#51: Stone Hand Temple

As I write this I am already back home in the States, after a week of travel that took me to Kyoto, Tokyo, London, and Paris. Things got kind of busy wrapping up my life in Japan in the second half of June, but I would like to recount some of the final events that marked my Fulbright grant tenure. In mid-June I took a 3 day trip to one of the four main islands of Japan, Shikoku, stopping at Matsuyama, Takamatsu, and finally Okayama on Honshu before returning home to pack.

This post focuses on Matsuyama, which is a popular tourist destination for Japanese because the city is the setting for Natsume Sōseki’s novel Botchan (坊ちゃん): a book, I am told, that is assigned as required reading for middle-schoolers in Japan. Semi-autobiographical in nature, the novel focuses on a city boy from Tokyo who moves to Shikoku, still considered by many to be a relative backwater, to take up a teaching post at a middle school. Though not the main point of the novel, the tension between city and rural life is a source of comic relief within the story. People in Shikoku may not fit the ‘country bumpkin’ stereotype portrayed by the protagonist in Natsume’s novel, but both cities I visited on the island have a distinctly rural atmosphere. The two largest cities of Matsuyama and Takamatsu have a population of only 400,000-500,000 each.

Woven into this tableau of untouched natural landscapes is the history of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage (八十八カ所巡り) of Shikoku. On a hill down the road from my guesthouse in Matsuyama was a primeval forest that hosts Ishite-ji (石手寺), #51 on this pilgrimage circuit. Already fairly unique because most temples on the circuit are outside city limits, for anyone who has visited their share of Japanese Buddhist temples this place is just bizarre and kind of creepy. Rusted and decaying Boddhisatvas guard the entrance to the ‘Inner Temple,’ at the base of a hill separate from the more orthodox main temple grounds. Across the road next to a kindergarten is a 200m long, dimly lit cave that provides access to the site from the other side of the hill. Dominating the landscape at the top of the densely forested hill is a huge statue of Kōbō Daishi (a.k.a. Kūkai), the Shikoku-born founder of Shingon Buddhism and  founder of many of the pilgrimage sites. If you can manage to touch the top of Kūkai’s statue, you are apparently exempt from having to complete the pilgrimage.

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