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Daiyūzan Saijō-ji, a temple of trees and tengu

I was in the genkan untying my muddy boots when the quake¹ struck. Since I was already bending forward, I almost unbalanced. I sat down, hugging my small backpack. During the minute that followed, my thoughts were roughly thus:

Just as well I have my backpack. I still have water and half an energy bar left.
Hallo? This isn't stopping.
Holy crap! This isn't stopping!
Perhaps I should go inside and hide under the desk.
Nah, no can do, can't go inside with my dirty shoes.
Ah well, if this is the start of Tokyo's Big One, at least I ended it all with a really nice hike.

That, people, is further proof that I've become Japanese. There I was, on the eleventh floor of an enthusiastically swaying building, and I was meekly obeying the rule that you should never enter your home with your boots on. How the mighty anarchist has fallen!

It wasn't Tokyo's Big One, not yet, but it was a spectacularly nice hike. I walked along a tengu path through a 600-year-old cedar forest so sacred that if you felled a tree in the old days, your punishment was death; if you broke off a branch, you lost an arm. What an excellent idea. Could we please apply this rule in the 21st century as well?

Tengu. I hope he's preparing to behead anybody who harms a tree.

The tengu's path leading towards Saijō-ji

Magnificent cedars

My destination: Daiyūzan Saijō-ji (大雄山最乗寺), a Zen temple hidden in the forests on Mount Myōjin (明神ヶ岳) near Hakone. Ever since I first heard about it, about a year ago, I've wanted to go there; and on Friday – on a perfect autumn morning, as I stood gazing at Tokyo Sky Tree as dawn broke – I impulsively decided to hit the road.

Why did I wait a year? Why is Saijō-ji so unknown? Why is even the Japanese Wikipedia entry just a stubPerhaps I should stop asking questions and simply be grateful that there are places that remain remote, quiet and undiscovered by Lonely Planet hordes (who have to be the most irritating hordes in the universe). It's probably less popular because it's a bit of a schlep to get there from Tokyo, and nearby Hakone with all its hotels and hot springs and pirate boats is undoubtedly an easier option.

I could write an encyclopaedia about Saijō-ji, but let's keep it as short as possible (which won't be short at all).

Sunlight falling on cedars

It's rated as the third most important Sōtō Zen temple in Japan after Eihei-ji and Sōji-jiHere's its history. I have to include dates and names, but gwan, read it, it's really interesting!

It was founded in 1395 by Ryōan Emyō Zenji (庵慧明禅師). He used to be the chief priest at the (then) head temple Sōji-ji, but he returned to his hometown near Odawara when he was 57 years old. The legend goes that one day, as he was drying his kesa (a garment worn by Zen priests), an eagle appeared, picked up the kesa and flew towards Mount Myōjin. The priest followed the eagle and eventually found the kesa in a tall pine tree on the mountain slope. Since it was too high for him to reach it, he sat down to meditate. When the kesa gently drifted down to his shoulders, he read it as a sign that he should build a temple on that spot.

So he did.

He was assisted by a disciple who eventually became the main deity at the temple, a mountain ascetic known as Myōkaku Dōryō² (妙覚道了). Dōryō could be described as a Japanese Hercules: it's said that he had the strength of five hundred men, and he managed to construct the temple in one year. He eventually served as Saijō-ji's vice-administrator and collected vast funds for the temple. His real fame, though, is based on his legendary death. I quote from The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan³ by Duncan Ryūken Williams, which I used as my main source of information about this temple:
This transformation is said to have occurred on the twenty-eighth day of the third month, 1411, following his master's death the previous day. He is said to have assembled everyone in front of the temple's main hall and declared that with the master gone, his work as a monk was over, and henceforth he would ensure the safety of the temple. His body was engulfed in flames as he appeared transformed and stood on a white fox to promise a life free from illness and full of riches … He then flew toward the east, never to be seen as a monk again. From that moment on, Dōryō the Zen monk was transformed into Dōryō the tengu – alive eternally and dwelling at the mountain as a protector of Ryōan's lineage of Zen and of the people living in the region surrounding the mountain temple.
Today, six centuries later, you still approach the temple along a path known as the the tengu's path, and you can see several sculptures of tengu in the temple complex.

