Spiritual Sojourns (Part 2) – Bewitched in Chikubushima, Lake Biwa

“Chi ku bu shi ma” (竹生島).

Now, say this again more quickly: “Chi-ku-bu-shi-ma”.

Repeat this five times.

竹生島! * 竹生島! * 竹生島!! * 竹生島!! * 竹生島!!!

This tongue twister of a name is NOT a joke. Not only is it a real island, but also one that happens to be one of the top three spiritual spots located in the mysterious yet enchantingly beautiful Lake Biwa, in Shiga Prefecture.

Measuring only two kilometres across, the first thing that you will notice as your ferry from Nagahama (there’s also another ferry that goes to this island from Imazu Port in Takashima City) approaches the island is this ashen-white torii gate, called the Ryujin Haisho (龍神拝所), dedicated to the Dragon God or Ryujin (龍神). For me, this torii gate exudes an inexplicably strong aura of energy, and its cliff-like perch over the emerald waters resembles a gateway for the spirits.DSC08609To get here, however, you would need to ascend a long flight of stone stairs – 165, to be precise – which make up what is called the Inori-no-Ishidan (祈りの石段), or literally translated “Stone Steps of Prayer”.

Thankfully, there’s a right fork midway up the stairs that leads straight to the island’s main Shinto shrine, Tsukubusuma Shrine (都久夫須麻神社). Built in AD420, the shrine’s main hall (本殿) is a designated National Treasure. DSC08607DSC08608Directly opposite (or facing) the shrine is a wooden pavilion that houses the Ryujin’s miniature altar, and the lookout onto the Ryujin Haisho, littered with thousands of clay dish fragments.

The myth goes that if you are able to toss two dishes (one with your name written on it while the other bears your wish) through the torii gate, Ryujin will grant you your wish.

I didn’t buy or toss any clay dish, however but it was just as enjoyable watching others try their luck.

A wooden corridor, called the Funa-roka (舟廊下) because it was supposedly constructed from Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s boat, leads to the Kannon Hall and Karamon Gate (#30 spot on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage 西国観音参詣), now undergoing major restoration.dsc08634_blogEmerging from the hall, you will be greeted by the imposingly massive Hogon-ji (宝厳寺), whose construction dates back to AD724 upon an imperial edict during the reign of Shomu (聖武天皇) after supposedly having received a divine message from the Sun Goddess.

The temple is thus dedicated to the Benzaiten (弁才天), God of wealth, music and eloquence, who according to the divine message, descended on the island. It’s only one of three temples in Japan dedicated to the Benzaiten, the other two being Itsukushima (厳島神社) in Miyajima (宮島) and Enoshima (江ノ島)  in Kamakura (鎌倉).dsc08630_blogIf you haven’t tossed your wish at the Ryujin Haisho earlier, why not jot it down on a piece of paper and then encapsulate it in one of these adorable red darumas (達摩). It’s tempting to bring one of these home but unfortunately, you would have to leave it at the altar for your wish to come true!!

And just to make sure no spirit follows you on your way back to the ferry jetty, do not look back over your shoulders as you descend the stone steps of the Inori-no-Ishidan (祈りの石段), past this massive eroded torii gate.    LSDSC08642

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Spiritual Sojourns (Part 1) – Lake Biwa, Shiga

DSC03788Fall is almost over in Hokkaido, although you wouldn’t know that here in sunny Singapore. (To be honest, me neither. It’s almost two months since I moved back for good from Japan).DSC03819Fall is the best season to visit Hokkaido or anywhere in Japan in my opinion, because the islands (save for Okinawa) will be slowly clad in a mesmerising patchwork of crimson, mandarin and golden hues from north to south, beginning with Hokkaido. With Halloween round the corner, fall is also the best season for ghost stories (although some believe summer to be the best).

Whatever your seasonal/spiritual inclinations, this post is a discussion of neither.Rather, it’s the second series of a feature titled “Spirited Away” that I first penned this April. Just a quick recap, that feature seeks to introduce some of the so-called “power spots” in Japan, places where one can experience a spiritual energy. However, in place of “power spots”, I have proposed the term “spiritual spots” because although these sites do exude a particular energy, said energy may not be the positive or zen-like calmness expounded in other sources.

I would also like to reiterate the disclaimer that experiences at these ‘spiritual spots’ are purely personal, so if you are an atheist, just read it with a spoonful of salt.Continuing from my summer trip around the Greater Kyoto area in Japan, I spent the last one and a half weeks circumnavigating Lake Biwa or Biwa-ko (琵琶湖), as it is locally known. Now, if you’ve never been to Lake Biwa or Shiga Prefecture, please seriously consider it for your next itinerary in Japan.Covering an area of 670.3 square kilometres – that’s almost the same size as the whole island nation of Singapore – Lake Biwa is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. It’s also possibly one of the most beautiful places in Japan to enjoy the sunset. Its name came from the lake’s resemblance to a traditional Japanese/Chinese stringed instrument of the same name.Lake Biwa also happens to be one of the top spiritual spots in Japan, from my experience.Not surprisingly, there are many folklore associated with the lake as well.

One such story tells of fireballs being spotted at the lake, and that used to destroy fishermen’s boats in a bygone era. Another tells of a girl who drowned while carrying out her vow to sail across the lake on the 25th of February (apparently, that’s when the lake is at its most choppy self) in a bathtub to meet his lover – a priest!!DSC08685_blog.jpgOne of my main reasons for visiting Lake Biwa is the Shirahige Jinja, or Shirahige Shrine (白鬚神社), and its enchanting floating torii gate. In Japanese shinto, torii gates mark the entrance to the sacred, or holy grounds.

Most visitors to Japan are familiar with the floating vermilion torii at Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社) in Miyajima, off Hiroshima. However, the Shirahige floating torii is probably the least known of the three, the second one being Hakone Shrine’s touristy showpiece in Lake Ashinoko, Hakone. Shirahige’s relative obscurity also means that unlike Kyoto’s Fushimi-inari (伏見稲荷大社) or Miyajima’s Itsukushima Shrine, there’s no well-trodden path that leads to it.dsc08715_blogIn fact, if you do not have your own set of wheels, the trek to this lakeside temple might even be a potentially life endangering affair.While making my way there on foot from Omi-Takashima Station (近江高島駅), I had to tread carefully along the side of an expressway, staying as close as I could to the fenders. And even so, I had to admit, I was intimidated by the speeding cars and my heart skipped several beats when container trucks thundered past me.Notice that the entrance to the temple opens straight onto the expressway (please see photo above). The safety cones have been strategically placed there so that visitors do not walk straight into oncoming traffic. Compared to the floating torii gate, the main shrine actually felt like an abandoned relic.

On the day I visited, there was no beautiful sunset, unfortunately. In fact, ominous black clouds blanketed the evening sky, and I sensed a storm brewing over the lake. Thankfully, the weather held up well enough, and only a drizzle accompanied me while I was there.

Even amid the darkness, I couldn’t help but sat there gazing at this for a good one hour.   LSdsc08693_blog