Following Japan’s Buddhist Trails


Khabar magazine. Print issue. October 2015

A thousand years ago, the Kunisaki Peninsula, tucked away on the western end of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, was one of the country’s main centers of Buddhism. Even today, life in Kunisaki is a drastic contrast from Tokyo, with its sleek skyscrapers, neon lights, and high-end luxury malls. Time stands still in Kunisaki, where people in sparsely populated hamlets live a quiet life surrounded by mountains, sprawling farms, and picturesque valleys.

Even the type of Buddhism that thrived in Kunisaki is different from that in the rest of Japan. Strong influences of Shintoism, an ancient religion founded in the belief of shrine worship towards a multitude of gods, can be traced alongside the Buddha’s teachings. A famous monk named Nimom founded the Rokugo-manzan complex in the 8th century, which with its 28 temples and three sub-groupings of temples reflected the Lotus Sutra’s 28 chapters. The Kunisaki Peninsula was considered the mandala of the Lotus Sutra, and for many East Asian Buddhists, the Lotus Sutra contains the ultimate and complete teaching of the Buddha, and the reciting of the text is believed to be very auspicious. On the pilgrimage paths connecting the temples were 69,380 Buddhist statues, one for each Chinese character of the Sutra. Therefore, a monk walking the Kunisaki was essentially reciting scriptures from the Sutra.


My journey with Walk Japan tours begins in Fukuoka, the seventh largest city in Japan, and a famous port known for its Yatainight food stalls. From here, I take one of the award-winning fast trains to Usa, passing lots of industrial areas, matchbox houses, the hills of Kyushu, and even a nuclear reactor. The tiny open-air train station is my first brush with rural Japan. No one here speaks English and all the signs are in Japanese. Thankfully, I have an American guide, Ted Taylor, who has been living in Kyoto for many years. Ted is a historian and writer, accustomed to Japanese traditions. We take a short cab ride to Yamaga, which appears to be a popular hillside resort among the locals.

We check into a Ryokan, and move to a different one each night. These are traditional Japanese inns with 5-20 rooms, oftentimes run by a local family. While staying at the inns, we have to follow certain Japanese customs. Similar to some South Asian homes, guests in Japan are required to take off their shoes at the entrance to the hotel’s reception and use only the provided slippers. My room number is marked in Japanese and when I walk in, there is no “bedroom” furniture in it, barring a television, refrigerator, a very low tea table, and a cushion placed on the tatami floor. I sleep on a thin mattress (known as futon), and use a comforter and a buckwheat pillow. It appears that the rooms are multifunctional—they could be used for sleeping, dining or meetings, depending on the occasion and capacity. Bathing is only allowed in the nude at the geothermal hot springs or public bathing houses, separated for male and female. After the evening bath, everyone dresses in a Yukata, Japanese dressing gown with a belt and jacket, which is provided to all guests.


Since there are no restaurants around for miles, the innkeepers prepare scrumptious family style Japanese dinners. We eat endless amounts of fresh sashimi of sea bream, tuna, and salmon, accompanied by miso soup, silken tofu, steamed rice, seaweed salad, and vegetable tempura, washing it down with cups of cold sake. Japanese cooking emphasizes fresh ingredients, no spices, simple preparations, yet elaborate presentations. We have dozens of small bowls placed in front of us, each one with only a bite or two, looking like a piece of art. The Japanese diet is perhaps the healthiest on the planet, ensuring lack of diseases, sharpness of mind, and a long lifespan.

My guide Ted, an elderly couple from Australia, and I begin our trek around the Kunisaki Peninsula at Kumo-ga-take, or Cloud Mountain, as it starts to pour. We go up steep muddy slopes using walking poles. An hour later, we catch sight of the first of many ancient Buddhist statues that are a vivid indication of the rich history of Kunisaki. Our destination is Usa Jingu’s interior shrine, located in the middle of the mountain. A simple rustic building on the peak stands in startling contrast to the scale and opulence of Usa Jingu, which is far below us on a farming plain at the foot of Omoto-san. The shrine deifies the protector god of Japan, Hachiman, who was also instrumental in the development of Buddhism on Kunisaki. Most tourists arrive at the outer shrine by bus or car, while we trek about eight miles on foot in the footsteps of the monks.


The lakes surrounding Usa Jingu’s beautiful orange gates are adorned by bridges and ducks. The scenery is breathtaking. I recall a recent photo of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe feeding fish in a special ceremony thought to bring prosperity and good fortune, as Ted purchases a pack of fish food from a self-serve kiosk and starts feeding the carp from the bridge. “A wise man once told me that in order to have a good life, I must feed all the carp fishes I find,” he tells me.

