Aonominesan Shofuku-ji: Temple in the mountains

Aonominesan Shofuku-ji: Temple in the mountains

Visit this beautiful Buddhist temple set high in the mountains of southern Mie Prefecture for a refreshing, soul cleansing experience after spending the morning on a scenic hike.

Written by Dan Lewis

-Author's Introduction
Originally from the state of Alaska in the USA, Dan Lewis is a long-term resident of Japan. He has lived in Mie, Ishikawa and Gifu Prefecctures, and currently resides in Nagoya, the capitol city of Aichi Prefecture. Dan is an avid fan of technology and nature - two areas that Japan is blessed with! He loves taking "the road less traveled" and discovering new places.

After a hike that lasted about 40 minutes, we arrived at the magnificent entrance gate of the Aonominesan Shofuku-ji Temple. Ornate decorations covered the exterior and the top side of the passages leading through the gate. I was impressed with the great detail of woodwork.

This temple has a strong connection with the AMA culture. The Buddhist goddess of mercy is said to have ridden on a whale to this region. AMA and fishermen come to worship the statue made in that goddess’s image. This temple is not only for the local sea folk however, but also for fishermen from all over Japan. Many come here to worship.

And they would all pass through this beautiful gate. In the right light, the wood of the gate appears as if it were made of gold!

Set between two mountain peaks, and with many large trees surrounding them, most of the temple and its accompanying structures are in the shadows, sometimes only the uppermost floors and roof peaks reaching the direct sunlight.

We had a few minutes to walk around and take in the decorative designs of the buildings. The temple grounds are beautiful. It’s the perfect spot for a break after a hike. Refresh your body and mind. Take a relaxing catnap where the sunlight peeks through. Enjoy the soothing quiet of hundred year-old trees and the soft murmur of a stream passing by the hand washing area, where you can cleanse your body before going to pray at the temple. I particularly liked this red bridge that crossed over a small stream.

We were invited inside to observe a special ceremony that the head priest would be performing soon. Before that, we received a short tour. On the walls of the first room we entered, there were hundreds of wooden plaques with some kind of message and names written on them. These appeared to be donors and each plaque listed exactly how much each donor had given to support this temple.

Still, the temple was full of statues, artifacts and scrolls, I felt that there was so much history here that I could study it for years and still not fully understand.

Our guide explained that during the Edo period, the government closed the borders of Japan, stopping all trade. During this time, a group of fishermen were unable to return home and many ended up in Russia. One was miraculously able to return. He came here to offer prayers of thanks.

There was much I did not understand, but one thing could be said for sure; It’s cold inside the temple! I guess it must be difficult to warm up because of its size, and because it doesn’t get much direct sunlight. We were visiting in October, so I imagine that around January or February it must be much colder!

Thankfully, we were invited to watch a special ritual that involves fire. We gathered in a nearby room where there was an altar and a place for the priest to sit. We were all instructed to sit on the mats around and behind.

This was to be a special ”gomaki“, or “goma” prayer usually performed only for the AMA. It’s similar to another, more common ceremony where the priest performs a ritual to send the desires of believers to heaven. He burns their prayers which are written on scrolls or sticks and the prayer rises to heaven with the smoke. Such desires or wishes, however, were not accepted for this particular ritual, in this temple, those prayers are only accepted from the AMA and other fishermen.

The priest repeated many chants and prayers, occasionally turning the page in his book so he could continue reading them. All the while, using a special long handled spoon to scoop up various incense or other kinds of powder from a myriad of pots and containers laid out around him, and then he added them to the ever-growing flames that danced in front of him. He would stress the words when he thrust the contents of the scoop into the fire. Sometimes, he would add a small tree branch and the fire would crackle as the sap burned loudly.

The priest also offered a prayer for the safety of our group. As he chanted, the priest’s mostly monotonous mantras resonated throughout the room and in my head. I was impressed by his ability to maintain his tone and voice for such long incantations. His expression focused, he made precise, purposeful actions, and he spoke with a certain confidence that comes only from years of practicing rituals and ceremonies.

As he lay more sticks on the fire, the flames rose higher and higher, sending sparks up into the lofts of the prayer chamber, supposedly carrying with them the prayers and desires of the believers. Eventually, the flames reached nearly a meter high and sparks flew three times that, disappearing into the blackness overhead.

Then, as suddenly as he had begun, the priest stopped his chanting, and it was over. He turned to us and motioned for us to follow him.

I’m not sure why, but we visited his kitchen. It was a spacious room, and the centerpiece - and most interesting point of all - was the row of stoves that, as he explained, were over 180 years old, and were still in use today. It was interesting to see and touch some living history that was built in, and used from the Edo Period.

The priest demonstrated one of the three skylights that were built into the high roof of the kitchen. He untied a rope that was fastened to a hook on the wall. When he pulled it, a wooden plate slid up from below the window and covered it, blocking out the light - and preventing the escape of heat, I supposed. It could be secured again by tying the rope back on the hook. Then, if you released it, the wooden plate would slide back down because of the angle, once again revealing the open window, allowing light to enter, and smoke to flow out. A clever contraption indeed! I particularly like the part where you didn’t need to climb up on the roof and wash the windows!

We finished our visit with a snack - lightly sweetened senbei crackers and warm tea. I sat outside in the courtyard and once again enjoyed the sunlight on my back.

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