Sunday, December 17, 2017

Conic impressions (3)

31 October: there’s still two hours of daylight, and I remember once seeing a Fuji-like mound from the train to Haneda airport. So I head to Shinagawa and ask at the Keikyū line wicket gate. The clerk’s head bobs inside his office to consult a colleague and then bobs out again. All I have to do, he says, is to take the slow train as far as Shin-Bamba, the “new horse place”.

That sounds just right – traditionally, a bamba was where you dismounted from your steed and proceeded on foot into the sacred precincts of a shrine. I dismount from the slow train at the wrong end of the platform and proceed on foot a little further than necessary. But the shrine is impossible to miss: it is fronted by a torii with dragons writhing up its supporting columns.

The torii’s rococo style hints at the shrine’s history – founded in 1187, but rebuilt much more recently, mostly in postwar concrete. The Fuji-zuka can’t be missed either, looming over the busy street almost menacingly. It too is rather new. Started one year after the Meiji Restoration, it was completed in 1872, as one of the city’s very last Fujizuka. Then, exactly half a century later, it had to be bodily moved to make way for the new Keihin road, whose four lanes roar underneath it rather as the Tomei expressway rumbles past the foot of the real Mt Fuji.

To climb the Shinagawa Fuji, you hang a left half-way up the steps to the main shrine. Immediately, you find yourself out on a slope of lava boulders, already high above the street. As on the Otowa Fuji, stone pillars mark each of the mountain’s ten “stations”.

And here too are features such as the shrine close under the summit and, near the eighth station, a prominent rock buttress, perhaps the one where the Fuji-kō's martyr, Jikigyō Miroku, fasted to death in 1733. (The authorities of the Fuji Sengen Shrine wouldn't let him fast on the summit, lest his death there ritually pollute it.)

Perhaps there’s a cave too, but I must have missed it. Indeed, this Mt Fuji is so high and steep that you need to watch your footing carefully.

At the summit, a family is looking at the view. Our collective gaze sweeps out over the station, eastwards across the mangrove swamps of Odaiba. Before the buildings intervened, I’m sure you could have seen as far as Chiba across the bay.

Then I discover that the Shinagawa Fuji has a trick that the real mountain can’t emulate – that is, instead of having to descend the way you came, you just step down a few feet into the pine grove of the main shrine, elevated as it is high above the street on a natural bluff. Quite unlike the interminable and knee-punishing screes of the Subashiri Route.

When the train pulls out of Shin-Bamba station, the evening sky backlights Shinagawa’s Fuji as a clot of anarchic shadows set amidst the regular crenellations of the city skyline, mountain wildness against civic order. The contrast is arresting, yet nobody gives the scene a second glance.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Conic impressions (2)

31 October: inspiration strikes as I drag my suitcase along the gritty streets of Minami-Senju. Mt Fuji! There’s no time to climb the real thing, of course (and my RailPass expires in a matter of hours) but miniature Mt Fujis are dotted all around the city of Tokyo, I’ve read – surely, there’ll be one or two within reach. A quick scan of the hotel’s internet reveals two “Fuji mounds” close to the Yamanote Line.

An hour later, I’m walking past two large buses and then up the steps to Gokokuji, near Mejiro. The sign on the gate promisingly announces the temple as a “Dai-Honzan” – a great main mountain – alluding no doubt to its allegiance to the Shingon Sect, founded on Mt Kōya by Monk Kūkai. The main building houses a famous Kannon, allegedly brought all the way from India, and today also two busloads of schoolchildren, who are listening to a priest in purple robes.

Back-tracking to the temple’s gateway, I find I sign inviting me to "go up" the Otowa Fuji. No second bidding is needed. A flagstoned path leads past a flower-bed and over a stone bridge across a dry watercourse.

A few steps up the slope is a stone stele announcing the first station – I’m impressed: not only the mountain, but every detail of an actual ascent has been miniaturized.

A little further on is a small cave, which might correspond to the actual Hitoana cave on Mt Fuji, where Kakugyō, the founder of the Fuji-kō sect, meditated on tiptoe for a thousand days and nights.

Or perhaps it represents the Tainai, another cave on Mt Fuji, said to assure safe childbirth. As the climb steepens, a small shrine comes into view on the skyline, as might happen on the real mountain. A "great rock" guards the summit approach, mimicking a prominent buttress on the real mountain.

