Shinran Tour: Life in Exile (Part II)

Shinran statue at Gochi Kokubunji temple, Niigata, Japan

By Rev. Ken Yamada

Banished from the capital, Shinran Shonin was sent faraway to Echigo province in 13th Century Japan. In April, we journeyed there—present-day Niigata prefecture—where he lived in exile, deepening his understanding of human existence.

This year marks the 850th Birthday of Shinran Shonin and the 800th Anniversary of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism’s founding. A group of us from the North America District traveled to Kyoto to attend the commemoration at Higashi Honganji’s main temple and visit historic sites connected to the life of Jodo Shinshu’s founder. (Read this story’s Part I)

After seeing where Shinran was ordained as a child, trained as a monk on Mt. Hiei, first met his teacher Hōnen, and other important sites, we departed Kyoto for the long drive to Niigata.

Our tour bus followed a curving highway through tree covered mountains, gradually reaching the open fields, farm houses and small villages of Fukui Prefecture. Heading northeast, eventually the blue water of the Japan Sea appeared as we traveled along the coast.

Fukui Prefecture

The bus pulled up to a hillside parking lot. As we got off, brisk wind chilled our faces. We arrived at Tōjinbō Cliffs, ancient rock formations shaped by ocean waves, designated a national monument. Ancient legends abound—one telling of villagers throwing a corrupt priest into the water; another saying a monk fell in love with a princess, but was pushed off the cliffs by a rival. His vengeful ghost haunted the shores by stirring vicious waves, wind and rain, until a memorial service held for him quieted the storms.

Today Tōjinbō is a tourist spot, offering fresh seafood, souvenirs and squid ink flavored ice cream. In a nearby restaurant, we feasted on local delicacies, including clams, grilled shrimp, deep fried fish, soba noodles and pickled vegetables, served by friendly locals who reminded me of the “Fujinkai” women’s group at our temple back home.

Anyone for squid ink ice cream?

A short drive brought us to Yoshizaki, where Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499) built a temple that quickly attracted Shinshu followers across the region. In 1471, Rennyo settled in the area after Mt. Hiei warrior monks burned down Honganji temple in Kyoto a few years before.

At the time, Japan faced political upheaval and violent uprisings. Warlords ruled the land, while military governors imposed harsh rules and taxation on commoners. Large groups of Shinshu followers, known as “ikkō ikki,” rebelled, rioted, and took up arms, especially in Kaga, a province close to Yoshizaki.

Consequently, Rennyo built the temple on a hilltop, strategically located if attacked. Shinshu followers flocked to the area, settling below, forming a bustling village. However, the temple grounds weren’t impregnable—at one point, an arson fire destroyed the main hall. Here, Rennyo began writing letters to followers (Japanese: Ofumi), encouraging them to gain faith, explaining Shinshu teachings and imploring them to seriously seek spirituality.

His letter written in 1473 reads:

About the beginning of the fourth month of the third year of Bunmei (1471), I slipped away without any settled plan from a place near Miidera’s southern branch temple at Otsu in the Shiga District of Omi province, and travelled to Echizen and Kaga. Then, as this site—Yoshizaki, in the Hosorogi district of Echizen province—was particularly appealing, we made a clearing on the mountain, which for many years was the habitat of wild beasts…

 Meanwhile, priests and laypeople, men and women, flocked here; but this appears to have no purpose and I’ve prohibited their coming and going this year. In my mind, the fundamental reason for being in this place is that, having been born in the human realm and having met the Buddha-Dharma that’s difficult to meet, it’s shameful if one falls vainly into hell. Thus, I’ve reached a judgement that people who are unconcerned about decisively settling nenbutsu faith and attaining birth in the Pure Land should not gather here. Because what’s fundamental is not reputation and personal gain but concern for enlightenment in the afterlife. Therefore let there be no misinterpretation by those who see or hear this.

At Yoshizaki, Rennyo brought innovative and important change to Jodo Shinshu. For instance, he established chanting of Shoshinge, Shinran’s hymns, as a standard service ritual, distributed scrolls with “Namu Amida Butsu” written in Chinese characters, and wrote half of his 178 letters.

