Skip to main content

Hiking with 500 rakan and an Aussie in Chichibu

It's the source of the Arakawa, the wild river that empties into Tokyo Bay 173 km to the south. It's home to 34 Kannon temples that are popular among pilgrims. It's rural, quiet and relatively isolated without being inaccessible.

It baffles me that it's not mentioned in English guides to Tokyo. These books inevitably describe day trips to Hakone, Kamakura, Yokohama, Takao and Nikko, but they never include Chichibu. Why not?

If you want to be swamped by tourists, sure, follow your guide book. If you'd rather be far from the madding crowd, grab your backpack and come with me.

Five hundred rakan stand, or rather sit!, guard next to Shōrin-ji's paths.

I plan to do the full Chichibu Kannon Pilgrimage, eventually, but I decided to start with a temple that's famous for its five hundred rakan: Shōrin-ji (少林寺). Despite my interest in rakan, I was blissfully unaware of this temple until Cocomino told me about it almost a year ago. I added it to my ever-growing list of "things to see/do in Japan", and finally got a chance to visit it during Golden Week, when I dragged my hapless fellow blogger and southern barbarian Cecilia off on a jolly jaunt.

So, before I continue, a humble thanks to both Cocomino and Cecilia. What would this savannah savage do without your help?

We caught the Takasaki Line to Kumagaya, and then the Chichibu Line to Hagure. The latter is too cute: you can't use your Suica card, but have to buy a ticket which is then clipped by a real human being and handed over to another real human being when you exit your final station. Forget about automation: this is real old-fashioned railway travel on trains fitted with retro ceiling fans instead of air con. I love it!

Hagure Station

Old-fashioned clipped train ticket

The train itself was quite crowded since it was in the middle of the shibazakura season, but very few people got off at Hagure.

So we set off, yours truly following Google Maps and elephant dung (it's an old African tracking technique), and Cecilia ambling along in that inimitable Aussie "no worries" fashion. If you ever go hiking, may I recommend that you take along an Aussie or a Canadian as a companion? Both nationalities are remarkably laid-back and totally unfazed by unmarked trails, dead ends, wildlife (winged, two-legged and four-legged), dust, mud, sweat and fusspots who get claustrophobia attacks on trains. They also cope exceptionally well with my tendency to swing from hyper-organized control freak to African primeval chaos within two minutes, and they have an unending supply of umeshu.

Hagure. Can you see the flash of pink on the mountain side?

It's wild azaleas.

Shōrin-ji is a small, quiet temple tucked away in a forest at the foot of a mountain. (Actually it's just a steep hill, but mountain sounds better.) The building itself isn't remarkable, but if you walk towards the back, you'll discover a bamboo-covered hill mountain with five hundred rakan.

Shōrin-ji's main building

The hiking trail behind Shōrin-ji

I love bamboo.

Rakan () is the Japanese word for arhat or "perfected one", in other words, a human who's reached nirvana and is no longer trapped in the cycle of rebirth into a world of suffering.

Several temples have a collection of five hundred rakan (五百羅漢 gohyaku rakan). The group's origin is unknown, but several Chinese texts mention five hundred rakan as protective saints who guard Buddhist laws until the coming of Miroku (弥勒), the Buddha of the Future.

You can read more about rakan at Mark Schumacher's site (link) and about the group of five hundred at Jaanus (link). I also wrote about a Kawagoe temple with 540 rakan, Kita-in, in this post.

"Hmm, who are these two wild women walking past us?"
Every rakan has a different facial expression and body posture.

After admiring wild botan at the temple and chatting to the rakan on the hillside, we stopped for an umeshu picnic. Cecilia has discovered a great trick: freeze the bottle of umeshu overnight before you pack it; by the time you stop to enjoy it, it has defrosted but is still delightfully chilly.

Then we detoured around nearby Tsubarata Dam (円良田ダム) and walked via smaller temples to the town Yorii.

This (and below) is at the top of the mountain behind Shōrin-ji;
after this it's downhill to Tsubarata Dam.