The following day, we stay at an inn right next to a Tendai temple, Fuki-ji, the oldest wooden structure in Kyushu circa 718 AD and designated a national treasure of Japan. Tendai Buddhism was brought to Japan from China in the 8th century. Its philosophies are rooted in Mahayana Buddhism that preaches Dharma and the ability to attain Buddhahood. One of the innkeepers is a priest at the temple, while his mother does the cooking and cleaning. They have been running the inn for generations, as most families in the area. 

From here we take a 10-minute taxi ride to Makiodo temple, which looks more of a tourist attraction, as there is even a ticket booth. We see the largest statue of Daiitoku Myoo, the Wisdom King of Great Awe-inspiring Power, and a sitting statue of Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. The statues at Makiodo look like they could have been brought in from a temple in southern India. With fiery eyes, multiple arms holding warrior armor, and a seat on a cow, there is a strong resemblance to the Hindu goddess Kali.

Then we climb a steep but small peak to get a nice view of the charming village of Tashibu-no-sho. I take a panoramic shot of farmlands, peaks, river and houses—some of the most beautiful landscapes in the area that have not changed much in 1200 years.


We walk alongside farmlands growing buckwheat, rice, soba, and a few other crops. The farmers here don’t use any chemicals and don’t believe in rotational farming. A lady farming by herself on her small patch, wearing denim overalls and rain boots, says that she feels the land should be allowed time to heal and replenish its nutrition. In the middle of nowhere, we stop at a house converted to a cafe that is run by three enterprising women who bake breads, brew herbal tea, and offer some snacks to passers-by. Today, they make a special vegetarian farm-to-table lunch buffet for us. We fill our bellies with organic steamed bamboo shoots, glassy seaweed noodles, boiled Komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach), dirty rice with white and red lentils, a salad of daikon radish, and soba noodle and mushroom soup. The ladies tell me that this style of eating raw and vegetarian foods is gaining popularity within health conscious households in modern day Japan.

On the fifth day, we take a short ferry to Himeshima (Princess Island). We leave behind the ridges of Kyushu dotted alongside the clean blue waters of Seto Inland Sea. There are a few attractions noted on the board at the ferry terminal, but hardly any people to be seen around. Every August, there is a Shinto religious ceremony, Kitsune matsuri (Fox Marriage Festival) featuring dancers dressed as foxes that attracts many visitors, and October is the season for Kuruma ebi(Prawn Eating Festival).

As I walk along the crescent shaped, white sand beach, I run into a group of four elderly ladies covered from head to toe to protect against the sun, riding on their bikes. We talk briefly with the help of a Google translator, as they giggle every time they hear the sharp voice of modern technology.

Once we return to the mainland, we make a long ascent to the fortress rock peak of Mt. Fudo-san, from where we can see panoramic views across Kunisaki to Himeshima, and beyond to Yamaguchi Prefecture on Honshu. After a trek through the forests and climbing a long flight of stairs, we arrive at Monjusen-ji, a Buddhist temple where we rest for the night. The resident priest, wearing a white robe, welcomes us and takes us into a cave room that towers over the temple, for an evening ceremony. Here he beats a large drum and chants in Sanskrit. He lights a bonfire in the middle of the room, offering the Gods wooden plaques with inscribed prayers. He blesses each of us with good health, luck, and safe travels.

As a typhoon looms over us, the wooden doors and windows of the temple rattle against the strong winds. I ask the priestess if the building would survive and she offers me little consolation, “Well, it has stood here for the past 200 years, so we shall see tonight.” She serves us a simple vegetarian dinner with beer, and shows us her family photos. Her fore- fathers have served as priests at the grounds where we sit for the past thousand years. After dinner, each of us occupies a temple altar room, sleeping on mattresses placed directly in front of the shrines. The main altar has a captivating blue statue holding an upright sword that could easily be mistaken for Lord Shiva. Golden statues of Buddha, Japanese lanterns, drums, white handkerchiefs, and bottles of sake—all depict the intermingling of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cultures that have come about in Kunisaki. Although we have only followed the pilgrimage walk of Buddhist monks, it feels like we have witnessed its evolution over centuries and across borders.

Hidden Japan: Atlantan Walks Small Villages Beyond Tokyo’s Glitter

Global Atlanta. July 2015

Often Tokyo overpowers our images of Japan. The automotive and electronics capital boasts sleek skyscrapers, busy intersections with neon lights, and high-end luxury malls dotted with hundreds of Michelin-star restaurants. But there is another face to the country that offers pristine landscapes, ancient history and a rapidly fading culture.

