Risshakuji Temple (Yamadera, Japan)

A view half way up the Yamadera temple complex.
Image via Wikipedia

The sun sets behind Mount Hoju as you hurry through the forty temple buildings scattered in the midst of the old forest, across sheer cliffs over-looking the tiny village of Yamadera. Purple twilight filters through the canopy of grandfather Cryptomeria trees. In the near distance you hear the ringing of the evening bell that calls the monks to worship Amida Buddha, the blessed protector of humankind.

Halfway down the stone path, you enter Nio-mon gate. The carved stone tunnel serves as both the entrance to and exit from the sacred site. The last faint rays of sunset slant through the arched tunnel as the walls seem to press in like an invisible force. Your gaze shifts back and forth toward the rows of statues that line the tunnel. Beneath flickering torchlight they stand. Three images on each side, six in all carved identically.


The word hisses through your mind as flames of torchlight sputter eerily against the walls and the stone guardians of the spirit world. The statues’ eyes of limestone seem to follow your every movement. When you stop to look directly at the sculptures, you see only stillness, only carved rock.

You have heard the monks speak of the “Shoki, Demon-queller” who brandished swift swords of justice to bar the wicked from entering all holy places. At one time, Shoki lived on the earth as a human man, a physician of kindly, yet hideous countenance. Now Shoki returns from the spirit world when called upon to serve as avenger against evil.

Bristled beards sweeps the faces of the carved stone above six menacing grins. You hold your breath, half expecting the stone guardians to declare you unworthy, though you have done nothing to incur their wrath, so menacing are the statues of Shoki.

In the wavering light, it seems their feet break loose from the slabs of rock. You can feel their cold fingers clutch your throat. Throw you to the ground to grind your face into the dirt. Your ribs ache as if the sharp steel of all six flashing swords slice into you. You expect nothing more than to see your blood run red against the dirt and stone path.

But it is all a dream. The statues have not moved from their spot and you stand staring mouth agape at them, while you are altogether safe and sound.

As your feet clear the gate, a gasp of relief rushes from your lips. Though the passage has taken, but a few moments it seems like the long stretch of eternity.

The remaining stone steps down the mountain are a blur of motion beneath your swiftly moving feet. You run from the cliff’s edge down the side of the mountain, winding your way toward Mida-hora. The volcanic crag of sheer rock face, carved by human hands and years of wind and rain, juts like a finger toward Heaven. It is said that the crag serves as a boundary dividing this world from the next, its weathered countenance sweeping toward the lush valley below.

Long shadows of nightfall creep around you alongside ephemeral shapes that appear, gliding through the rock wall. The kami, spirits of the departed, waver around you dancing to the rhythmic drums of Obon—dance of the dead, that thrums on the air from Yamadera Village…

(this is a “personalized” excerpt from the novel: LEGEND OF THE CHERRY JEWEL, “Chapter Fifteen, Whirling Blades” where you slip inside Hinata Jin, the main character’s skin to see, feel and hear what he does.

For more information:

Great Photo! Yamadera (Risshakuji) Temple, Miyagi prefecturehttp://www.theodora.com/wfb/photos/japan/japan_photos_77.html

Wikipedia, “Yama-dera‘”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yama-dera

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