A Walk Around Shodoshima
Day 7 Part II
The North Coast
Sunday, February 7th 2016
After leaving the castle stone museum I carry on along the coast road under blue skies. After a couple of kilometers I stop in at temple number 79, Yakushi-an, small and fairly nondescript. Now I'm at the northern most section of the island and the road heads east.
Coming into Obe, the small car ferry from Hinase is arriving. For such a small island, Shodoshima has a large number of different ferries connecting to it. On the hillside looking over Obe is number 80, Kannonji, a fairly substantial temple. Visible first above the outer walls is a large silver statue, a Chigo Daishi, a statue of Kobo Daishi as a child.
Surprisingly the main hall of the temple is brand new, all gleaming fresh wood. I saw a photo of the temple a few years ago and it was a fairly ugly concrete structure then. The wide open space in front of the main hall is a raked gravel and rock garden of the kind normally associated with Zen, but this is a Shingon temple.
The head priest tells me to leave my backpack and come inside the main hall where he shows me to a seat in front of the altar. Inside is light and airy and colorful, quite unlike most temples. The ceiling is covered in small paintings. The priest heads to the taiko drum and begins beating it while chanting.
He is doing the Hannya Shinkyo, known in English as the Heart Sutra. I feel quite honored to personally have the blessing. Afterwards he takes me into another building and sits me at some long tables and I am brought a bowl of noodles and some pickles. For those who are accustomed to visiting temples at places like Kyoto, where it feels like the aim is to extract as much money as possible from you, my experiences here on Shodoshima have been just the opposite.
It has taken longer to visit Kannonji than I expected, so once again I am behind schedule and stride off along the coast road. At the village of Kobe, a beach resort no less, I am able to leave the road and take to the pilgrim trail which heads directly inland up a valley. Soon the path is in the forest and passes a couple of derelict shrines.
A couple of times the path crosses the road that curves back and forth up the valley. About an hour later I reach where the lantern-lined, wide, stone staircase begins to wind upwards. The path forks. To the left it is closed off with a yellow rope, but it is the route through the Chinese-style gate so I take it anyway. Further beyond the gate a small waterfall surrounded by statues of Fudo Myo, the place for cold-water austerities. A little further and the next gate appears, then the strangest thing happened.
It began to snow. It is not all that cold and some of the sky is blue, but a black cloud nearby must be forced to precipitate as it rises to pass over the center of the island. Up the next set of steps the temple building becomes visible, a very wide structure across the base of the cliff. At the top of the steps the last ascent up is exposed rock with the inevitable chain, but I elect to take the easier path to the right which switchbacks up. Underneath the overhanging concrete building the views are now clear.
I climb up the staircase and emerge into a bright long room, carpeted red and with the cave ceiling covered in hanging red lanterns. The priest greets me and we chat as he shows me around the several altars set in the cave walls. When he finds out I am originally from the UK all he wants to talk about is Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. He asks my name and then writes it onto a small wooden board. He gives me four more boards and asks me to write my name on each. He then takes me through a narrow opening into the inner cave, passing several paintings and small statues of Fudo Myo.
At the back of the cave he shows me the cabinet that contains the Honzon of the temple, a statue of Fudo Myo. He points to the lock and explains it is only opened every 30 years. He claims it is from the 8th century. In front of the locked cabinet is a big, black statue of Fudo. He says it is the "in front" statue, though sometimes I've heard them referred to as "shadow" statues, and they are a substitute for the secret statue. He then tells me to sit in front of a large flat, stone altar on which he then begins to construct a small pyre with small blocks of wood. He begins chanting and beating the taiko drum.
With a small ladle he takes a liquid and spreads it on the wood and then sets light to it. More chanting and drumming, and every few minutes he adds more wood, and some plant material. Gradually the flames reach higher and he adds the pieces of wood with my name on them to the fire. It becomes quite mesmerizing, with the statues and other paraphernalia around the dark cave glinting in the flickering firelight.
Eventually the flames reach more than a meter in height. He then leaves his seat and picks up a long steel pole at the end of which is a series of interlinked metal plates. Its a gohei, a shinto purification wand normally made out of wood and paper. He places it into the flames and then waves it over me. He then tells me it's over. I have had the Goma Ritual performed for me personally. I'm not sure how long it took. Possibly ten minutes, possible 30.
I take out my wallet and ask how much I owe and he shakes his head.. Like the previous temple, this one also practises giving.... I feel energized and exhilarated. I have seen Goma performed from a distance before, but to have had a personal one performed in such unusual setting seems really special. I stride back down the mountain and reach the bottom in a fraction of the time it took to climb up. I check at the bus stop and I have over half an hour till the next bus back so I go another couple of kilometers along the coast road past a massive quarry that dominates the view. Tomorrow will be the last leg.
A Walk Around Shodoshima Day 7 Part I
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