by following the street that runs in front of the Daisen Information Center about five minutes east towards the ski slopes. For desert, pick up an ice-cream bar at the Iwata-ya souvenir shop, just beyond the post office. You might also want to stop in at the Daisen Information Center for an English-language map of town and some trail advice (go to the info desk on the second floor of the large post-and-beam building).
AfternoonHiking time! Head across Daisen-ji Bashi Bridge, then follow the road as it curves around to Kongo-in Temple. The Summer Mountain Climbing Course starts to the left, with a steep road that passes a number of temple ruins before leading up through beautiful old beech and Japanese yew forests to Mt. Daisen’s summit. Keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for woodpeckers, foxes, and other mountain critters. The round-trip course takes between four and five hours so make sure you get an early enough start. An easier option is the 2-hour-round-trip trail to the summit of Mt. Gouenzan, which starts on the other side of town and offers a great view of the Japan Sea as well as Mt. Daisen’s impressive north wall. If you’d prefer to have a local volunteer guide accompany you on your hike, call the Information Center (0859-52-2502) ahead of time to make arrangements. Tours in English are not available but the guides say they’re happy to show non-Japanese-speaking guests around. And if you do understand Japanese, a guided tour – either through the Information Center or the Natural History Museum across the street (0859-52-2327) - is a fantastic way to learn about local plants, animals, history, and folklore.
6:00 pmSet up camp at Seinen no Ie (slightly removed from town) or the Shimoyama or Gouenzan Camp Grounds (0859-52-2165, both open July and August only). Evening restaurant options in town are limited, so if you’re not staying at a lodge that provides meals, you’ll want to make sure you bring outdoor cooking supplies.
2. Exploring Daisen’s History
MorningArrive at the Daisen Information Center and pick up an English-language map of town. Then head to the main street leading towards Daisen-ji temple. On the right side of the street, just before you reach the long temple staircase, you’ll see a boxy modern building. This is the Reihokan, a small museum displaying treasures from some of Daisen-ji’s many bygone sub-temples. Stop in for a look at the old scrolls and paintings, glowing golden religious statuary dating back to the eighth century, and Edo-period maps of Daisen. Then continue up to the main temple itself. As you climb the stone staircase and pass through the wooden gate, you’ll see many time-worn stone statues of Ojizo-sama, who is the center of worship at this temple. Ojizo-sama is said to be the special guardian of children and travelers, and often is dressed in a bright red bib and cap.
Halfway up the staircase, you’ll reach a landing with two small temples and a shop. To the left is a shrine for the bodhisattva Kannon (sometimes called the goddess of mercy in English); outside stand two stone statues of Kannon’s familiar spirit, a white fox that is nearly identical to the Shinto fox-messenger O-Inari-san – an interesting coincidence in light of Daisen’s long history of overlap between Buddhism and Shinto. To the right of the clearing is a rustic wooden structure housing a statue of the powerful, stern-faced Fudo Myo, patron deity of mountain ascetics and symbol of self-control (his name means “unmoving”). Continuing up the stairs, you’ll come to the main hall of worship, where a statue of Ojizo-sama is enshrined (it’s not available for viewing). There’s also a large bronze bell in the right-hand corner of the clearing, which you can strike with a wooden bar while making a wish.
Towards the back of Daisen-ji you’ll find a trail through the woods to Ogamiyama Shrine Oku-no-Miya (the structure actually used to house Daisen-ji – it was turned into a shrine in the late 19th century). Partway up the long stone-paved path, a smaller trail to the right leads towards Kinmon. Make sure you take it! A few dozen meters through the trees brings you to a clearing overlooking the rocky river bank, from which you can gaze straight up at the rocky north wall of Mt. Daisen. Looking downriver you’ll see Kinmon, a narrow gap formed by two rocky cliffs on either side of the river. It’s a lovely place to have a snack and wade in the cool water. Back on the main road, another ten minutes or so will bring you to the main shrine. For 300 yen you can enter the lavish main hall, notable for its elaborately painted ceiling and lacquered sandalwood posts that glow a beautiful red-gold color. You can also see the richly-decorated portable shrine used in Oku-no-Miya’s yearly festival.
A trail behind the shrine branches off into two mountain hiking courses, one leading through the Motodani Valley to the summit of Daisen, the other “Utopia Course” leading to an alpine meadow famous for its lovely displays of wildflowers. But if you want to stick to history, turn around at Oku-no-Miya and either head back on the same trail you came up on, or take a small loop trail through the woods starting to the left of the shrine and ending partway down to Daisen-ji.
