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Kunisaki peninsula: temples, woods and legends

Stone Buddhas and temples in the deep of the forest, the Kunisaki peninsula is an unforgettable and little known land. A destination not to be missed in a trip to Kyushu

Sometimes when I am travelling I wonder: what am I doing here? And I don’t always know how to answer. This time, however, I feel exactly where I should be. I ask myself, in fact, why did it take me so long. Maybe it’s exactly here that I was meant to come. In the midst of this dense and dark forest of the Kunisaki peninsula I feel like I have finally reached the place I was looking for in this country that has become an obsession for me. This peninsula is a small land of rice fields and old farms, of majestic trees and divine figures that seem to be one thing with the mountain. It is a landscape that I find deeply moving.

For a moment, it’s a fleeting sensation, I feel exactly in the center of Japan. If there’s such a place it’s definitely one like this. This is what I think, in front of an ancient Buddha carved into a mountain wall. But I’m not looking for answers to questions I can not even formulate.

The Kumano Magaibutsu

The steep flight of stone steps we have climbed is imposing and strange, if it were not for the metal handrail it would seem something forgotten, being reclaimed by the forest. The stones may have been moved by the movements of the ground. But it could have been like this forever, from the very beginning.

The legend of the Stone steps

The stories told by men always have some ground in truth and according to the legend these steps in the deep of a forest were built by a demon, an oni. Precisely it was a red ogre (aka-oni 赤鬼 ) who wanted to eat human flesh. He was promised by Gongen, a kami, that he would be allowed to if he built a hundred steps in one night. The oni immediately started working, quickly and without much care. But as he carried the hundredth stone, Gongen cried “cock-a-doodle-doo!” as a morning rooster. It meant that the light would come in a short time. The oni dropped the stone and ran away.

Kumano Magaibutsu, la scalinata nella foresta

Kumano Magaibutsu, the flight of steps in the forest (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

To reach the Kumano Magaibutsu one has to walk for twenty minutes in the forest and then climb the steps: it is a six metres tall Buddha, carved into the mountain wall and probably created in the eleventh or twelfth century, even if some think it could be older. It has a meditative and serene expression and really seems to be one thing with the mountain and the forest. Next to it there is a much larger and simpler image: the iconography is that of Fudo-myoo, the protector. A little further up there is a small shrine.

There is a small statue dressed in red (maybe a Jizou) and a tree with a rope around it, a shimenawa: it is a sign, if one needs more than what he sees around him, that all this is the work of something superior.

L'albero e la fune

The tree and the rope (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

The spirituality of this region is unique and here Buddhism merges with Shinto in a peculiar way. These statues are found where more often one would expect to see a Shinto shrine, as always immersed in a nature that inspires wonder. And then there is something else, original and mysterious.

This, after all, is a region known for Shugendō, an ascetic practice that developed in the mountains in the Heian period over a thousand years ago. Once in Kunisaki monks and hermits walked in the woods from one sacred site to another.

The Kumano Magaibutsu (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

The Kumano Magaibutsu (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Kumano Magaibutsu

Kumano Magaibutsu (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Fudo-myoo, Kumano Magaibutsu

Fudo-myoo, Kumano Magaibutsu (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

The Rokugo manzan 

The Kumano Magaibutsuis only our entrance into this region called Rokugo Manzan. But we realize that we don’t have time to visit it all. We would need two days to explore the temples, the stone Buddhas (here there are more than half of the sculptures of this kind in all of Japan), the woods and the villages. This place is beautiful: we weren’t prepared to find all this in a region that in most guidebooks gets just a few lines.

And even if one can only get here by car and the roads are narrow, to me it’s a mystery why almost no one is here. But it is so beautiful like this, and before writing this post I was tempted to keep the secret to myself.

Kunisaki peninsula: Futago-ji temple

Kunisaki peninsula: Futago-ji temple (photo by Patrick Colga, 2018)

At the center of the peninsula is the ancient temple Futago-ji, sitting on the top of the mountain that has the same name. Its entrance is another stairway, guarded by two fierce Nyou gardians, centuries old and covered with moss. Once again, in this place of powerful nature, Buddhism and Shinto blend together. Inside the temple area there is also a shrine.

Not far away there is also the Fukiji temple, one of the oldest wooden buildings in Japan: it dates back to the eleventh century.

Fukiji temple

Fukiji temple (photo by Taylor and Yumi, from Flickr, creative commons)

How to get to the Kunisaki peninsula 

The region in northwest of Beppu and east of Fukuoka and is far from inaccessible: the Kunisaki peninsula is home to the Oita airport which is well-connected to Tokyo. It is simply cut off by motorways and trains and this is probably why is often forgotten by tourists that come to Kyushu. There are different types of accommodation available, but we stayed at a local farm, the Maruka . But I will write about this in a future post.

The best way to explore the Kunisaki peninsula is with a rental car.

This is the website of the Kunisaki tourism association.

The other posts on my trip to Kyushu

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