The Spiritual Trek of Kunisaki’s Rokugo Manzan
Temples and Sites
"One. More. Step." These were the three words I repeated to myself as I scaled the last steps towards one of the religious sites and temples tucked away in Japan’s Kunisaki landscape. Even as these three words became something of a mantra, the effort was small compared to the rewards. Each step brought me closer to understanding the spiritual practice of the Rokugo Manzan — a unique confluence of Shinto, Buddhism, and forest worship that emerged in the deep forests of Kunisaki over 1,300 years ago.
During my two-day trek through the Kunisaki peninsula, I climbed steep rocky stairs, visited centuries-old wooden temples, wondered at enormous Buddhist stone carvings, and peered over the edge of a cliff-face cave. Aside from the few travelers on a similar journey and a small red fox who crossed my path, my trek was a solitary act — a welcome departure from the pressures of COVID-19 in more crowded tourist spots. Every one of the sites I visited during my two-day trek took additional precautions, with bottles of hand sanitizer for you to use and staff members masked at all times.
So, with my hiking shoes on, granola bars packed, and bountiful energy for the next two days, I went off in search of my own spiritual journey through Kunisaki.
My journey began in the early autumn days, as Oita's rice fields turned their signature golden hue. With Mount Futago, the highest point of the peninsula, as my starting point, I drove 10 kilometers south to the site of two massive Buddhist statues of Kumano Magaibutsu Stone Buddhas. These statues are the largest relief carvings of their kind and have been quietly watching over the region since their estimated creation in the late Heian Period (791–1185). Their Important Cultural Property status makes them a desirable place to visit, though their secluded location also means it is rarely overcrowded, allowing you to take in their impressive size freely.
I paid the ¥300 admission fee and cleansed myself with a healthy amount of hand sanitizer at the admissions desk before ascending a series of stairs that sloped gently into the mountainside. From the start, the scenery was stunning— a path followed an open passage of trees and a creek lined with a gorgeous ancient stone wall. Halfway into my climb, I was still feeling energetic as the refreshing forest air cooled my face. Next, I faced a slightly more challenging portion of the trek — a flight of rocky stairs known as the '99 steps'. If you want, there are free walking sticks you can borrow at the Kumano Magaibutsu parking lot to help conquer the final set of stairs. Luckily, this is only a small portion of the hike, and reaching the top also means you've arrived at your destination.
As I reached the last step (repeating my mantra), the first large carving came into view. The eight-meter-tall Fudo Myo-o, a protector of Buddhism, stands triumphantly despite its years. Protected by the shade of trees on the right is Dainichi Buddha, the central deity of Buddhism, who is just shy of seven meters tall. As I marveled at their size, I imagined the monks who once took to the secluded forests of Kunisaki to worship at these statues.
My next stop on my Rokugo Manzan journey was a 14-minute drive down a stretch of pastoral fields to Fuki-ji Temple, Kyushu's oldest wooden structure. Farmers in broad-rimmed sun hats tilled their rice fields, and red spider lilies popped their fiery heads into the vibrant green landscape. If it wasn't for two impressive Nio statues that stood at the Fuki-ji Temple gateway, I might have passed by, unaware of this prominent structure tucked away into its rural hillside.
These commanding Nio statues protect Buddhism's values and beliefs from any evil that attempts to cross their path. As I passed the threshold, I met an enormous and fat cat basking in the sun on the admissions desk. It seemed utterly unperturbed by my presence as I reached over her to pay my ¥500 fee — perhaps feeling safe in the knowledge that the Nio warriors were doing their job well.
A short climb up the flight of stairs led me to the 1,300-year-old temple of Fuki-ji Temple. The designated national treasure has been remarkably well-maintained over the years, with a rich nutmeg wood exterior that echoes its natural surroundings. As I gazed at the elegant temple, I pondered the number of monks who came here to pray and reflect on its beauty before me.
Housed within is Amida Nyorai, the Buddhist deity who has welcomed believers to his heavenly paradise in this spot for the past thousand years. An entrance at the back of the temple allows you to visit the deity statue and view the richly-detailed images of his paradise painted within the interior walls. In the center was the deity statue, his once-brilliant gold leaf-finish now lost, but his reverent presence undiminished. The ghostly figures of his worshipers in heavenly scenes surrounding the deity still exude their devotion to him, and I could only imagine the saturated brilliance of their freshly painted images over 1,300 years ago.
