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Month: April 2015

Old Kyoto and Hidden Tales of Magic at Sanzen-in

Today’s Kyoto is increasingly getting disfigured by Pachinko buildings, convenience stores, and modern high-rises. Yet this city still harbors some stunning assets, particularly temples and shrines, which testify to its previous beauty. One of them is the Sanzen-in 三千院, in the Ōhara 大原 area Northeast of Kyoto.

View from one the Sanzen-in’s windows

Let me share with you one remarkable image found in this temple, which conjures tales of magic and ancient beliefs. Guess what the following picture represents:

Ganzan Daishi

 Well, as indicated on the caption, this demonic figure is called Ganzan Daishi 元三大師. So far so good but what is more surprising is that this is one of the posthumous names given to Ryōgen 良源 (912–985), the eighteenth abbot of the Tendai school.

The belief is that he had acquired supernatural powers (reigen 靈驗), in particular the ability to transform his body into that of a demon. According to legend, this proved useful when the whole area was struck by an epidemic and he was himself suffering from high fever. He swiftly transformed into a horned demon, thus frightening the demon who had come to terminate his life. At that time, there was a widespread belief in epidemic deities (yakubyōgami 疫病神). Thereafter, images of the horned Ganzan Daishi, also known as Tsuno Daishi 角大師, were used to ward off evil and illnesses. Here is a modern example of an amulet from Jindaiji 深大寺 in Chōfu, Tokyo metropolitan area:

Ganzan Daishi wooden plaque at Jindaiji

Ganzan Daishi wooden plaque at Jindaij

What also picks our curiosity is the resemblance of this image with Daoist talismans. These similarities would require further research. The other fascinating aspect is that the same Ganzan Daishi is credited for having invented the usage of O-mikuji 御籤 (fortunes written on strips of paper). One doesn’t need supernatural powers to see the resemblance with similar divination devices used in China (língqiān 靈籤), often made of wood.

The Buddha Amida flanked by two Bodhisattvas, Ōjō Gokuraku-in 往生極楽院 hall within Sanzen-in

Should you wish to see more of the Sanzen-in, you can visit my photo gallery.

A Path Toward Japan’s Reconciliation with Asia

This post resembles a bottle thrown into the ocean with a message inside. Will anyone pick it up, or will it keep drifting with all the meaningless information clouding our senses and reason? It results from a dream I had in October 2014. Although it may sound presumptuous, this message is titled “Open Letter to Asia: Soul-Searching on the Occasion of the Seventieth Commemoration of the Pacific War and Suggestions for Japan’s Reconciliation with Asia.” Let me append the full text below. A PDF version if available from the following links: English PDF versionJapanese PDF version, English and Japanese bilingual version. These files are designed to be in the public domain. It depends on each of you whether these small seeds grow. It is only a matter of finding the right soil and the proper conditions, isn’t it? I welcome suggestions for improving the wording in either language, or constructive criticism of the content. If you agree with what is being said, you are encouraged to circulate this message to friends or acquaintances, or even to translate this message into your own language. In this case, please be kind enough to leave a note in the comments. May all beings be happy!


The little piece of rock we call home. Yet this is also our mother Gaia.

Open Letter to Asia

Soul-Searching on the Occasion of the Seventieth Commemoration of the Pacific War and Suggestions for Japan’s Reconciliation with Asia

Although seventy years have elapsed since the conclusion of the Pacific War, wounds are still vivid and even tend to be exacerbated by the lack of sincere reflection and unambiguous apology from the Japanese government. Those of us who love Japan’s traditional emphasis on sincerity (makoto) cannot watch this scene without being appalled and without thinking that with minimal effort Japan could reconcile with its neighbors and finally turn the page of its militaristic past. Coming to terms with past atrocities may sound difficult but is the only way forward. Germany has shown that it is possible. This nevertheless implies genuine reflection on the complex historical factors that led Japan to lose touch with the rest of Asia. It should also be emphasized that this reflection is not limited to Japan and could apply to any country losing touch with reality and treading the path of militarism. Here are a few suggestions on how to express such sincere reflection and apology in the spirit of this open letter. Precisely because nothing can be expected from the Japanese government, intellectuals and private citizens feeling a sense of responsibility must take the lead.

  • Although words cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted on so many people and cannot revive those who died because of absurd ideologies, we express our deepest remorse for the past actions of the Japanese army and civilians abroad. Even if they initially derived from the desire to compete with colonial powers, we feel ashamed by the unfortunate policies followed in Asia since the Meiji era, which led to such devastating militarism until 1945 and harmed so many individuals across the world. There is no justification for the mad militaristic ideology that was used throughout these years to kill and oppress people even within Japan.
  • When necessary, we, intellectuals and responsible citizens, have the duty to stand against our own government and denounce its unjust belligerent actions, its exploitation of other people inside or outside the national boundaries, and to oppose the use of misleading rhetoric to justify such actions. We vow never to repeat mistakes done during the Pacific War.
  • We can only express our sincerest apology and vow never to let similar barbarous acts be repeated, but a small awareness can trigger huge changes. May all individuals be mindful of their actions and of their consequences, and pledge to never blindly follow warmongers!

Written on April 19, 2015.

Oriental Cherry Blossoms: Cliché, Symbol of Impermanence, or What?

Kyoto is a place of contrast, and the quick transition from its freezing winter to an explosion of blooming trees is not the least of them. When is the turning point, then? One popular belief is that it coincides with the Buddhist ritual called Mizutori (technically Shunie 修二会 but known as Omizutori お水取り) taking place at the Nigatsudō 二月堂, a subtemple of Tōdaiji 東大寺 in Nara. It used to be performed between the first and the fifteenth day of the second lunar month but now takes place between March first and fourteen. Once this ritual involving a spectacular display of huge burning torches being shaken across the temple (Otaimatsu お松明) is over, this is is believed to mark the end of winter. You can watch a video here: This year (2015), the cold seems to have miraculously abated on March 13, right after the peak of this ceremony.

Now to the cherry blossoms. Let me introduce the topic with a picture taken today:

Well, this is so pink that it seems almost artificial. Maybe you prefer the white ones:

Aesthetically speaking, I think that the contrast between the various colors is what makes these trees so stunning for a few days:

These petals will soon scatter, following the universal law that whatever is composed eventually dissipates and returns to a state of dispersion. Of course, human beings are no exception but it does not prevent them from enjoying their own transitoriness or the flowers’.

Instead of pontificating about the philosophical implications of the above, dear reader, I want you to make your own conclusions. Let me conclude with yet another color:

Should you wish to see more, you can visit the photo gallery that I just created: