As was noted in Chapter 2, the entire geography of Japan is laden with markers indicating the presence of the spiritual world, with temples and shrines on mountains and in the heart of red-light districts, and statues on mountain passes and department-store roofs. This omnipresence reflects both the notions implicit in early Japanese folk religion and expressed in Shinto and its myths that the whole of Japan is the abode of innumerable kami, and Buddhist ideas that since the Buddhas are all-pervasive they may manifest themselves at any time or place, and that since enlightenment itself is rooted in life, each and every place is inherently a potential setting for its realisation and manifestation. Potentially, then, everywhere is, or may be, the grounding of and a place of contact with the spiritual world that exists in direct and close relationship with the present world.
This is an important consideration in viewing the nature of temples and shrines as centres of religious power for it implicitly means that it is not the building and consecration of a religious institution that sacralises a place and marks it out as a holy arena. Rather, the religious institution has been built because some sign or incident has occurred to convince people that the place in question has manifested its potential as a setting for the spiritual and hence is able to stand out as somewhere special and beyond the ordinary. The institution is thus an acknowledgement and a recognition of the special nature of the location. Because one place is so designated it does not preclude others in the near vicinity from also being recognised in a similar way and often, in fact, one finds such places in clusters, for one overt expression of the spiritual in the physical world is an indication that others may occur close at hand. Such is the case with the proliferation of major shrines and temples in Kyoto and the complex religious centres at Nachi, where the Nachi falls, demarcated as a Shinto shrine yet traditionally identified in Buddhist and Shugendo eyes with Kannon, stands close by a major Buddhist temple and another important Shinto shrine, all of which have their own legendary founding stories replete with miraculous happenings.
Temples and shrines thus may be seen as locations at which spiritual power, usually manifested by the kami and Buddhas, may emerge into this world in such ways as to be accessible, either mediated through statues, prayers, priests and rituals, or by direct supplication, to all and sundry. In this respect as centres and gateways to power there is little if no differentiation between shrines and temples, and similar, overlapping motifs and activities are found at both. Both are demarcated as special gateways to power by a sign, or series of signs, that mark out the religious centre from the surrounding area and signify to all who enter that they are moving from the ordinary world into something special, into the powerful presence of the spiritual realms. (RCJ, 137-8)
Legends, Miracles and the Development of Popular Lore
Engi (Founding Stories)
Seeking Conception and Safe Birth
Most large temples and shrines are in reality complex configurations of numerous subsidiary centres of worship arranged around a main hall of worship enshrining the prime spiritual entity of the site. As such they are often settings in which all manner of riyaku may be — at least according to the temple and popular lore — available. To illustrate this point, and to show how the workings of popular lore crystallise into action, I shall examine in some detail the temple Nakayamadera in Takarazuka near Osaka. This temple is on the Saikoku pilgrimage route and is dedicated to Kannon who, in her manifestation at Nakayamadera, is most closely associated with easy childbirth, an issue that, as the engi of Kiyomizudera shows, has long been of great concern in Japan. ...
Women visit the temple to pray and acquire amulets for safe birth and also to ask for Kannon’s grace to help them become pregnant. For pregnant women the most common course of action is to acquire a hara obi, a long strip of cloth that is commonly worn around the stomach by pregnant women in Japan from the fifth month of pregnancy onwards. This is considered to keep the baby warm and also, at least in popular belief, small so as to allow an easy birth. Although the hara obi can be bought elsewhere besides shrines and temples it is most common for women to acquire it at a religious site with a reputation for anzan (safe birth) such as Nakayamadera, and to have it inscribed at the same time with a prayer for safe birth. At Nakayamadera the custom is for women to purchase the inscribed hara obi at the temple (along with it they receive also a lucky talisman for safe birth); when the child has been born safely the grateful mother returns to the temple bearing a new hara obi she has bought at a shop. This is given to the temple to be inscribed, after which it will be passed on, via the temple, to someone who comes, pregnant, to make a prayer for safe delivery. This process in which the good luck one woman receives from the temple is passed on through the donation and transmission of the obi to someone else, follows a traditional custom in which women who had successful births would present their pregnant friends with an obi. The custom of wearing the obi remains extremely strong: the anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, in surveying 149 pregnant women at a hospital in the Osaka region, found that 139 wore the hara obi. Of these, 106 had obtained them from temples or shrines, and 81 of these were from Nakayamadera. I once asked a Japanese friend if she had worn such an obi when pregnant, and if so had she got it at Nakayamadera: she replied ‘of course’, adding that she thought most women in the region would do this, at least during their first pregnancy, very often, as in her case, due to the encouragement of the mother or mother-in-law. (RCJ, 149-50)
Popular lore fired by miraculous tales of the past and by the pronouncements of the shrines and temples themselves, and the apparent benefits and riyaku that may be acquired, are not the only factors in the development of religious centres or in motivating people to visit them. Accessibility, transportation, cultural and touristic motivations and scenic location are also important. When various of these elements intersect with the constructions of popular lore certain locations are transformed into magnets drawing large crowds.
