Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Hairy Tale of Love and Justice in Japan

--Susan, every other Sunday

While visiting Japan last autumn, I spent a night at Tatsueji, a Shingon (esoteric) Buddhist temple on Shikoku - the third of Japan's four largest islands (counting from north to south).

The hondo (worship hall) at Tatsueji.

Tatsueji is #19 of the 88 Buddhist temples on the Shikoku Junrei, a pilgrim route which circles the island of Shikoku. Pilgrims (henro, in Japanese) walk the 750-mile circuit for a variety of reasons -  someday, I hope to walk the entire route myself.

Tatsueji, which lies in the southeastern part of Shikoku, about 30 minutes by train from Tokushima City, is also one of four sekisho, or spiritual checkpoints, where pilgrims are supposed to reflect on what they have learned from the journey so far. In spiritual terms, a sekisho was (and is) similar to the checkpoints between provinces, where travelers had to show their documentation and receive permission from the local lord, or daimyō, to proceed. At the sekisho, a pilgrim's "travel permit" was obtained through self-reflection and personal confirmation that (s)he had, indeed, been transformed in some way by the journey.

According to some, pilgrims who have not experienced personal transformation upon reaching a sekisho are supposed to turn around, go back to temple #1, and start over. Japanese legends also say that people who are impure of heart cannot pass through the gates of a sekisho temple.

Fortunately, I had no problem entering:

The view from the front gates of Tatsueji.

and the view from my room was spectacular:

The view from the guest room, Tatsueji.

The statue to the right of the pagoda is Kōbō Daishi, the priest who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan from China, and established it as a major Japanese sect.

Kobo Daishi

Like most temples, Tatsueji's gates have guardian statues in its alcoves--but the left-side alcove also holds a tangle of rope and human hair, which is one of the temple's most sacred objects and a symbol of the temple's most famous legend.

The rope is actually to the left of this giant sandal - but sadly, it did not photograph clearly.

Centuries ago, a young woman named Okyō was sold into prostitution in Osaka because her family could not afford to keep her. The story varies a bit by source, but most versions agree that Okyō eventually killed one of her lovers in order to run away with another one; after the murder, Okyō and her surviving lover fled to the island of Shikoku, disguised themselves as pilgrims, and began walking the pilgrim trail in hopes of evading justice.

Upon their arrival at Tatsueji, Okyō's long hair became entangled in the bell rope for the temple bell (apparently the same bronze bell that still hangs in the temple tower):

Tatsueji's famous temple bell.

The priests cut her free, but Okyō realized that she could not escape her crime by running. Instead, she confessed to the temple priest and decided to spend the rest of her life nearby, meditating and living her life as a Buddhist hermit.

According to the legend, Okyō's former lover became a priest and spent the rest of his life working, praying, and meditating at Tatsueji.

The bell rope, twisted with hair, remains at the temple as a symbol and a reminder of Okyō's story.

The bell tower at Tatsueji, site of Okyō's transformation.

Tatsueji is not the only temple on the Shikoku pilgrim trail that claims a miraculous transformation; quite a few have legends of people who renounced their evil ways and made new starts upon, or shortly after, arrival at the holy sites.

Regardless of religion, personal belief, or the truth of legends like Okyō's story, the temples on Shikoku's pilgrim trail are both an important part of Japanese history and a perfect place for meditation and reflection on the traveler's personal journey.

I rose the following morning at dawn, refreshed--and, yes, a bit transformed by the experience.

Dawn, en route from Tatsueji to the train.

Which was good, because I had a train to catch -

Train departing from Tatsue Station.

and no time to start the journey over.


  1. Susan, your posts about Japan always transform me into a more relaxed person. I'm not sure how that happens, since sedate is not my default position in life. Whatever your magic, it seems 100% appropriate for a Sunday morning. Thank you, my friend.

    1. Thank you so much :) Japan is my happy place, and I'm glad I can take you there, and help you feel what I feel when I'm visiting.

  2. Replies
    1. Yay! The irony, of course, being that I'm dreadfully bloodthirsty when it comes to my novels - and my reading material. I guess I get my aggressions out on the page.

  3. I'm on a journey of spiritual transformation myself, and I stop at MIE daily to see how I'm doing. The jury's still out...

    Thanks for another great post, Susan.

    1. I think many of us are, Everett. I'm glad MIE is a small stopping point on your journey, and that I get to be a little part of it too.

  4. What's happening to us? I just bought a statue of Shivah and an earth tone tuned flute! I guess we're all seeking tranquility these days...dare I ask why?

    1. Given the state of the world, it's a daily choice between a conscious hunt for peace and death by aneurism.

      I choose peace.

      Some days it's easier than others.