The summit view downwards is convincingly steep. Lumps of lava-like rock may have come from the real mountain. In days gone by, plants as well as rocks were brought from the real Mt Fuji to build these miniature ones.

Down at the base, a toddler is starting her first ascent, step by painstaking step, belayed by her mother's hand. I nod to them as I go by. You never know, we might be witnessing the start of a distinguished alpinistic career.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Conic impressions (1)

31 October: a Kagayaki whisks me from Hokuriku back to Tokyo. This super-express does indeed move like a flash. Although I’m on the look-out for famous mountains, the volcanic tump of Asama is sliding away by the time I’ve managed to lift my camera.

The photographic results are, as you’d expect, nugatory. Fukada Kyūya, the Hyakumeizan author had more leisure to appreciate the scenery when he travelled this same route during the 1920s:-

Before there was a Hokuriku express on the Jōetsu line, I used to take the Shinetsu line on the way to Tōkyō from my home town. If I boarded the train in the evening, I would see the first glimmerings of dawn near Karuizawa. Floating in the steel-grey sky would be a stocky, round-headed mountain. That was Asama. After the long night’s journey, this eminence would welcome me back to the realm of nature. And this was the moment that most reassured me that, now at last, we were closing on the Kantō plain. 

While I was studying at Tokyo, I must have passed by Asama a score of times in the university vacation. There it would be, with its huge mass, its unique shape, its scoured flanks, smoke wisping unfailingly from its summit cone. From the train’s windows, I would look up at the mountain, close, high, vast, ineffable. No other mountain is like it.

Probably I’m not the first to reflect that living life faster does not necessarily enrich it. To be fair to this high-speed Kagayaki, though, it does win me thirty-six hours in Tokyo before my flight back to Europe. Time for one lunch and two suppers with old friends. But how to spend the intervening hours in a meizanologically productive way? That is the question …

Monday, December 4, 2017

In search of Taichō (5)

30 October: not sure who suggests it first – they say married couples think alike – but Plan B springs to mind at once. As the Sensei has business in Katsuyama, somewhere up in the innermost recesses of Fukui Prefecture, she’ll drop me off at nearby Heisenji, the temple built on the very spot where Taichō started his ascent of Hakusan.

Clouds smudge the nearby hilltops as we reach the carpark. When I open the van’s door, the Sensei hands me a bear-bell. “You’ll need this,” she says. I raise an eyebrow, but accept it anyway. One should always show respect for the heavies with fur overcoats. And, of course, for the Sensei’s judgment

Bear attacks don’t seem to concern the shrine authorities. Instead, the signboard by the entrance says (loosely translated) that complaints have been received about ill-informed guides disturbing the peace with their erroneous opinions. So visitors are advised to tour the precincts with local volunteer guides who know their stuff. With this admonition in mind – and keeping the bear-bell muffled – I start off up a long flight of roughly hewn stone steps.

Passing under a torii, I spot a sign pointing away from the main path. It shows the way to a pool ringed by tall trees. This is a solemn place, especially in the gloom of a grey autumn afternoon. Another signboard confirms that this is where the Hakusan deity appeared to Taichō in 716, the year before he made his Hakusan ascent, promising she would reveal her true shape on the summit.

The following summer, Taichō at last reached the long-sought mountaintop, only to be confronted by a nine-headed dragon coiling upwards from the crater lake that still mirrors the sky near Hakusan’s summit shrine. Unabashed, the monk commanded the apparition to show its true shape, whereupon it shimmered into a vision of the Eleven-Headed Kannon. Taichō and his companions forthwith prostrated themselves in front of the goddess, understandably weeping tears of gratitude.

Leaving the pool, I wander uphill, across mossy slopes and through a grove of lofty red pines. Higher up, these give way to a tangled forest, sunk in gloom under the louring clouds. A warning sign fastened to a tree has me reach for the Sensei’s bear-bell. As you know, a chime in time saves nine.

A far pavilion, on the forest’s edge, marks the start of the path to Hakusan. Generations of pilgrims certainly came this way. But did Taichō? These days, first ascents need to be authenticated with a verifiable summit photo. That’s a bit much to ask from an eighth-century monk, but even the most ardent Taichō fan must ask how far the facts corroborate his Hakusan feat.

