Rakan-ji, one of our favourite temples, and the Yabakei Gorge 羅漢寺、耶馬溪
Wake in Nakatsu michi-no-eki (roadside station) on a cold bright morning. This is the second time to spend the night at this michi-no-eki and it stands up well to a return visit. Parking, at the far end, from the truck park, by the side of the information centre is quiet, secluded, to some extent, and near the toilet. Good clean facilities but I don’t recall any flowers.
This michi-no-eki has a restaurant that also provides take out and a large market selling local vegetables, meat, fish ,specialty, Bento and so on. So large, in fact, that they provide shopping trollies something unusual in a michi-no-eki. D. took the opportunity to buy provisions, including her own lunch bento.
Today, we head home but, on the way, take in Rakan-ji. This temple we have visited before, but it is, perhaps, our favourite temple in all Japan. It gives the lie to the saying “If you have seen one Japanese temple and you have seen them all”. Rakan-ji is not large or particularly famous, but it is very old and unusual. This area of north Kyushu has a geography of towering, rock pinnacles, reminiscent of Chinese Sumi-e. Rakan-ji is located high on one of these rock faces built partially into the overhanging rock.
There is a lift to carry visitors up to the temple but, unless you are infirm, I suggest you walk. The way is not that long or steep and the path is littered with old, stone carvings of Buddhist deities and is a beautiful walk.
Once at the top, the temple is stretched out along and indented into the cliff face. The most interesting part for me was the open, roofed hall, partly in a cave, housing more than 3700 stone statues. What intrigues me about these particular figures is that they are all individuals. they don’t have the standard serene expression but the range of human emotion. These ‘500 Arhats’ are the oldest in Japan.
I thought they looked to be from different eras and of different stone. But, apparently, they date from the mid 14th. century and are the work of two monks. Some have clearly been charred by fire and this temple burnt down in 1943. Only the main gate was untouched.
Dragging yourself away for these mesmerizing figures, you reach the main buildings which are not that interesting in themselves except that they emerge from the rock face and cling to a narrow ledge. The views over the expanse below are splendid.
At this point, we discover that you can, on payment of 150 yen, wander a passage behind the temple buildings, along the indented rock face, through a kind of maze of plywood partitions, past various small alters, viewing the construction of the roof and how it fits into the cliff until, over an unlikely bridge, you emerge on the other side into a garden. This garden does not compare to the gardens of Manshuin in Kyoto, for example, but it has relatively gently sloping paths meandering around Azalea bushes and a pavilion you can sit in and admire the world below. To create any kind of garden in such a precarious position deserves recognition.
I have spent a lot of time praising this place, enough! Go a see it for yourself. Don’t take any pictures though as that is not, we discovered, allowed inside the gate at the bottom.
Once on our way, we are heading for Yabakei Gorge, we pass Ao-no-domon where a monk famously dug a tunnel. (See Round Kyushu). When we arrive at the gorge, the day is beginning to cloud over though it is still unseasonably warm. This also means that the crags emerging from the trees are shades of grey and not conducive to photos.
This spot is famous for Momiji (Japanese Maple) viewing, but the leaves are, for the most part, dried and shrivelled on the ground. The village itself has also seen better days. The road runs through the middle and the houses, hotels and gift shops open right onto the street. There are no pavements. A significant percentage of the buildings are derelict. The spectacular scenery remains, but the tastes and mobility of the tourists have changed. People still come to view the autumn leaves and marvel at the towering rocks, but to stay in this place or buy the goods on sale in the numerous shops is way too Showa.
The author is a long term resident of Japan who has and continues to travel the country extensively. Avoiding highways where possible, the author has driven from Kagoshima in Kyushu to Wakanai in Hokkaido covering 20,000 plus kilometres and counting.