NoonAt the base of the Daisen-ji staircase is the Tengu Chaya teahouse, a perfect spot for a light lunch of soba or a cup of tea. Try the “imo dango,” a fried potato cake that is a specialty of Hokkaido rather than Tottori - but tasty nevertheless.
AfternoonAfter lunch, head to the far side of the river to explore a few of Daisen-ji’s remaining sub-temples and the ruins of many more. Cross the Daisen-ji Bashi Bridge, then follow the road a hundred meters or so around the curve of the mountain. Turn to your left up a steep road leading past the sites of dozens of sub-temples, marked by gaps in the stone wall lining the road. At the end of the paved road turn right and you’ll come to the 500-year-old Amida-do Hall, a small wooden building housing a renowned sculpture of the Amida buddha carved by Ryoen in 1131. The statue may be viewed on the 16th of each month, or for a fee by appointment (call 0859-52-2158). But even if you don’t get a glimpse of Amida, you can still explore the eerie, overgrown monk’s cemetery to the right of the hall. Then head downhill on the path directly in front of the Amida-do.
On the left you’ll find the newly re-built Enryu-in Temple. Manga fans will definitely want to make a stop here – the ceiling of the main hall is adorned with dozens of crazily imaginative spirits painted by Shigery Mizuki, author of the popular comic series GeGeGe no Kitaro. On the second floor of the handsome wooden building is a lovely little library where you can flip through books of religious artwork and photographs. Then head back across Daisen-ji Bashi Bridge, and if you’ve still got energy pop into the Daisen Nature and History Museum – although be forewarned that nearly all the explanations are written in Japanese only. Alternately, check out the affordable antiques, locally-made crafts, and clothes made from recycled kimonos on sale at Inakaya (ask for directions at the Information Center – it’s on a slightly hard-to-find side street).
EveningReturn to the base of the Daisen-ji staircase and check into Sanraku-so, the only remaining temple-lodge in town (reservations required, 0859-52-2006). The temple, called Kansho-in, was established at least 350 years ago, although the lodge is a more recent addition. Cozy retro-Japanese-style rooms feature stunning views of Daisen’s north wall. Have a soak in the shared bath, slip into the cotton yukata robe provided by the lodge, and get ready for a terrific vegetarian dinner prepared by Mr. and Mrs. Shimizu, the monk and his wife who run the lodge. The elaborate meals feature dishes made almost exclusively with wild mountain vegetables (Daisen is too cold and high for much gardening – but the forests are a treasure trove of food). In spring you might get to try tempura-fried irises, fiddlehead ferns in sesame sauce, a steaming tofu hotpot, or spicy blanched wasabi leaves; in the fall, look forward to dishes featuring wild mushrooms and chestnuts. Then curl up in your futon for a good night’s sleep – Daisen stays pleasantly cool even on summer nights.
Journey to the Past: Religion and politics on a sacred
mountain Winifred Bird
■As a child, I loved to imagine I had slipped into an older era, and that if I were to open my front door I would find ladies in Victorian dresses riding carriages down the street. Although it’s been years since I’ve played that game, there are still moments when the veil between the past and present seems to lift around me. The day I came to the little mountain village of Daisen was a day like that. Spring was everywhere. The river rushed with snowmelt, the forests gleamed green, and the woodpeckers and wrens were bursting with excitement over the end of the long winter. Aside from a handful of mid-week hikers, however, the stone streets were empty. 1300 years of history seemed to echo between the buildings.
■Earlier in the morning a friend had picked me up in the nearby city of Yonago and driven me up the mountain to Sanrakuso, the temple-lodge where I planned to stay the night. Now, bags in hand, I climbed the staircase to the cool, dark entryway of the inn. A woman in an apron kneeled down to greet me with a shy smile, and a moment later a man in a purple wrap-around jacket and loose black pants emerged as well. He introduced himself as Mr. Shimizu, one of five monks remaining in town, and the woman as his wife. After chatting for a few minutes, the couple went back to their chores, and I perched on the entryway step sipping a cup of coffee and gazing at the tangle of green outside. This was no Koyasan, I thought. Several years earlier I had spent a night at a similar shukubo, or temple-lodge, in that ancient seat of Buddhism south of Osaka. A popular tourist destination, Koyasan boasts over 100 still-thriving temples, many of which welcome guests and serve the elaborate vegetarian cuisine known as shojin ryori. Once, Daisen had rivaled Koyasan as a center of religious study, power, and wealth. But now just two halls of worship and eight temples remained standing. Only one of them took guests, and I was the single guest at that lone temple. The floors were covered in orange linoleum, the metal sheeting on the roof was flaking off, and in the cozy little room where Mrs. Shimizu deposited my bags, the brown armchairs were upholstered in pleather. No, this was no Koyasan.
