yamamoto’s hidden sacred grotto

05Feb06

After a delicious lunch with Yo-chan and Akita-kun at a soba-ya, the three of us took the Takarazuka line to Yamamoto station, a small station just at the edge of Osaka’s urban sprawl. Yo-chan, who knows all the best places, led us up into the mountains on a path that closely followed the windings of a small creek. As we climbed the path, habitations became sparser and it began to feel less like Japan and more like some of the rural outpost areas — Guerneville, for example — that can be found in Northern California. As the concrete gave way to dirt we passed an ancient, rusty, skylark-blue car with weeds growing through the hood, and then we were into the forest proper. On our left there was an area of about twenty buildings — many of them resembling shacks — that I was later told by Akita were the residences of people who were seeking spiritual guidance from a local shamanic healer. Further up the mountain we passed a temple complex that was apparently constructed in the Korean style. According to Akita and Yoichi, one of the names associated with this temple is Lee, a Korean name, though neither of them could tell my why there would be a Korean-style temple here, or what its history might be.

As we climbed further up the mountain trail we began to pass several trailside shrines — both Shinto and Buddhist — with offerings of fresh flowers and sake placed in front of them. My favorite of these featured a pair of tanuki guarding the entrance to a small rock cave that held several small ceramic Buddha figures, as well as a stone that was adorned with a Jizo bib. There were very few hikers on this trail, and when we finally reached the waterfall at the trail’s end, we got to spend a good half an hour or so by ourselves before a single visitor appeared, an old man who was coming to worship at the water.

The trail ended amid a grotto formed by several enormous granite rock faces. On one side of the grotto a waterfall, the source of the creek we had followed, fell into a beautiful aquamarine pool. The entire grotto echoed with the soft sound of the fall, and a blue-green sense made itself perambulant (“a green thought in a green shade”). The fall and the pool were clearly the central spiritual entities of the grotto, and the shrine area was built around them in the same way that waves lap outward from a pond-thrown pebble. There were several Jizo figures surrounding the pool area, and six or seven small Shinto shrines as well. In the back of the grotto there were steps leading up to a shrine area that was situated in a crack in the rock that formed a small cave. It’s hard to convey an accurate sense of the “aura” of this place, though I can definitely say that it had more of a sense of present, lived-in spirituality than many of the more popular sites I’ve been too, and a sense of secret hush, or calm, as well. In fact, as we walked back, we found many small trails leading off to the side and when we investigated one of these we found that it led across a bridge of stepping stones and then up into a small series of caves that held several smaller Buddhist and Shinto shrine areas. Indeed, it was fairly clear that at least some of the caves, which were just about the size for one person to fit inside while sitting in the lotus position, had been used fairly recently for the purposes of meditation. In fact, the whole spot fits the purpose of meditation, and I think it’s a place I will want to return to often.

Here’s a shot of the waterfall, and the pool below it. The cutout in the rock next to the posts is actually the top of a set of stone stairs that lead down into the pool, presumably so devotees can bathe themselves and perhaps practice meditation under the waterfall.

Three of the posts that surround the sacred pool.

This is a Jizo figure that is wearing a Kitty-chan (Hello Kitty) bib. While on the surface this may appear to be yet another clash of kitsch and tradition, in fact this particular combination is quite poignant. Jizo figures represent Boddhisatvas that are specifically associated with children and who are thought to be their protectors and guides in the afterlife. As anyone who has ever known a child infatuated with Hello Kitty, Kitty-chan functions as an incredible icon for children, illuminating their emotional space — reverence for Kitty-chan among children can almost reach the force of religion. This Kitty-chan Jizo is one of the most thoughtful and heartfelt gestures that I’ve come across in recent memory.

One of many cave shrines to be found near the central waterfall complex.

I’m not sure what precisely marks these Jizo figures as Korean-style figures, but apparently that’s what they are. We came across these outside of a temple complex that has some relationship to Korea, though nobody could quite figure out what.

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