I have found that the most interesting places are often those where you unexpectedly find yourself. This is my second time living in Japan for the summer with a host family, although on this go round, I’m also enrolled in Princeton in Ishikawa and studying second year Japanese. Despite having already traveled to Japan during high school, the more experiences I have here, the more I realize just how many new experiences are always awaiting me.
We had just left Yamanaka Onsen, a city known for its hot springs, when I explained to my host family that I love creepy Japanese folklore and horror movies. They told me about a temple with a “Gate to Hell.” Although that sounded intimidating, I said YES, I would love to see it! I didn’t realize we were going to see it that same day, but hey, I was up for anything. I was excited to visit another temple that I thought might be as enchanting as those I encountered in Kyoto during my homestay as a high school student. My favorite that I remember is Sanjuusangen-dou, a Buddhist temple with 1001 Kannon statues, as well as other statues of major deities. I found it to be a very calmingly silent and powerful temple.
Upon seeing this new place, I was far from disappointed. When we drove up to Hanibe Gankutuin Temple, I was overwhelmed by the sight of something that I could have imagined in my best dreams as likely as in my worst nightmares: a gargantuan Buddha head. I was both fascinated and intimidated by this somewhat unorthodox temple.
Once we entered the grounds, my host mother explained to me that the small graves in front of the large head were those of children who had been stillborn. Unable to imagine that kind of experience, I felt both an overpowering empathy for their parents' loss, noting the small toys and even juice boxes placed among the markers, but also a sense of inexplicable awe and confusion as to what exactly was the purpose of this temple. When we walked up the path of stairs along the hill I saw some rather eerie life-sized statues of red men with textured skin in a clearing, as well as palm trees, guardian lions, and a large white elephant sculpture. I just tried not to think too much about this assortment of things.
Upon entering the Hanibe cave, guardians wide eyed and in ready stance stood guard on either side of the entrance. Then we entered into the cold air, surrounded by darkness save for the lights illuminating the various carvings along the cave’s walls. 感じが強い！I remarked to my host parents. “The feeling is strong!” I had gotten to the point where I felt that some Japanese phrases did more justice to the idea I wanted to convey than by using English words. What I felt was better expressed in Japanese was the strong aura I sensed from being in a cave with such intense sculptures. What I also found as a pleasant surprise was the abundance of Hindi deities depicted, similar in style to those I observed in Sanjuusangen-dou. I have always been impressed by the old stories that accompany different religions, and enjoyed listening to my host mother read aloud the descriptions of the sculptures and the kanji I could not yet decipher.
We eventually wandered upon what had brought us here in the first place: The Gate to Hell. Although from what I understand the Japanese phrase, “Fushi Jigoku,” is a satirical phrase, some of the portrayals were less than satirical. I had a bit of interest in East Asian religions and superstitions, but I was unaware that Buddhism recognized different types of hell, each type reflecting the different categories of crimes a person may commit in their lifetime. There was a hell for those who told lies, which was the easiest one to determine based on the gruesome image, but since the others included things such as a torture wheel, a fish with a man’s face, and Oni (demons) who ate the eyes, tongues, and ears of people, I could no longer confidently determine the reasoning behind the horrors. At the end of the path through Hell, we saw the deity whose name is Yama, the one who determines who gets to go where, either to Tengoku (Heaven) or to one of the many levels of Jigoku (Hell).
After this encounter we were met with much more soothing sights of Buddha sculptures and people who appeared to be his disciples, surrounding him on either side. Once we left the cave, we traveled farther up the hill and encountered an even larger Buddha depiction, in which the Buddha figure was lying on his side, which is a position that is apparently very rare. Although perhaps there are more interpretations, this particular position of the Buddha statue refers to when Siddhartha Gautama laid on his deathbed and ultimately attained nirvana through his death. Although I did not know this at the time, there was certainly something very peculiar about this particular depiction, but I could not quite put my finger on it. After having reached this highest point of the temple grounds, we returned to the entry. As we drove away, I watched the Buddha head, half expecting the eyes to open.
As creepy as this adventure may sound, I was excited to see a part of Japan that I haven’t seen in the tourist pamphlets, and that I hadn’t already seen pictures of online. In fact, information on Hanibe in English is quite scarce. Knowing there are other places in Japan like Hanibe leaves me with an eagerness to discover new unknowns. And in the meantime I will always continue to seek out what other secrets Japan has to offer that those tourist guides never seem to mention…
~Brittany Lopetrone '17
© 2014 Princeton Traveler