With the afternoon sun waning, I headed to my last stop of the day to Futago-ji Temple, located on the sloping hills of Mt. Futago. The temple dates back to 718 A.D. and is the central place of worship for the ancient Rokugo Manzan devotees. Over 1,300 years ago, the Buddhist monk Nimon laid the Rokugo Manzan foundations in this secluded mountain location and ignited a practice of monks who trekked through the peninsula's mountains in prayer, chant, and meditation. An extensive canopy of giant cedar trees obscures the temple grounds as I approached — a setting that made sense considering Rokugo Manzan's appeal for those seeking a reclusive life of prayer in the mountains.
Standing regally at the Futago-ji temple entrance are two commanding-looking Nio statues, which are the largest you'll find in the region. I respectfully bowed to the assertive guardians to show I brought no evil with me as I crossed between them to the stone stairs leading to the main temple grounds.
Gomado Hall is the first building you'll encounter at the top of the stairway. Its elegant blue roofline and bell-shaped windows of the hall are home to Fudo Myo-o, a protector of Buddha, and houses several Rokugo Manzan historic relics. Next, I followed the path into the lush forest hillside, past a babbling creek, and over a stone bridge, to the Okunoin Hall. This grand hall is built into a rock face and enshrines the thousand-armed God of Mercy, the Kannon Bodhisattva. This lovely structure has a wonderfully chilled cave in the structure's back, where I took the opportunity to cool down before exploring the rest of the expansive complex.
For the rest of the day, I leisurely explored the spacious grounds of the Futago-ji — an appropriate conclusion to my exploration of Rokugo Manzan's heritage. Tomorrow was another day, so I headed to my hotel to regain my strength in one of Oita's famous hot springs for the night.
I woke to another beautifully clear day and felt revitalized for the second day of my Rokugo Manzan trek. My first destination was the cliffside temple of Monjusen-ji, 30 minutes north of Mt. Futago. The roads get more hilly in this area, and I drove up winding roads with lovely views of concealed hamlets and broad valleys below me.
Once at Monjusen-ji Temple, I passed another set of Nio statues and trekked up two flights of stone stairs before I reached the temple. Perched high on a rocky mountain face and nestled among giant cedar and zelkova trees was Monjusen-ji Temple. The ornate wood carving in the structure's eaves caught my eye; it featured a fantastic swirling image of a dragon, and the colorful banner across the temple length added a dash of vibrant energy to the grand structure. Monjusen-ji Temple dates back to 648 A.D., making it one of the first buildings absorbed into the Rokugo Manzan religion, though it doesn't show its age. The site of this wonderfully well-maintained structure includes an observatory, an ensemble of Buddhist statues, a bell, and expansive grounds to stretch your legs.
From Monjusen-ji Temple, I drove 20 minutes for an adventurous hike up to the natural cave of Ofudo Iwaya. Hikers will appreciate this trek, though even the unseasoned walker will enjoy this brisk hike up into the hills of Kunisaki. The dramatic landmark of Shiritsuke Iwaya signified the beginning of my walk.
My walkway changed from wide roads to narrow wooden pathways that curved through the pristine forest. The only creature I encountered on my way was a single red fox, who darted across the path ahead of me, stopping only momentarily before disappearing into the underbrush.
After a 25-minute hike, I reached the base of the cave. Using the protruding rocks as handholds, I inched my way up to the cave mouth and lifted myself to the lip of the cave. My climactic ascent was rewarded with views of the striking rock formations from the dynamic landscape below.
The final stop of my Rokugo Manzan journey was Usa Shrine. Out of all of the Rokugo Manzan sites, this is the most splendid example of the Shinto-Buddhist unions I'd seen on my trip. The giant vermilion torii gateways paired beautifully with the luscious greenery that encompasses the Jingu grounds. With a massive garden complex comprised of an upper and lower main shrine, treasure hall, a thatched-roof bridge, ponds of lotus flowers, and several other smaller structures, I could have easily spent a whole afternoon peacefully wandering the grounds.
Usa Jingu was built in the eighth century and considered the oldest shrine dedicated to the Hachiman, Japan's divine protector and god of archery and war. With more than 40,000 shrines under its leadership, Usa Jingu is a splendid example of Rokugo Manzan's grand heritage beyond the borders of Kunisaki.
The main shrine hall is a designated national treasure and the most impressive structure of Usa Jingu. The gabled roofs connect two halls to make one magnificent building. As I stood in awe, the vermillion color against the blue sky made each other seem more impossibly vibrant than before.
In two days, I visited only a fraction of what is on offer in the Kunisaki Peninsula. Even if the institution of Rokugo Manzan has diminished, its legacy lives on in wonderfully preserved states waiting for your discovery. As I followed the historical footsteps of the Rokugo Manzan, perhaps you will embark on a spiritual trek on your own, much like the monks of Kunisaki did 1,300 years ago.
Note: This blog post was written during a time when preventive measures for COVID-19 were being undertaken. These measures are expected to be relaxed going forward.