By Michiyo Horike / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKUNISAKI, Oita — At the base of the stone steps leading to the gate of Futagoji temple on the Kunisaki Peninsula, a pair of Nio guardian deity statues more than 2 meters tall stand watch.
Though covered in moss, the stone statues project a dominating presence with their powerfully bulging muscles. I felt tension in the air as I stood amid sugi cedar trees on the hillside of Mt. Futago, the highest peak on the peninsula, which is located in Oita Prefecture.
With an array of oddly shaped rocks sprawled across hills and valleys, Mt. Futago and its surrounding areas feel like a fantasy world detached from the realm of man. This year marks the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of Rokugo Manzan, a collection of temples on the peninsula.
The landscape, suitable for an ascetic lifestyle, must have been a key factor in the flourishing of the region’s unique mountain-worship culture. A variety of legends still thrive, including one that tells of demons who inhabit the rugged rocky hills. Locals feel affection for the demons and have established a special bond with them.
Temples on the peninsula house about 100 demon masks, eight of which can be found at Futagoji. After praying at an inner sanctum and gomado pavilion at the temple, I was shown the masks by Gojun Terada, 40, a monk who has inherited the teachings of Futagoji. Two suzuoni masks on display had calm expressions while the six araoni masks had terrifying features. Some of them had big ears.
“They have big ears so they can hear the voices of people,” Terada told me. “They are not evil, but rather drive away misfortune and bring good luck.”
Demon masks are used in the Shujo Onie traditional New Year event to pray for peace, longevity and a bountiful grain harvest, among other blessings. Monks wear the masks to disguise themselves as demons, who are believed to be the incarnations of deities such as Fudo-Myoo and Ninmon Bosatsu, the later of which is said to have founded Rokugo Manzan. People look forward to meeting the demons at the annual event, according to Terada.
The event used to be held at many temples, but declined in scale. Currently, only three temples — Iwatoji, Jobutsuji and Tennenji — hold the event. At Tennenji, a huge torch used for the event rests inside a spacious wooden hall with a thatched roof.
At the Onie no Sato history museum near the temple, I saw a video of a ceremony for the event. Demons danced in the hall, while running around and rapping people with a flaming torch, a truly spectacular site. According to legend, the demons of Tennenji do not venture outside the temple, but those of Iwatoji and Jobutsuji visit houses, pray in front of families’ Buddhist altars and drink sake with families at their homes.
In May, a set of demon-themed cultural properties on the peninsula was recognized as a Japan Heritage asset by the Cultural Affairs Agency. The area was collectively named “Kunisaki, a land where demons have become Buddhist deities.” According to a related story, monks of yore cherished demons with mysterious Buddhist powers, climbed rocky hills in search of demons and established spiritual sites in caves.
An ascetic training circuit that runs through the peninsula’s spiritual spots — locally referred to as “mineiri” (entering hills) — is said to have started in the Heian period (late 8th century to the late 12th century). In the early Edo period (1603-1867), people started undertaking the training in groups, a practice that continues to this day. Those who travel the circuit walk about 150 kilometers over six days, local residents said.
A set of rocky hills behind Tennenji is a challenging point for mineiri travelers. Hearing that stone Buddha statues and shrines have been placed in many spiritual sites along the course, I looked for and reached an entrance to the hills with the intention of climbing up. However, I gave up as the hill appeared extremely rugged.
Gazing up toward the hills, I saw an arched stone bridge built at dizzying heights that is apparently used by mineiri monks. I couldn’t take my eyes off the bridge for some time, feeling as if a demon would appear at any moment.
Events mark 1,300th year
A variety of limited-time events are being held in Rokugo Manzan to mark its 1,300th anniversary. The Usa Jingu shrine and 12 temples have specially opened their cultural assets for public viewing on mainly Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.
At Kodoji temple, the Hitomoshi jizo guardian statue, which is normally hidden, can now be viewed by the public for the first time in 60 years.
Demon masks are on exhibit at 13 temples associated with demons. Visitors can also receive shuin seal stamps, with 15 temples that enshrine Fudo-Myoo deity issuing Fudo shuin seal stamps. Major temples are scheduled to be illuminated at night during the event.
Drive two hours on the Kyushu Expressway, Oita Expressway and other routes from Fukuoka to Aki interchange on the Oita Airport Road. From the interchange, drive 30 minutes by car to Futagoji temple. It is also convenient to use a regular sightseeing bus operated by Oita Kotsu that departs from JR Oita, Beppu or Usa stations to tour historic sites on the Kunisaki Peninsula.