A tengu is a mountain or forest goblin. Mark Schumacher writes: Tengu have "both Shinto and Buddhist attributes. Their supernatural powers include shape-shifting into human or animal forms, the ability to speak to humans without moving their mouth (and) the magic of moving instantly from place to place without using their wings. Tengu are of two physical types: karasu tengu 烏天狗 identified by a bird's head and beak; and konoha tengu 木の葉天狗 distinguished by a human physique but with wings and a long nose (also called yamabushi tengu). This type of tengu often carries a feather fan in one hand."

That feather fan, incidentally, is Saijō-ji's emblem.

Tengu with fan


The tengu's fan is Saijō-ji's emblem

I could write another encyclopaedia about tengu, but this post is already turning into an epic. Ah well. There seems to be limited English information about Saijō-ji on the internet, so I might as well provide a seminal work. Says she, tongue firmly in cheek.

The complex has thirty structures, but I'll mention only four more highlights in this post.

Diamond water

Although the temple is well-known for its tengu association, its fame originally spread outside its local area thanks to this:


Water runs constantly in Kongō-sui-dō

This sub-temple is called Kongō-sui-dō (金剛水堂) or Diamond Water Hall, and the water – which bubbles up from a natural well – is said to cure disease. The well was discovered by two local deities, Iizawa and Yagurazawa Myōjin, who disguised themselves as elderly woodcutters and helped Ryōan to construct his temple. As they were digging, they hit a metallic object. When that was removed, water gushed from the spot. It is said to be the best, purest and most miraculous water in that area. During the Tokugawa era, the water was off-limits to all but a few select priests, but nowadays anybody can use it.

I did! Maybe that's why I didn't have any sore muscles or even a hint of a blister despite gallivanting on mountains for several hours.

Geta, geta and more geta

Tengu traditionally wear tall clogs called tengu-geta (天狗下駄), and lo and behold, you can see hundreds of them next to Goshin-den (御真殿), the hall dedicated to Dōryō. Some are as high as two meters. It's believed that these specific geta are a symbol of conjugal harmony, and that a pregnant woman will have an easy delivery if she passes underneath its supports.

You can also see two magnificent tengu statues inside Goshin-den, but it was too dark to take pictures.

If a pregnant woman can pass underneath these geta, she'll have an easy delivery.

Stairs, stairs and more stairs

Right at the back of the temple complex is Okuno-in (奥の院), also called Jiunkaku (慈雲閣). It's a small structure that contains an eleven-head Kannon that's believed to be a manifestation of Dōryō.

It's at the top of a steep hill, and you have to climb more than 350 steps to get there. (Thanks for making me check, HappySurfer! See comments below.)

Take into account that I'd already been walking/hiking (there's a difference) (more about that later) for a few kilometers before I reached the top of the steps, and you'll understand why it was the heaviest breathing I've done in a long time. I wasn't particularly keen to go up there, but it was late morning and groups of seniors had started arriving. To add insult to injury, gardeners were using leaf blowers at Kekkai-mon (結界門), a gate that stands between the easily accessible structures and the ones higher up the mountain. Add ear-splitting leaf blowers to gangs of chattering, bossy, "stand there, let's take a picture" obaasan and you get a cacophony that would terrify a tengu.

I fled. I didn't even pause to contemplate what I was about to do. I hit those steps at a gallop and barely slowed down to a trot until I finally collapsed at the top. Once my lungs stopped wheezing and my heart wasn't imitating a Kodō soloist anymore, I could enjoy peace, silence, solitude. I was alone, and I remained alone, because I can guarantee you that even Japan's exceptionally genki old geezers will expire halfway up those steps.

(Young folk? Temple-hunting? You kidding me?)

Then I walked down again to take photos. The leaf blowers had finished; the obaasan had not. You can't win 'em all.

More than 350 steps

Most pilgrims pause halfway up. Yours truly didn't. She almost died.

Okuno-in at the top of the steps


You can take a bus from Daiyūzan Station to the temple, but that would be exceptionally stupid, because you'd miss an indescribably beautiful walk through a cedar forest. It's just as beautiful, any day, as the world-famous Nikkō.

That road is called "tengu no komichi" or "the path of the tengu". It's only 3,5 km and it only takes 40 minutes, but nobody walks it, which means you can be alone in that glorious forest. Isn't that wonderful?