Some elements of the legend are compelling. Especially persuasive is the way in which a sightline extended from Ochi-san, Taichō’s first mountain, though Heisenji, leads logically over a series of ridges to Hakusan’s summit. Indeed, you can still follow that path today, although some stretches are said to be sketchy.

No less sketchy, alas, is any independent evidence for the ascent. We do know, on the evidence of a scroll preserved by the Imperial Household Agency, that a monk called Taichō was copying sutras around the second year of Tempyō (730). Yet it’s hard to credit, though some have done so, that this lowland scribe is the same monk who climbed Hakusan.

On the other hand, it is probable that Hakusan really was climbed at an early date. A chronicle compiled around the turn of the tenth century, the Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku, says that a monk named Sōei ascended Hakusan in the year 884, accompanied by two magical crows who lit the way for him through the night.

Could it be meaningful that Sōei belonged to the Tendai sect? For, in 1084, the monks of Heisenji decided to throw in their lot with the Enryakuji on Mt Hiei, the sect’s head temple, switching their allegiance from another Tendai institution, the Onjōji. That seems to have been a shrewd move. Thereafter, in the words of the English-language brochure helpfully handed to me at the visitor pavilion, “the amount of donations increased, allowing for the temple to increase its sphere of influence. Heisenji is considered to be the place of origin for the Hakusan faith, and as a result, became extremely prosperous.”

It was during this heyday that the Taichō legend became widely known. The Tendai connection may also have influenced the characters that spell the monk’s name. He shares the character for the “chō” (澄) in his name with Saichō, the Tendai sect’s founder. As for the “tai” (泰), this character corresponds with the second one in the name of Monk Nittai, who is said to have climbed Hakusan in the Tengi era (1053-58).

Rain is starting to spit, hinting that this pavilion is far enough for today. Also - let's admit it - bear-bell or no, I’d prefer to avoid a rencontre with any fur-coated heavies who might be lurking in the underbrush. Nearby stands a monument to that mirror of medieval chivalry, Kusunoki Masashige, but I suspect that investigating it might lead to complications in this post. Oddly enough, the monument gets no mention in the shrine's brochure. Anyway, it's time to start back.

On the way down is the site of recent excavations on the grove’s southern flank. These have uncovered a well-made cobbled road running straight down the hill, past a series of terraces that could have accommodated a large village. And they substantiate what Heisenji’s brochure is telling me: “At its peak, Heisenji was home to 48 shrines, 6,000 temple quarters, 8,000 warrior monks, and approximately 90,000 koku of rice.”

For a time, the warrior monks carried all before them. When another temple of the Hakusan faith got into a tax dispute with the governor of Kaga – this was in 1176 – the armed bands of all the Hakusan temples rose “as one mountain” and chased the erring governor back to Kyoto, bearing the Hakusan deity along in a palanquin on their shoulders.

Nitta Yoshisada in action, print by Tsuchiya Koitsu (1870-1949)

Probably their greatest feat of arms - it is celebrated in the Taiheiki, a martial epic - was to face down Nitta Yoshisada when he besieged their fortress at Fujishima in 1338. This victory led to the disintegration of Yoshisada's army, his self-decapitation and, ultimately, to the forwarding of his head to Kyoto in "a vermilion-lacquered Chinese box". Yoshisada was, of course, the most distinguished lieutenant of Kusunoki Masashige, the very same warrior whose memorial I'd just inspected further up the hill. The legacy of the Kemmu Restoration is complex, one has to conclude.

It was in Japan’s Warring Country period (1467–1603) that Heisenji’s luck turned. In 1574, religious fanatics razed all its buildings to the ground. Eventually, the temple was rebuilt, but never on anything like the previous scale. In a final indignity, Heisenji had to give up all its Buddhist images during the Meiji government’s campaign to disentwine the country’s two main religions. For this reason, it is now officially the Heisenji Hakusan Shrine.

For a paltry 50 yen, visitors can inspect a garden that purports to be the oldest in Hokuriku – it was laid out around 1530 by a regional official of the Muromachi shogunate. I deposit my coin in a box at the gate, as nobody is on hand to accept it, and step into a verdant space. Here the moss has taken over, flowing over stones and paths, and filling any pond or pool that may once have been there. It is a place for thinking green thoughts in a green shade.