■I said a temporary goodbye to the Shimizus and climbed down the long stone staircase to the street. Across the way stood a blocky concrete building labeled “Reihokaku,” or religious treasure storehouse. I decided to have a look around. Inside, glass cases displayed a handful of treasures salvaged from bygone temples: a black lacquer box painted with swirling golden waves, a row of gilt-bronze Kannon Bosatsus from the Song dynasty, a golden statue of the Buddha seated peacefully on a lotus-flower pedestal. Near the door, I spotted an Edo-period map of Daisen. There near the summit was the main temple, and spread out below it, where ski lodges and homes now stood, were dozens of sub-temples and monasteries. Shimizu’s words came back to me: five monks. What had happened? What wrenching decline had transformed the Daisen I saw in the map – and the one I could envision from the riches in the glass cases - into the one I had arrived at this morning?
■In the broadest of terms, I already knew the answer to that question. Since the dawn of Japan’s recorded history and likely even longer, local people had worshipped Daisen as a sacred mountain. Then in the eighth century, soon after Buddhism arrived in Japan from the Asian mainland, followers of the new religion began entering the rugged, uninhabited peaks to search for enlightenment. At first they lived in simple huts and spent time meditating deep in the forest. But by about the 11th century, back-woods asceticism had been replaced by a more formalized version of Buddhism. Through the 1800s, Daisen was a flourishing religious center where – as in many parts of Japan - Buddhist and Shinto practice blended together. Generations of pilgrims traveled to the monastery town to worship at the temples and pray to the mountain, itself considered an embodiment of the gods. But towards the end of the 1800s the Meiji government declared Shinto the nation’s official religion and launched a campaign to separate it from Buddhism. Power shifted to Daisen’s Shinto shrine, Ogamiyama Oku-no-Miya, and its temples fell into decline. That was the rough outline of Daisen’s story. But gazing at that old map in the Reihokaku, I couldn’t help but wonder – what twists and turns of human experience did those broad strokes of history conceal?
■I stepped out of the cool, dim Reihokaku and into the sunlight. Just to the west, the street ended and a long stone staircase lined in cedar trees began, leading to Daisen-ji, the main temple. I climbed upwards. Birds called back and forth, their song broken occasionally by the deep echoing of the temple’s bronze bell being struck by a visitor making a wish. Beyond the treetops, the rocky north wall of the mountain rose impassive against the bright blue sky. Breathing in the cool cedar-scented air, I thought that perhaps I understood why so many shamans, ascetics, monks and priests had sought out this place over the centuries. Here, far above the ocean and farmland, the rocks and clouds and trees seemed as finely-chiseled and worthy of reverence as any deities enshrined in a temple.
■At the top of the stairs, the forest opened onto a large sandy clearing where the Daisen-ji stood. Yellow flowers sprouted from the cracks between the foundation stones, a rusted wheelbarrow leaning against them. On the far side of the clearing, a single monk with salt-and-pepper stubble and darting eyes stood in a smaller building, holding a cell-phone and talking animatedly. As soon as he put down the phone, I knocked on the window.
■“Can you tell me the story of this temple?” I asked. Later, I asked Mr. Shimizu the same question. This is what they told me.
■Once, there were over 100 sub-temples and monasteries in this town, and perhaps 500 monks. They belonged to three groups; each group worshipped at a separate hall, joining together for festivals and services at Daisen-ji, the main temple highest on the mountain. In those days, Shintoism and Buddhism were one. Both monks and Shinto priests performed services at Daisenji. It was an entirely religious community. The only exceptions were the three town tofu-makers, who provided an important part of the monks’ vegetarian diet.
The temple held formidable political power. Like a castle and its lords, Daisenji and its monks controlled a wide skirt of farmland at the base of the mountain; the villagers who lived there paid taxes to the temple in the form of rice and vegetables. In exchange, Daisen-ji raised an army of 3,000 warriors to protect its territory and the people who lived within it. The members of this army were called sohei, or monk warriors, although many were in fact farmers who lived within the temple territory. Every so often, the sohei would be forced to defend their territory; sometimes they launched offensive attacks as well. In one instance about 1,000 years ago Daisen-ji became caught in a power struggle with Sanbutsuji, a nearby temple. One year the Daisen sohei burned Sanbtsuji to the ground; the next year, the monks of Sanbutsuji burned the temples of Daisen. Even the local lords had no power within the temple territory.