Situation itself may be especially important in enhancing the appeal of a shrine or temple as a centre of power: shrines centered on natural phenomena such as the waterfall at Nachi, whose very height and force clearly marks it out as something removed from the everyday, and temples perched on mountainsides or overhanging ravines appear to be metaphorically set apart from the ordinary world and are hence suggestive of the immanent proximity of spiritual realms. Many of Japan’s religious sites are stunning in their settings deep in the mountains amidst trees that come ablaze with the blossoms of spring, the colours of autumn or the deep silence of winter snow. Many of the temples on the Saikoku pilgrimage, which circles most of the Kansai district of Japan from the Kii peninsula up to the Japan Sea coast, passing through Osaka, Nara and Kyoto and taking in 33 famous temples all dedicated to Kannon, are set in dramatic places: Kiyomizudera and Enkyoji, straddling ravines, Hogonji, which dominates the island of Chikubushima in Lake Biwa, and Sefukuji high in the Katsuragi hills south of Osaka are just some examples of temples whose very location is designed to stimulate a sense of something special, apart from the routines of everyday life.
Often religious institutions have been constructed to utilise their natural surroundings in ways that convey religious teachings. Iwayaji in Ehime prefecture, one of the temples on the Shikoku pilgrimage, is not so much set in the mountains as built into the wall of rock that towers above the pilgrim as s/he climbs up to it. The temple hovers over a sheer drop, seemingly suspended between worlds, an image that was almost certainly in the mind of its builders and which fits well with the position of the pilgrim as a transient being for the duration of the journey, having left home and stepped outside the normal parameters of society. Similar imagery is seen at some of the temples on the Shodoshima pilgrimage, several of which have been fashioned from caves that were once, it is generally believed, inhabited by mountain ascetics. Such sites are dramatic in the extreme, for one walks up steep inclines, stones erected by pilgrims to commemorate their journey, to small temples that have been sited within caves, or which have been built on to the front of recesses in the mountain walls, and from which the views are often breathtakingly dramatic. (RCJ, 155-6)
Like other Japanese pilgrimages such as Shikoku, the Saikoku route involves the pilgrim in visiting a number of linked centres of power. While the Shikoku pilgrimage mentioned in Chapter 5 involves 88 sites connected with Kobo Daishi, the 33 Saikoku temples all enshrine Kannon. Their engi and oral traditions abound with tales of her great compassion, mercy and intercession, while their images of Kannon are widely venerated as sources and embodiments of her infinitely compassionate power. The combination of a series of places of power in such a route serves, at least in the perceptions of the pilgrims themselves, to heighten the sense of relationship between the pilgrim and the figure of worship, and also to increase the potential riyaku and spiritual benefits that accrue from visiting centres of power in general. ...
Pilgrims usually carry a scroll or book which can be stamped by each temple on the route. Originally used as proof that the pilgrim had been where s/he had received permission to go (in the Tokugawa era, people had to obtain permits if they wished to travel), these have become important mementoes of the experience of pilgrimage. Nowadays most pilgrims on Saikoku carry an elaborate scroll with a depiction of Kannon in the centre, around which the temple seals, beautifully illustrated also with brush calligraphy, are affixed. When completed this constitutes a representation of the powers of the images of worship of all temples, a symbol of Kannon’s mercy and, perhaps most importantly for many people, a beautiful, and often costly, work of art to be hung in the home as a decoration and as a memorialisation and reminder of their journey. Many of the pilgrims I have interviewed stated that one of their primary motives for doing the pilgrimage was that they saw such a completed scroll at someone else’s house and felt they would also like one.