The thought which occurs to me there is that we're skating round the question. In the past week or so, we’ve visited the hilltop where Taichō first practised his austerities, set eyes on one of the few original scrolls that tell his story, and ogled the treasures of the imperial court that promoted him to “kashō”. We've even inspected a ritual staff of the kind that monks like him took into the hills. And now I stand in the grounds of a temple, or a shrine, supposedly founded in 717, in the very year of his ascent of Hakusan. The question can no longer be avoided.

So did Taichō really exist?

Ideally, you’d want to put that question to somebody who knows about Taichō – for example, somebody like Hiraizumi Takafusa, Heisenji’s head priest, who also happens to be a grandson of Dr Hiraizumi Kiyoshi, the Tokyo University professor who published the Taichō-kashō-denki back in 1953. Fortunately, I don’t have to knock on Hiraizumi-sensei’s door right now, as the officials of Echizen-chō have already interviewed him for their brochure commemorating Taichō’s 1,300th anniversary. This is how he replied:

Of course Taichō existed but, as he was a personage of the Nara period, it’s very difficult to establish the facts, and we need to do more research. Our thinking about him has been based mainly on the Taichō-kashō-denki, which was set down about two centuries after his death, and it’s a mixture of gemstones and dross, with some puzzling passages. For that reason, many researchers have been sceptical about its contents. But recently, among the scriptures collected at the Kanazawa Bunko, a text was discovered that was read at the inauguration ceremony of Heisenji, and which has, all of a sudden, started to reveal how things were in the late Heian period. Although this is still about 400 years after Taichō’s death, it says that Taichō lived below the approach to the present temple, in Kitadani. In the absence of other surviving traditions, details like this from the document are exceptionally valuable. So we’re getting ever closer to the firm conclusion that he really existed.

Abruptly, the peace of Heisenji is shattered. Up the stone steps from the lower world are advancing three groups of pensioners, each with a well-informed volunteer guide addressing them through a loud-hailer. Yet their timing is providential. When I move aside to let the last platoon through, I overhear their guide pointing out Taichō’s tomb or memorial.

The simple stone stele would be easy to miss, so unassumingly does it stand in its little enclosure aside from the temple’s approach. In front, the ground is still drifted deep in pine-needles blown down by the typhoon. Stepping up to pay my respects, I suspect this is about as close as I’m going to get to the Hakusan pioneer, at least on this trip.


Echizen-chō Kankō Renmei, Taichō Daishi: Echizen ni umareta, Echizen ni ikita, brochure celebrating the 1,300th anniversary of Taichō’s ascent of Hakusan.

Higashiyotsuyanagi Fumiaki, Taichō to Hakusan kaizan denshō, in Hakusan Heisenji: yomigaeru shūkyō-toshi – Katsuyama-shi

Samuel C Morse, The Buddhist Transformation of Japan in the Ninth Century: The Case of Eleven-Headed Kannon, in Heian Japan, Centers and Peripheries, edited by M Adolphson, E Kamens and S Matsumoto

Mimi Hall Yiengproksawan, Hakusan at Hiraizumi: Notes on a Sacred Geopolitics in the Eastern Provinces

Paul Varley, Warriors of Japan, as portrayed in the war tales, University of Hawaii Press.

John S Brownleee, Japanese historians and the national myths, 1600-1945, The Age of the Gods and Emperor Jinmu, UBC Press/University of Tokyo Press.

Fukada Kyūya, the Hakusan chapter in Nihon Hyakumeizan translated as One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

In search of Taichō (4)

29/30 October: But how to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of Monk Taichō’s ascent of Hakusan? We still haven’t climbed anything higher than 613 metres, which seems a bit weak as a tribute to the great pioneer. Then, like a bubble of marsh-gas rising from a muddy sump, an idea pops up.

The summit shrine on Mt Atago: founded by Taicho
as Haku-unji, the Temple of the White Cloud

Tomorrow morning, I’ll leap on the first Kyoto-bound Thunderbird express, ride the local line up to Arashiyama, take a taxi to the roadhead, and zoom up Atago-yama, on the city’s western margin. I’m obliged to the excellent Green Shinto blog for pointing out that Atago too was “opened” by Taichō.

