Sengen Shrine is surrounded by enormous cryptomeria trees and features one, standout, ancient ginkgo tree. There’s a main structure which, I heard, is usually closed and only open for special occasions. There are a couple of other structures, as well as trails leading off up the mountain slope. I was interested in seeing the interior of the main building because I heard there was a four-hundred-year-old mandala inside that served as a map of the route up Mt. Fuji. As fortune would have it, because today was the ceremony of the opening of the pilgrimage route for this year, the main shrine building was open, and we were permitted to go inside.
The mandala hung on the wall on the left side at the back. There was a small altar in the middle at the back and behind it was a room with several artifacts displayed. On the right was an illustration of silhouettes of each of the items displayed behind the glass and an explanation in Japanese about them. These, I learned, were all things that previously had been set upon Mt. Fuji, mostly statues of Buddha—some beheaded—and some other statues of stone or wood. All these items had been carried back down off the mountain and were kept inside the shrine.
Upon close inspection, the mandala turned out to be a copy of an original, which made sense as a painting created in the late 16th/early 17th century is nothing to sneeze at. It was still interesting to study. The work was very detailed and depicted life below the mountain and the route all the way to the summit. There were pilgrims heading up to the peak or staying in rock shelters; men doing mizugori and people at shrines and accommodations along the way; and a river with people crossing. Emi and I were talking about it and we asked a man some questions. He called over another gentleman who explained in much detail about the mandala. I’m afraid my Japanese is not good enough to comprehend everything when talking about history and Buddhism.
Another similar illustration hung on the wall inside the front door but there were some differences. Emi noticed how one shrine below and to the west of Sengen Shrine looked much larger in this second mandala. She asked a man in official robes (he turned out too be the head of the shrine) if this other shrine was the head shrine since it was larger. He very sternly replied that Sengen Shrine was the head shrine and there were no mistakes to be made about that.
After we exited the structure, I asked Emi to verify what I thought I had understood. She confirmed that he indeed had stated that Sengen Shrine was the head shrine of the pilgrimage route and on this side of Mt. Fuji. She told me that some other shrines around the mountain also claimed head status or that their route was the oldest pilgrimage route. I recalled that the director had said in an email to all of us that we had to be careful about what we said about the Murayama Route and anything connected to the history and religious background of the area. We couldn’t declare things like, “This is the oldest…” or “This was the very first…”. Superlatives and exactitude were out. If rivals heard such things, there would be claims against NHK.
On the altar in the shrine I had seen an illustration of two men arm-wrestling with the English caption, “Do not gloat; Do not pout”. I asked Emi if she had seen it and what it said in Japanese. She confirmed that the Japanese had expressed the same idea: do not feel pride and do not be a sore loser. I said that it was ironic because it seemed that the people here who were claiming that their shrine was the head and their trail was the oldest route were doing so in pride and did not look kindly upon any notions that they were incorrect. The folly of pride indeed!
The beheaded Buddha statues were a curiosity to me. Why would anyone vandalize statues of the Buddha in a country that practices Buddhism? It was explained to me that during the Sino-Japanese war, Buddhism was considered the religion of the enemy and so the statues were beheaded. I later found several more examples at the summit of the mountain. Of course, once the war was over, Buddhism was acceptable once more.
What bizarre thinking! Buddhism, which came too Japan around 1,500 years ago and became in intrinsic part of Japanese beliefs and culture, was suddenly reviled out of the convenience of war, and then welcomed once more. Not that much earlier in Japanese history, Christianity had been regarded as a foreign enemy and crosses were stamped upon and Christians killed. But in the early years of the Meiji Period, Japan was allies with the West, so Christianity was then alright. I told Emi that this reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984 where there were three supernations and two were always allies fighting against the third. But near the end of the book, the “allies” abruptly become the enemy and the previous enemy now the ally. Real life is stranger than fiction.
A third case of puzzling human thinking was explained to us, but because of my ill confidence in my Japanese comprehension ability, I can’t be certain if I understood everything perfectly. The objects on display at the back of the shrine could be accessed by simply opening two sliding wood-framed doors fitted with windows. Of course we didn’t try to open those doors, but I later heard that they were alarmed because a theft had occurred in the past. The thieves were Koreans who had stolen the artifacts under the pretense that since Buddhism had come to Japan through the Korean peninsula, these items were in rightfully the heritage and property of Korea. This seemed completely ludicrous to me as everyone knows that Buddhism began in India and had come to the Far East through China. Korea was a convenient route to reach Japan.
So the story was that Koreans stole the artifacts and brought them back to Korea where the thieves were then tried in a Korean court and found not guilty because the court sided with them, agreeing that these items were indeed a part of Korean heritage. It sounds so utterly ridiculous that I really have to question whether or not I misunderstood some of what was said or if it was a story concocted to vilify Koreans (as that kind of thing does happen in Japan). Nevertheless, the doors were alarmed and the shrine usually closed to the public.
Within a short time, people began gathering at the shrine, and a busload of junior high school students arrived. The ceremony to open the pilgrimage route for the year was about to begin.