The start of the tengu's path

I encountered only one person – or perhaps "apparition" would be a better word – on my way there. I heard it (it; I really don't know whether it was male or female) before I saw it: a tinkling of bells that soon turned into a raucous clamour. It was a person dressed in a ski jacket, a scarf, a woollen hat pulled down as far as possible, sun glasses and a mask. It had a bear bell in each hand and three bear bells (I counted them) attached to its backpack. It was vigorously ringing the bells as it was walking. Those bells achieved exactly nothing except to chase away birds.

I hate bear bells almost as much as I hate leaf blowers. I changed gears, revved my engine and charged past the apparition.

How to get there

I took a shinkansen from Tokyo to Odawara (35 minutes), transferred to the Daiyūzan Line and got off at Daiyūzan Station (20 minutes). Then I walked to the temple (40 minutes). It's a great walk along a beautifully maintained path, and though it doesn't require Olympic fitness, it's uphill all the way. I don't recommend stilettos.

I walked back too. Downhill. Easy.

Daiyūzan Line trains. They trundle deliciously slowly up the steep mountain  slope.

That's barely half the story

I haven't told you about the voluptuous nun that wreaked havoc with the monks' vow of abstinence, or the pagoda, or the hiking trails. I veered off into the mountains twice. There's one trail (link here) that starts at the temple and takes you over Mount Myōjin to Hakone on the other side. I only followed it for about 3 km, but I'd love to do the full trial one day.

However, enough is enough. This post is a monster. Nuns and monks' trials and tribulations … err … trails! Monks' trails will have to wait for another day.

However ...

I would like to add a rumination about walking vs hiking.

Walking can be done in sneakers with no possibility of twisting your ankle. You might be slightly tired when you're done, but your thigh muscles won't be making their presence known. You do not require a backpack unless you're carrying a camera in it, and you most certainly do not (repeat x 3) need §#£ bear bells.

Hiking requires sturdy boots that will support your ankles and protect you against snakes and scorpions (in Africa). Your boots must not flinch when confronted by mud, rocks, rivers and steep slopes. When you return home, you should be sweaty, dusty and/or muddy enough to crave an onsen and tired enough to sleep through an earthquake.

Walking along an immaculately maintained path for less than an hour does not count as hiking. That's walking. Hiking is when you go bundu bashing (see sidebar).

This is walking.

This is (easy) hiking.

Final wisdom

"If you wish to understand yourself, you must succeed in doing so in the midst of all kinds of confusions and upsets. Don’t make the mistake of sitting dead in the cold ashes of a withered tree." ~ Ryōan Emyō Zenji  (1337-1411)


1) A 7.3-magnitude quake struck off Japan's eastern coast on 7 December. It wasn't particularly intense, but it was unusually long. We had a bit of a skrik (see sidebar). BBC story here.
2) Dōryō is a great example of the synthesis between Buddhism, local kami traditions and shugendō or mountain asceticism. Religion in Japan has always been a delightfully complex amalgamation.

3) If you're interested in Zen Buddhism (the real thing, not the Hollywood version), I recommend this book. Highly.

Can you see Fuji-san? This photo was taken from Minami-Ashigahara.

Niōmon (仁王門) announces that you're at the start of the tengu path.


The start of the tengu path

It's a breathtaking walk.

The tengu's path is next to the bus route, except for a few shortcuts.


The entrance to the temple complex itself

Inner gate

More steps!

This is the start of the hiking trail that takes you across the mountain into Hakone.

These red geta stand at the start of the hiking trail.

Main temple

Smaller temple

Another one

Temple bell with the request that it should not be rung


When you pass through Kekkai-mon, this is what you see. It looks like a stage set!
Below, the two tengu that guard Kekkai-mon.

Steps leading up to Goshin-den


Geta next to Goshin-den

Tengu guarding Goshin-den


The white fox that Dōryō rode on

Geta and tengu mask

Geta ...

... everywhere!

I spotted these real geta neatly arranged on Goshin-den's steps.

Another old pair neatly tucked away next to a pillar

The first set of steps leading up to Okuno-in

Another small pair of geta




Why do you use leaf blowers if you can use this? 


Baibai, Saijō-ji. Thank you for one of the best days I've had in Japan. I'll be back!

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