Kyoto's Mt Atago, as it was in better days
(Print courtesty of Ando Hiroshige)

And if the guidebook time can be halved, there’ll be minimal danger of being late for supper with the Sensei and her mother. Surely this is what financier types used to call a rinky-dink plan. Alas, the Sensei isn’t enthused. “You’re not going,” she says...

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

In search of Taichō (3)

29 October: The plan is to leave Taichō in peace today. I’m riding a Thunderbird, which is a train, though it feels more like a submarine, heading southwards into rain that is falling more prodigally by the minute. Lake Biwa is a sheet of beaten pewter, the opposite mountains buried under a leaden pall. Typhoon 22 has yet to make landfall, but it has galvanised the autumn rain front into a frenzy of precipitation.

Two hours later, in a tropical downpour, I meet up with the Sempai and his family at Nara station. In our younger days, he and I climbed Hakusan together. We walk the streaming streets, shoes awash, to the Nara National Museum. For just three weeks in October and November each year, there is a chance to take in an exhibition of treasures from the Shōsō-in, the storehouse of the Tōdai-ji temple.

The Shoso-in (photo: Nara National Museum)
The story of how the treasures were acquired is a sad one. When Emperor Shōmu died in 756, his widowed consort Kōmyō donated his possessions to the newly dedicated Great Buddha at the Tōdai-ji. For, as she said in her dedication letter of July 22 in that year,

The list given above contains treasures that have been handled by the Emperor and articles that served him in the palace. These objects remind me of the bygone days, and the sight of them causes me bitter grief.

Indeed, so many treasures were entrusted to the Shōsō-in that fewer than a tenth can be shown in any given year. So every exhibition yields up surprises among the musical instruments, offering stands, gigaku masks, silk banners, and eight-lobed mirrors.

Gigaku mask (photo: Nara National Museum)

Not everything is an artwork of ageless sublimity. I’m about to give up on a display case full of yellowing parchments – tax assessments and the like – when a map catches my eye. It shows farmlands owned by the Tōdai-ji in the province of Echizen, as Fukui was then known. By apparent coincidence, these fields were located more or less on the doorstep of Taichō’s birthplace. It looks as if we’ve caught up with the monk again. Or is it the other way round?

Map of farmland owned by the Todai-ji
(photo: Nara National Museum)

Although born and bred in Echizen, Taichō had quite a bit to do with Nara. When word of the young monk’s spiritual powers reached the court, Emperor Monmu is said to have appointed him as a guardian cleric of the state (鎮護国家法師) in 702. This was when he was just 21. Then, in 722, after he’d honed his prowess by meditating in a cave under Hakusan’s summit for one thousand days and nights, he travelled to Nara to cure an illness afflicting the Empress Genshō.

In 736, Taichō returned to Nara, this time to receive from Monk Genbō a a sutra scroll in honour of the Eleven-Headed Kannon. The following year, the ninth of Tempyō, he performed a rite of repentance to ward off an outbreak of smallpox that threatened the capital. For this service he was raised to the high monastic rank of “wajō” or “kashō” – the reading of the characters varies according to the religious order.

Apron worn at inaugural ceremony for the Great Buddha
(photo: Nara National Museum)

We move on to another set of cabinets. Here are displayed an apron once used in a gigaku dance, and a dedication table for offerings. Like some wormhole in space, the Shōsō-in exhibition can short out the intervening centuries. In this case, it warps us back to an April day in the fourth year of Tempyō-shōhō (752), when all the court and priesthood are gathered in front of the Great Buddha of the Tōdai-ji, its enclosure streaming with silken banners, ready for the gigantic statue’s inauguration. Both apron and table are known to have been used on that august occasion.

Table for offerings
(photo: Nara National Museum)

Seated in front of the statue, facing northwards for perhaps the only time in his life, so that he could show fealty to the Buddha, retired Emperor Shōmu was fortunate to be there. He’d recovered from a serious illness a few months previously, only after the Empress Kōmyō had made an appeal to the Eleven-Headed Kannon. Monk Rōben (689-773), a near contemporary of Taichō, was certainly there too, presiding over the dedication of the statue whose construction he’d supervised over long years. Together, they must have witnessed the gigaku performance, and perhaps inspected the little table with its votive offerings.

