Rakan-ji: Buddhist ascetism amid dramatic scenery, yet a sort-of hole in the wall

Not long ago, we were driving in north-central Oita on the island of Kyushu when we spotted a mountain with a hole it.  Needless to say, such a phenomenon must be explored!  So we did.

We learned that the top of this mountain was historically a hermitage for the practice Buddhist asceticism–reputed to have been started here by an Indian ascetic in the 7th century.  Now known as “Furu-rakan” (old rakan), it was “abandoned” in favor of a larger temple built nearby in the 13th century.  That newer temple, Rakan-ji (Temple of the Arhat) sits high up on a mountain known as Mt. Rakanji, the foot of which is accessible from the base of Furu-rakan, by a short tunnel through to the next valley.

Rakan is the Japanese word for Arhat.  In Buddhism, Arhat are those who are worthy or have attained nirvana.  A Buddhist monk friend once explained to me that the 500 rakan that are popularly depicted in Japan are derived from the 500 disciples of Buddha who studied directly under him and who gathered after his departure to transcribe his various teachings into what has become the tripitaka.  I find this legend fascinating.

To commission the carving of a rakan is a way to earn merit for oneself.  To commission the carving of 500 gains immeasurable merit.  Like Xian’s terra cotta warriors,  no two rakan statues are alike.  The faces and poses are often quite whimsical.  While rakan may be “worthy” or “enlightened”, the statues make them seem like humans who enjoy life.

Both Furu-rakan and Rakan-ji are home to stone statues of rakan and other Buddhist images.

Visits to either site require one to ascend a mountain.  Tradition would dictate a climb up a steep path, but Rakan-ji, home to one of Japan’s three largest collections of rakan statues, has made things slightly easier for visitors.  If you’re not inclined to the steep path to righteousness, there is a chairlift (JPY800) that takes visitors up the mountain to Rakan-ji and then further up to the top of the mountain and back again.

Getting off the chairlift at Rakan-ji,  visitors follow a trail around the mountain and through a large stone arch to reach sight of the temple’s entrance.

Just inside the temple’s wooden gate, which is attached to the cliffside, is a large-mouthed cave, with a wooden lattice covering the opening.  Stepping through the doorway left in the lattice, one finds a large round room with a high ceiling and rakan statues everywhere.  It is said there are 3,700 statues here!  Unfortunately, photos are not permitted.  (Guess this means you have to go see it for yourself.)

The cave is divided by rails and the statues are grouped together in sections.  All along the rails hang ema, votive plaques containing individual prayers, in the unusual shape of rice paddles.  These paddles, also known as sukuupu (scoops), are used as ema as a pun.  The sukuupu shape sounds like sukuu, meaning salvation.

Climbing further and through another stone arch, one finds oneself in the plaza in front of the main temple building, which is also built into the cliffside.  Originally built in 1337 and destroyed by fire in 1943, this structure was built in 1969, supposedly to the original specifications.

CIMG1218 Pay a small fee to ascend to the bell tower, through a labyrinthine corridor along the back of the temple, which is also the back of a cave.  Along the way, you’ll pass through a chamber where you can inscribe a wish/prayer and deposit it in a sort of “mailbox”.  To send your wish/prayer on, ring the bell at the top–once only, please!

Be sure to spend a bit of time enjoying the view–and the engineering of the structure–while you’re there.

To leave the bell tower, there is a small bridge leading to another path that continues around the mountain to a garden and the remnants of other, long-gone, temple buildings.  The views of the valley and mountains beyond are magnificent!  It’s easy to see why those early ascetic monks chose to make their home here.

In spite of its isolated location, Rakan-ji seems quite popular.  It wasn’t thronging with visitors, but we were by no means alone, either.

Furu-rakan, on the other hand, while closer to the main road, attracts far fewer visitors.  (We saw only two other people during our time there.)  There is no shortcut up this mountain; one must climb.  Fortunately, there is a good path, often with stairs, so the short climb isn’t overly strenuous.  Once at that aperture that had attracted our attention in the first place, the place feels both abandoned and “other-worldly”.  There is a deep cave where one can almost sense the spirit of that ascetic Indian who started it all.  Do hermits still come here on retreat, perhaps?  Nearby, a rotting wooden scaffold-like structure still houses an altar and some statues.

But we found simply sitting inside the arch and enjoying the view is the true contemplative reward for the climb.  (sigh)

Furu-rakan and Rakanji are just off Route 500, about a 15-20 minute drive from the center of Nakatsu.  Limited bus service from Nakatsu is also available.

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