The survey we carried out at Mimurotoji showed also the extent to which the ways in which pilgrims travel mirror contemporary developments in society. In the pre-motorised era everyone, save the few who could afford horses, walked: today there are still a very few who go by foot. As mass transport became available more and more people made use of it, until by the 1950s organised bus tours had become a standard way of going on pilgrimages. Increased wealth and car ownership have further affected this picture: our survey showed that, out of a total of 449 pilgrims surveyed, 51 per cent were travelling by private car (compared with 40 per cent who used buses and trains), and 55 per cent were with their spouse; 18 per cent more were with other family members and only 8 per cent were alone. This is very much in line with the increasing sense of nuclearisation: going out with a spouse and perhaps other family members in the family car on a series of Sundays to complete the scroll that would be hung in the home as a family treasure is both a further strengthening of the identity of the family as a unit and an expression of the importance of sharing such activities, both religious and cultural, with the family. Many Saikoku pilgrims are thus taking part in a cultural tour of their country while having a nice day out with the family, and these interlocking themes, incorporating national pride, family solidarity and enjoyment, are intrinsic to contemporary Japanese pilgrimage and are found in shrine and temple visiting in general. ... One can see in all this the multidimensional nature of temples and shrines, which operate simultaneously as tourist, religious and cultural institutions. The ways that people actually behave at shrines and temples may incorporate all these themes at once, as with our pilgrims visiting Saikoku temples to imbibe the cultural heritage, see some memorable places and pray for Kannon’s grace. (RCJ, 157-61)
Shichi Fukujin 七福神
The seven gods come from a variety of different traditions: three — the deities of contentment and magnamity, Hotei; of longevity, Jurojin; and of popularity, Fukurokju — are of Taoist origins; two — Bishamonten, a symbol of authority, and Daikokuten, who personifies abundance — are Buddhist; one — Benten, a deity of music and the arts — is originally Hindu but came to Japan along with Buddhism; and one — Ebisu — is an ethnic Japanese deity personifying honesty and prosperity. Despite their diverse origins they have, reflecting the syncretic and Japanising tendencies of the religious culture, become as a group a distinctly Japanese entity, generally portrayed sailing in a treasure boat bringing wealth and happiness with them and promising the types of this-worldly wishes that are at the heart of Japanese religion. They are especially prominent at New Year, for in their boat sailing across the seas they epitomise the sense of coming good fortune that is associated with this time of year, and thus New Year is the prime time for pilgrimages to the shichi fukujin. (RCJ, 164-5)
On 4 January 1989 my wife and I followed one such route that ran through one Tokyo ward along the banks of the Sumida River. We did this with a group of Japanese friends, at the start buying, like everyone else, a small model of the boat on which the gods travel and then at each of the shrines and temples in turn a small figurine of the particular deity enshrined there, until at the end we had assembled the complete set of the seven aboard the treasure boat. The whole tour was about five miles long and took about two and a half hours to do. Our party of six adults and four children all had an enjoyable time. The children delighted in acquiring the various figurines, looked around the souvenir and food stalls at each of the sites and prayed with their parents at each place visited. The adults kept the children happy while showing their friends (us) around and imbibing their own religious culture, and we were pleased to be seeing another side of Tokyo, having a good time with our friends and doing a little research besides. ...
Besides being examples of the syncretic and co-operative aspects of the various traditions that have appeared in Japan, then, the seven gods of good fortune illustrate in a light-hearted manner many of the dynamics of contemporary shrine- and temple-going and of the ways in which these along with commercial enterprises may play their part in developing and encouraging activities connected with the religious world. Their association with various benefits further makes them good representative examples of some of the contemporary dynamics of Japanese religion, while their current popularity provides the Japanese with one further medium through which to engage in religious actions and express their needs and desires. (RCJ, 165-7)