The eye-opening ceremony for the Great Buddha of the Todaiji
Painting by Hirayama Ikuo

Alas, Monk Genbō could not attend, having died in exile a few years previously, and nor could Monk Gyōki (668-749), who had travelled the length and breadth of Japan to raise funds  – the statue’s completion is said almost to have bankrupted the country. But Monk Gyōki does make two appearances in Taichō’s story. According to a record of Mt Kōtakami in what is now Shiga Prefecture, the temples there were founded by Gyōki and later revived by Taichō. The legend of Taichō’s life also has Gyōki visiting the Echizen monk on Hakusan.

Oddly enough, both Rōben and Gyōki turn up in adjacent chapters of Nihon Hyakumeizan, Japan’s most famous mountain book. Rōben is said to have inaugurated Ōyama in the Tanzawa range (Chapter 71) as early as the seventh year of Tempyō Shōhō (755), while the Daibosatsu Pass (Chapter 70) allegedly took its name, indirectly, from Gyōki:-

The path up the pass starts at an old temple, the Unpōji. Built in the Irimoya style and with a roof of cypress-wood shingles, its elegant main hall is well worthy of its designation as a national treasure. The temple was founded in the seventeenth year of Tempyō (745) by the monk Gyōki Bosatsu, after he saw a vision in these mountains, where he had come to practice austerities. The pass, it is said, takes its name from the temple.

Such legends should, of course, be treated with care. Samuel C. Morse, whose paper on the Eleven-Headed Kannon in early Heian times furnishes much of the foregoing, has this to say about Taichō:

 “much of the story … is certainly fiction, yet enough details of his life correspond to information in other, more reliable sources to conclude that certain aspects are in all likelihood true: a mendicant monk from Echizen had a vision that prompted him to travel to the capital to seek out religious texts, and while he was there he participated in the rituals held in the capital to attempt to quell the smallpox epidemic that ravaged Japan in 737…”

This much can be said, if we refer to Professor Morse’s article. During Taichō’s lifetime, the Eleven-Headed Kannon saw a steady increase in her popularity, probably on account of her healing powers. And nowhere was she more popular than at the northern end of Lake Biwa, and in the provinces of Wakasa and Echizen, along the Japan Sea coast.

Temples with fine statues of the Eleven-Headed Kannon are often found in remote or mountainous regions, as on Mt Kōtakami. In Echizen, the oldest statue of this deity is found close to Taichō’s birthplace, at the Futagami Kannondō (right), which stands within the lands once owned by the Tōdai-ji, just as shown in the Shōsō-in’s map. Immediately to the south rises Monju-san, a mountain said to have been “opened” by Taichō in the same year as his Hakusan ascent.

The Eleven-Headed Kannon, the healing of the sick, and an apparent ferment of monastic mountaineering in the Tempyō era – all these make for a rich yet mysterious mix. I start to wonder if this association might be illuminated by yet another exhibit, such as that fine shakujō over there.

Ritual staff (photo: Nara National Museum)

According to the catalogue, pilgrims used such implements in the mountains to “chase off snakes and dangerous insects, stabilize their steps, and announce their arrival in front of a gate”. Indeed, this particular staff bears an uncanny resemblance to the one found on Mt Tsurugi in 1907 and which can now be inspected in the Tateyama Museum.

I'm heading over to take a closer look when I hear a discreet whisper at my elbow. It is the Senpai. What about lunch, he suggests. His wife and children have already decamped to the canteen, having performed sufficient museum austerities for the morning, and we might like to join them. There's no question of eating elsewhere - the rain is sheeting down harder than ever outside.

It looks as if the question of Taichō’s mountaineering kit - and where he used it - will have to wait for another day.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

In search of Taichō (2)

28 October, Fukui: it’s raining again as we drive to the Prefectural History Museum. A large banner at the front door advertises the exhibition – “Taichō: exploring the significance of the Hakusan faith”.

As good historians should, the exhibition curators start by kicking the tyres. That is, of their sources. Actually, there is only one source for Taichō’s story. This is the Taichō-kashō-denki, preserved only in a handful of ancient scrolls – like the one in front of us in the display cabinet.