Around the time when Rennyo was building Yoshizaki, four of his daughters passed away. Previously, his first wife passed away, followed later by the death of a second wife. Consequently, like Shinran, Rennyo was acutely aware of women’s suffering, a theme he often addressed in letters.

As our bus parked at Yoshizaki, I was surprised to see a large lot filled with cars and buses, with tourists flocking to an adjoining souvenir store. A row of motorcycles stood in front of a snack shack selling ice cream and sodas.

Food stalls lined the walkway. Although Rennyo’s temple no longer exists, both Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji built temples side-by-side at the foot of the hill.

The hilltop is now a park that was filled with cherry trees in late season bloom, due to the region’s long winters. A huge statue of Rennyo stood in the middle, filling the sky before us.

Curiously, a small statue of a mermaid-like woman stood off to one side in the shadow of a tree. Our guide explained she represented a prostitute, who was listening to Rennyo. The scene truly expressed Rennyo’s teachings, inspired by Shinran. Anyone—male or female, rich or poor, good or bad, even outcasts of society—could hear the Buddha dharma and become Nenbutsu followers.

In a hymn, Shinran wrote:

The greater the ice, the greater the water;

The greater the hindrance, the greater the virtue.

-Koso Wasan 40

In the Tannisho, Shinran said:

Even a virtuous person can attain birth in the Pure land, 

How much more easily a wicked person. 

Rennyo’s contributions are commemorated annually in April, with followers making a pilgrimage, walking from Higashi Honganji’s main temple in Kyoto to Yoshizaki, carrying a portable shrine (Japanese: mikoshi) containing Rennyo’s image.  After a special service is held, the shrine is carried back to Kyoto

Leaving Yoshizaki, we drove to Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, which in the Edo Period (1603-1868) rose to prominence as a castle town and center of economics and culture. We stopped at Higashi Honganji’s Kanazawa Betsuin, where an overhead enclosed walkway connected the temple with a side building and offices. This large temple symbolizes the strength of Shinshu belief in the area.

Coming to meet us was Rev. Tatsuru Kigoshi, who served in the U.S. at Berkeley Higashi Honganji temple (1959-1967) and later became our denomination’s chief administrator in Kyoto. He was my first Japanese language teacher when I was child in the 1960s. Now in his 90s, we were happy to see him and his daughter.

The next day, our bus continued along the coast—the Japan sea on the left and snow-capped mountains of the Japan Alps on the right, an amazing site for Californians who must drive hours from the ocean to see snow.

At one point, the mountains jutted out to the sea, forcing the highway onto an elevated roadway hugging the shoreline. Numerous tunnels, some a mile long, cut through the mountains, marvels of engineering.

We arrived in Jōetsu, a coastal town where Shinran Shonin first lived in exile beginning in 1207. After being banned from Kyoto with his teacher Hōnen Shonin and other senior disciples, he walked to the coast, boarded a boat and landed at Kotogahama beach in Echigo Province, present-day Niigata. An engraved rock marks the spot where he arrived, reminding me of Plymouth Rock.

Our local guide explained how the area faces North Korea, casually mentioning how several years ago a local man was nearly kidnapped by foreign agents, but fought them off with his judo skills.

From the beach, we walked through a quiet neighborhood to Gochi Kokubunji temple. After first arriving, Shinran lived with two disciples in a hut next to the temple. Strangely, imprints in concrete supposedly represented Shinran footsteps and a rock nearby was where he presumably sat. Behind them was a statue of Shinran.

Could these be Shinran’s footsteps?

Built in the eighth century, Gochi Kokubunji temple symbolizes Japan’s early Buddhist tradition, reflecting strong Chinese influences. Inside the wooden structure sat five Buddha statues, representing Shakyamuni (Historical Buddha), Amida (Wisdom and Compassion Buddha), Dainichi (Cosmic Buddha), Yakushi (Medicine Buddha), and Hōshō (Meditation Buddha). A colored cord extended from the hand of each Buddha, draped across the ceiling and tied together as one rope hanging down above a donation box outside the front entrance. Visitors may pull the chord, pray, and supposedly feel a connection to the Buddhas inside.

