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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

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