During my recent visit to Japan, I traveled to several small towns that even many Japanese people living in Tokyo have never heard of. On a tour offered by Walk Japan, a local operator that advertises hiking and cultural tours around the country, I spent 10 days exploring the Kunisaki Peninsula located in the southwestern part of the country.

Our small group of four stayed at traditional Japanese inns, known as ryokans, throughout the tour. A far cry from my luxurious room on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental in Nihonbashi business district of Tokyo, these bare-minimum lodging facilities offer comfort, cleanliness and personalized service. I had to learn to sleep on tatami mats, bathe nude in common baths (called Onsen), wear a Yucata (dressing gown) every evening, and eat a regimental diet of raw fish, miso soup and steamed rice three times a day. All of this was very strange at first, nevertheless an experience that I learned to enjoy.

Small nuances made me realize the strong feeling of community that Japanese people share, which probably explains why Japanese tourists are always seen traveling in large groups.

For example, a room at the Ryokan is charged on a per-person basis. You may pay $400 for four people staying in each of their own rooms, or $400 for four people sharing one room. The Japanese tourist would prefer the latter. Most of the rooms at a Ryokan don’t come equipped with private toilets, and even outside guests come to bathe at the hotel’s hot springs and baths communal-style for a nominal fee. I never saw anyone dining alone at a restaurant in this area. There were always friends, families and guests sharing elaborate platters of homemade specialties prepared by the innkeeper, and very rarely any menus.

During the day, we discovered the rich history of Kunisaki, trekking through steep hills, dense forests and open fields. As we traced the paths of monks who had been through these areas for over a thousand years, we paid respects at rarely frequented Shinto shrines, stone carvings, statues, caves and Buddhist temples.

I found out that majority of Japanese people consider themselves Buddhist, as well as Shinto, an ancient religious belief that focuses on shrine worship towards a multitude of gods. Around the 12th century, when Buddhism flourished on this peninsula, there were more than 50 temples with 800 buildings here. We spent a night at a ryokan adjacent to Fukiji Temple, the oldest wooden structure on the island of Kyushu (circa 718 AD).

While some of the hikes were quite strenuous (8-10 miles each day), what I saw and learned during the day was priceless. Among other things, were shrines dedicated to Hachiman, protector God of Japan; Kumano Magaibutsu, the largest Buddha relief carvings in Japan; and Nyushutsu-nimon-ge’s resting place. Nimon was the monk that is reputed to have first brought Buddhism to Kunisaki approximately 1,100 years ago.

We ascended steep, slippery paths to Kumo-ga-take (Cloud Mountain) rising above the mists, to catch a glimpse of the lush green valleys below and Kyushu Mountains surrounding the horizon. Everyone took panoramic snaps of Tashibu-no-sho, a charming village with some of the most picturesque countryside found in Japan. A scenic drive through what looked like rolling hills of Switzerland, ended in Yufuin, a beautiful town where Mount Yufu (aka Yufu-dake) towers above a river cutting through the valley, scenic lake, paddy fields and temple bells.

As we walked through the rice paddies and farmlands growing buckwheat and soba, we rarely encountered anyone below the age of 70. An elderly lady tending to her vegetable farm wearing tall rubber boots and a peasant hat stopped us when she saw Ted, our guide, and invited us over for tea and cookies. We sat on the floor of her tiny cluttered room overlooking a coy pond, chatting about her grandkids and younger days.

She informed us that all of the villagers move to “the big city” in search of better education and work, leaving behind the elders to tend to the farms. When they pass, the kids end up selling or abandoning the family homes, since they no longer can take care of them. The government has started to offer free historic houses and a stipend to anyone who commits to moving to the village and restoring the properties, as well as actively participating in the community’s affairs. Although we saw hundreds of such homes collapsing, a few individuals disenchanted by the busy lifestyle have brought their families to raise their kids in the country where the air is fresh and life is simple and slower paced.

I noticed that the Japanese fascination for beauty was present whether one was shopping at Mitsukoshi, the oldest luxury retail store in Tokyo, or living in a remote island village.

One of the most pristine places on the trip was Himeshima (Princess Island), a sleepy town only 20 minutes ferry ride from Imi Port. There was a crescent-shaped, white-sand beach close to the harbor that was completely unoccupied on a Sunday afternoon. I spoke to three Japanese women in their 60s and 70s biking past. They were covered from head to toe in baggy pants, oversized long-sleeve shirts, and wide hats with built in scarves that covered their faces and necks. It was a far cry from the other beach destinations I am used to. The women couldn’t stop admiring my wheatish skin and couldn’t believe my age. With the help of Google translator (since we couldn’t converse in English/ Japanese), they were curious to know what kind of make up I was wearing.