■Life was no doubt harsh for those monks in their snowy enclave. Apprentices would arrive at Daisen as little more than children, and would be charged with intense religious study along with cleaning and other temple chores. Marriage was not allowed, and – at least officially – neither was drinking, game-playing, or other forms of light entertainment. But with age and experience a monk could rise in prestige and live an easier life. There are signs too, that at some monasteries customs were less than ascetic. Archaeological excavations at the sites of sub-temples have unearthed go boards, large numbers of sake cups, and cups for serving the thick, frothy green tea of the tea ceremony.
■By the Edo period the number of temples on the mountain had fallen to 42, but well into the 19th century Daisen-ji continued to hold formidable riches and power. Then in 1875 it all came to an end. The Meiji government, having declared Shintoism the state religion, handed down an order abolishing Daisen-ji. Some say the local rulers had been waiting for this moment to squelch the powerful religious enclave in their midst. The structure that had housed Daisen-ji could remain – but it was to become a shrine. So was born Oku-no-Miya, a branch of the nearby Ogamiyama Shrine. Sub-temples were shut down, temple territory seized by the government, and monks scattered. Over the years many of the monasteries and temples fell into disrepair, burned, or were torn down, and much of the religious artwork was lost. Just 12 structures remained in use: two halls of worship that were officially transformed into storage sheds, and ten temples that became guesthouses to serve the pilgrims who still traveled to the sacred mountain.
■In 1904 Daisen-ji was re-established in a different building lower down the hill (the original Daisen-ji stayed a shrine), but with its wealth and land-base gone the Buddhist establishment never regained its former power. Now there are just us five monks left, and we don’t know if our children will carry on our work . . .
■From the far back corner of the temple grounds, I followed a trail that fed into a wide stone-paved road running up the mountain towards Oku-no-Miya. By now clouds had crept down over the face of Daisen and thunder rolled in the distance, though only a few drops of rain fell between the thick branches overhead. I passed through a series of temple gates, past a pair of leering stone dogs, up a broad stone staircase, and found myself facing the temple-turned-shrine that the monk had just told me about. The rambling wooden building stood regally before a stand of deep green cedars, a breeze gently lifting and twisting the white paper chains hanging over its doorway. Inside, a young priest sat cross-legged in a small office near the entryway. After having a quick look at the brilliantly-painted main hall, I approached the priest.
■“Excuse me,” I said, leaning over the wooden display shelf outside the office. “I’ve been told that long ago Shinto and Buddhism were one and the same here on Daisen. But I’m afraid I don’t understand - what does it mean to say they were one?”
■The priest looked up from his pile of charms. “Long ago only the Shinto gods were worshiped on this mountain,” he said. “It was in the Nara era that Buddhism arrived here. When the monks came, they claimed that Shinto gods were the same as the Buddha, that they were the Buddha in an alternate form,” the priest said.
■To explain this, the priest used the word “shimatta,” a grammatical form used to express an undesirable event. For the priest, the centuries-long entwining of Shinto and Buddhism was not a harmonious coexistence but a usurpation and a falsehood. The Buddhists had incorporated worship of the older Shinto gods simply to gain the support of local people who had long prayed to the sacred mountain and would not give up those beliefs easily. “In the Meiji period, a purer form of worship was restored,” he said.
■“But I’ve heard that at one point Buddhism was quite powerful here,” I pushed on.
■“The temples arose here only because of the older Shinto worship. The shrines were always central,” he replied. It was clear the conversation had come to an end.
■Walking slowly down the mountain towards the village, I puzzled over the opposing views of history I had just been showed. I was not surprised that such a split existed between the shrine and temple, for religious groups all over the world fight over their interpretations of the past. Yet I was caught off guard by the depth of the feelings that lay beneath the surface of such a seemingly-tranquil community. Over a century had passed since Daisen-ji was abolished and then re-established, but the wounds of that era seemed unhealed. The temple and shrine were like severed Siamese twins, sitting high and lonely on their sacred mountain.
■The rest of the evening and the following day I spent more in the present than the past. I walked through the forest with a guide who explained the wildflowers and edible herbs carpeting its floor, ate a feast of vegetarian temple cookery at the lodge, and glided on a kayak around a sun-warmed lake. But all that time and for days afterwards the strange history of Daisen lingered in my mind. The rise and fall of the temples and shrines seemed a perfect parable of how religion and politics creep over one another, religion using politics for its own gain and then finding itself used in turn. Yet underlying that pragmatist history there was something more - something in the jagged play of light on the summit, the peaceful sway of trees along the riverbanks, and the swish of a bird’s wings slicing the otherwise silent air. All this, too, was central to the lives of the religious men who had spent their lives on Daisen. Call it, if you will, the spirit of the mountain.