Tsubarata Dam in Chichibu

Along the way, at the lake, we had an amusing yet irritating encounter. A Japanese woman did a double-take when she saw us … or perhaps I was just seeing double after all the umeshu … and stopped us with an English question, "Where are you from?"

"Tokyo," said Cecilia.

The woman looked confused.

I grinned and hiccupped.

"No, but where are you really from?" the woman persisted.

"Shitamachi," said Cecilia.

I understand that few Western tourists visit this area, but here's a gentle hint to this woman: when you encounter somebody who's obviously different, don't automatically assume that it's an alien. We may have blue eyes, but we love Japan just as much as you do. Possibly more: you were born in Japan, so it's your default setting, but we came halfway around the world to be here.

Compare her question to that asked by another delightful gentleman on the same day. We passed one another, huffing and puffing, on a steep slope. We paused to catch our breaths, say ganbatte and exchange small talk. "Do you live in Chichibu?" he asked us. The conversation was bilingual in English and Japanese. Now that's the way to do it.

This faux pas is universal, of course, as you can see in the videos "What kind of Asian are you?" in my previous post.


1) Arakawa (荒川) means "wild" or "rough" river. 

2) The best rakan temple in Japan is Otagi Nenbutsu-ji in Kyoto, which I've visited more than once, but Otagi is a bit like Fushimi Inari Taisha: too precious to write about.

3) Cecilia posted more photos here.

I've never been able to resist railway tracks and a far horizon ...

This small temple, called Zendō-ji, is not part of the Kannon pilgrimage, but ...

It has a gorgeous wisteria trellis.

This temple is called Shōryū-ji. It's not part of the Kannon Pilgrimage either.
Below are photos of the two Niō statues guarding its gate.

Above and below, Chichibu manhole covers

View Hiking in Chichibu from Hagure to Yorii in a larger map

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

Call it remorse

Something out of memory walks toward us,
something that refutes
the dictionary, that won’t roost
in the field guide. Something that once flew
and now must trudge. Call it grief,
trailing its wings like a shabby overcoat,
like a burnt flag. Call it ghost.
Call it aftermath. Call it remorse
for its ability to bite and bite
again. — Don McKay, from “Angel of Extinction,” Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970-2014 (Icehouse Poetry, 2014)

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hiking along the old Tōkaidō in Hakone

How in heaven's name did Edo travellers walk long this road …

over this pass …

wearing straw sandals?!

Last week I walked along the old Tōkaidō (東海道East Sea Road) in Hakone while The Hero was trolling¹ for trout on Lake Ashi (芦ノ湖Ashinoko). I did it in sturdy hiking boots, and although my feet weren't disgruntled, they weren't entirely gruntled either, if I may paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse.

It was the first time I visited Hakone, and I enjoyed it so much that I'll just have to go again. Since The Hero agrees with me, I predict more Hakone posts, but this one will focus on my first trip's main goal: following the Tōkaidō, the road that connected Edo and Kyoto. The old road has been replaced by modern highways² and high-speed railways, but you can still walk along the original route between Moto-Hakone (800 meters above sea level) and Hakone-Yumoto (80 meters above sea level), a distance of about 10 km. The sea levels should warn you that it's a steep route.
I didn't…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

Hi, Keanu! Here's the real story of the 47 rōnin.

Chūshingura(忠臣蔵). Is there anyone in Japan – nay, the world! – who doesn't know this story? It's been told in novels, kabuki, bunraku, films and TV shows, and now Keanu Reeves has tackled it in his movie 47 Rōnin.
When I first heard about the film, I was thrilled, but now that I've seen the trailer … uh-oh. It's a fantasy-adventure-martial arts mishmash that can't decide whether it's Star Wars, The Matrix or The Last Samurai; but perhaps the full-length feature is better than the trailer.

Everybody will be talking about it, though, so let's look at the real story of the 47 rōnin. It's based on historical facts. As briefly as possible this is what happened in 1701:
A country baron called Asano Naganori was appointed by the shōgun to receive the emperor's ambassadors. Since Asano was unfamiliar with court etiquette, a higher-ranking nobleman called Kira Yoshinaka was instructed to act as his mentor. Then disaster struck: Asano tried to assassinate Kira. …