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The Usuki Stone Buddhas

Usuki Stone Buddhas

Ancient, mysterious sculptures carved in volcanic stone: the Usuki stone Buddhas, in Kyushu

Not many are aware of this treasure, I think while walking in this beautiful, gentle valley. It’s a monday morning and we are almost alone in this place, few kilometres from the small city of Usuki.

The Stone Buddhas of Usuki are hidden in a beautiful, gentle valley

The Stone Buddhas of Usuki are hidden in a beautiful, gentle valley (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

This place is a perfect image of an idealized Japan. But there is more. Near Usuki, among woods, fields and hills, are concealed dozens of Buddha images carved in the volcanic stone. Their history is shrouded in mystery. Those designated as national treasures are 59 and probably date back to the late Heian period and the Kamakura period (that is, between the 12th and 13th centuries). Surely there is a connection with the stone Buddhas of the nearby peninsula of Kunisaki, although it is not known who sculpted them or why this kind of spirituality developed here and not elsewhere in Japan. These are all questions that perhaps will remain forever without an answer.

Usuki, Stone Buddhas

Usuki, Stone Buddhas (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Usuki, Stone Buddhas

Usuki, Stone Buddhas (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

I just stay in silence, appreciating the beauty of these sculptures, imagining the hand, so distant in time, that created them from a wall of rock. I imagine the hand that colored them (traces of red can still be seen) and the sense of wonder they should have inspired at the time. Perhaps it is similar to what we experience today. Art puts us in touch with men of the past through emotions.

They are ancient sculptures that have come down to us but are very fragile:  the humidity, the water, the weather are wearing them out, and for this reason some of them are being restored and can not be seen.

Furuzono Sekibutsu

Furuzono Sekibutsu (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Among the visible statues there is the famous Furuzono Sekibutsu. It is believed by some to be the most beautiful stone Buddha in Japan. It is Dainichi Nyorai , the Buddha at the center of esoteric Buddhism (the one that in Japan has its heart on Mount Koya).

Until a few decades ago the statue’s head was detached, and was liying on the ground. It was a famous image, immediately recognizable, but sad. During the last restoration the figure has been recomposed. And it’s magnificent. Perhaps I deceive myself, perhaps it is only the magic of this place, but its serene look is different from all other representations of a Buddha I have seen in Asia.

the statue as it was before the restoration (pic on a board in the site)

the statue as it was before the restoration (pic on a board in the site)

Someone tried to create a background story to the sculptures, which were probably already mysterious centuries ago. Or maybe the legend told today has some truth. One learns this story a few minutes on foot from the Buddhas, in the area quiet Mangetsu-ji temple. I enter between two Nyo guardians. They are buried up to the waist in the ground by the floods of the nearby river. Among the pines, in a rock alcove I find three, small, old statues worn by time. They are images of Renjo-hoshi, the legendary artist, a monk, who would have created the mysterious Buddhas. And next to it, the couple who commissioned them. I don’t know if this legend is true, but I silently thank them all for what they have given us.

Renjo-hoshi, sculptor of the Buddhas

According to the legend this is Renjo-hoshi, who created the stone Buddhas (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

How to get to the Usuki Stone Buddhas

is in the eastern part of the prefecture of Oita, in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan (except for Okinawa).

We arrived with a rental car from Beppu. The city of Beppu is a good starting point to explore both Usuki and the Kunisaki peninsula. Usuki has a preserved area with the feel of a typical castle town (the castle, though, is lost: only ruins remain)
There are rare buses from the Usuki station to the Usuki Sekibutsu stop. But perhaps the best solution, if you come by train and you have a travel companion to share the costs, is probably the taxi: it’s about 2000 yen for 20 minutes of travel.

More info on Japan Guide and the official web site of the Sekibutsu

Other posts from my trip to Kyushu


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