There is no original for this manuscript, only copies, of which the oldest known was transcribed in 1325 and preserved at a temple library in Yokohama, the so-called Kanazawa Bunko. Other copies belong to the Ozoe Mitsutani family, to Heisenji, a temple-turned-shrine in the eastern outback of Fukui Prefecture, and the  Ōtani-dera, a temple at the foot of Ochi-san. The text of the Taichō-kashō-denki did not appear in print until 1953.

According to the Taichō-kashō-denki itself, the story of Taichō was first written down by a monk at the Ōtani-dera, around the year 957, in mid-Heian times, based on the verbal account given him by a senior cleric of the Tendai sect. Thus, even if we accept that the Taichō-kashō-denki did originate around then, the chronicle dates from almost two centuries after Taichō’s death.

Now we understand why Ōtani-sensei had given us the tickets. Several of the key exhibits, including the scroll, come from his home temple, the eponymous Ōtani-dera, at the foot of Ochi-san. They’ve also lent this wooden sculpture of Taichō, seated in meditation and flanked by two attendants.

The central figure wears a wise, almost humorous expression. Although less than a foot high, the figure looks as if it was carved from the life. But that cannot be: the catalogue dates it to 1493.

The two acolytes must be Fuseri and Kanbe-no-Kyosada. Fuseri, it is said, travelled from what is now Nanao City on the Noto Peninsula to join Taichō on Ochi-san. There it was his practice to magically exact votives of rice from ships plying on the Japan Sea. (Even sages have to eat.)

Kanbe, the captain of one of these ships, refused to provide this tribute, whereupon Fuseri flew into a rage and sucked the ship’s entire cargo onto the mountaintop. When Taichō intervened, and graciously returned Kanbe’s rice, the sea captain decided to become the monk’s second disciple.

We move on to the exhibition’s second section, entitled “Ochi-san: the mountain where everything began”. Now we’re on firmer historical ground. There is a fine painting of the hill as it was during the heyday of popular pilgrimages, during the long peaceful centuries of the Edo period.

Ochi-san, as it was then

You can see the Otani-dera at the mountain’s foot, and the summit shrine too – alas, most of the buildings in between have vanished. For pilgrims with more ambitious goals, there are Edo-period guidebooks to climbing Hakusan too.

Ochi-san, as it is now
Of course, the Hakusan faith took root long before the Edo period. The Hakusan deity first appears in a chronicle of early Heian times, and a Hakusan shrine in Kaga features in the Engishiki, a compilation of laws and customs completed in 927. By 994, no less a personage than Sei Shōnagon was invoking the goddess of Hakusan.

By Muromachi times, pilgrims were filing up the mountain from three directions – from Heisenji in Echizen, the temple that once held sway over the summit, and from Kaga and Gifu too. The Hakusan faith spread all over Japan: even today, there are some 2,700 Hakusan shrines all over Japan, rather more than enshrine the deity of Mt Fuji.

A small but brightly coloured figurine catches my eye. Labelled as a “goddess”, it dates from the Northern and Southern Courts period (1336-1392), and belongs to the temple of Eiheiji, the original Zen temple, sited just up the road from Fukui.

Even the Zen masters, it seems, deferred to the goddess of Hakusan, a tradition that goes back all the way to their order’s founding. It seems that Japan’s first Zen proselyte had a debt to repay.

It happened like this. Just as Monk Dōgen was about to come home from five years of study in China, he discovered a crucial Buddhist text in a temple library. As his ship was due to leave the very next morning, it seemed impossible that he could transcribe it in time. But the goddess of Hakusan appeared to him in a vision, and helped him copy the scroll at a superhuman speed. In gratitude, he appointed her as the guardian goddess of Eiheiji.

There’s also a small figure of the Kannon (right) – she’s just over a metre high. The statue comes from Heisenji, which is only appropriate. For it was a vision of the Kannon in 716, in the forest glade where Heisenji would one day be built, that set Taichō on his way to the summit of Hakusan. It’s fair to say that Taichō’s own guardian deity was the Eleven-Headed Kannon, or sometimes the goddess of Hakusan (for the latter could represent the former in the syncretic Buddhist thinking of those times).

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the Sensei signalling to me. Could it be that we’ve inspected enough scrolls and statues for the day? Only when we step outside into the fresh air and the rain does it hit me, though. The exhibition had lived up to its title – we’d learned a lot about the Hakusan faith. But where was the religion’s founder in all this?

Somehow Monk Taichō seemed as elusive as ever…