Gochi Kokubunji temple

Across the grounds towered a three-story wooden pagoda. The main entrance opened to a large wooden gate with guardian deities standing on each side.

Shinran eventually moved to another residence within the village, where he lived with his wife Eshinni and family. In 1930, Nishi Honganji built Kokufu Betsuin temple to mark the location.

Kokufu Betsuin

Kokufu’s central altar displays both an Amida Buddha statue and Shinran’s image, a highly unusual design honoring Jodo Shinshu’s founder.

Eshinni’s image is prominently displayed on a side altar.

Paintings inside the temple depict Shinran’s life in the area.

We drove to the town’s outskirts to Eshin-no-sato museum, which honors Eshinni, featuring her handwriting, images and stories. She was a source of strength for Shinran and their children who also became a devout Nenbutsu follower. Discovery of her letters in modern times provided insight into Shinran’s life. Her burial place, said to be marked by a small monument of stacked stones, was discovered here.

In the distance lay spectacular snowcapped mountain peaks against a cloudy sky.

The next day, we drove to Gonenji temple to visit Rev. Kōen Hosokawa. The thriving temple, located in Niigata’s countryside, is supported by a strong community of farming families. On site are a preschool, large social hall, giant belltower, and graveyard. The temple was being renovated, including installation of a new roof. Rev. Hosokawa (formerly Rev. Mishima), served for several years as a minister in Southern California.

Gonenji temple social hall

In the afternoon, we drove through apple tree groves, arriving in Obuse, home to artisans, bakers, sake makers, and craftsman. The village is famous for chestnuts, featuring chestnut flavored pastries, foods and ice cream. Strolling the quiet, unhurried streets, we walked narrow paths through manicured gardens of private homes open to the public and visited a museum devoted to Hokusai (1760-1849), the famous artist who once lived there.

Continuing south, we stayed the night in Nagano City. In the morning, we visited Zenkōji temple, one of Japan’s most famous temples. Built in 7th Century Japan, it represents Buddhism’s early history in Japan. Its main image, brought from India and rumored to be Japan’s first Buddhist statue, is believed to lead followers to the Pure Land. However, it’s been hidden from view since 654 C.E., and consequently is referred to as a “Secret Buddha” (Japanese: hibutsu).  Not even the temple’s abbot is allowed to see it, although a replica is displayed once every six years in a special ceremony.

Zenkōji temple, Nagano Prefecture

I was reminded how Shinran disowned his son Zenran who claimed to know “secret teachings.” Shinran adamantly dismissed any secrets, explaining what he taught was based on his teacher Honen’s words.

I learned that from the temple’s inner chamber, a narrow staircase leads to a completely dark corridor, where worshippers grope the walls, hoping to touch a hanging metal key, representing the Key to the Western Paradise of Amida Buddha. A statue of Binzuru, a physician and follower of Shakyamuni Buddha, sits near the temple’s entrance. Visitors happily touch the statue in hopes their ailments will be cured.

A typical image of Binzuru (Todaiji temple, Nara)

After Shinran’s exile was lifted, he walked the countryside, traveled to distant areas and met with followers. When he visited Zenkōji in winter, no flowers were available and he could only offer pine branches at the altar. A statue of Shinran commemorates his visit.

Walking through the huge temple grounds, overseen jointly by both Tendai and Jōdō-shu priests, past Jizo Bosatsu statues, who are protectors of children and travelers, and large temple gates with guardian dieties, we saw a residence on one side displaying a sign showing where Shinran stayed when he visited.

Upon entering Zenkōji’s main temple, I was startled to see a gift shop inside selling good luck charms, trinkets and Buddhist beads. The trinkets, secret Buddha, mysterious passage way, and mystical statue said to cure physical ailments, all made me recall superstitious practices Shinran must have encountered in the countryside, leading him to caution against such beliefs. I wondered if Shinran shared my feelings when visiting these ancient temples.

Shinran wrote:

Take refuge in the Buddha, take refuge in the Dharma, take refuge in the Sangha. Do not serve other teachings, do not worship devas, do not enshrine spirits, do not heed days considered lucky.

-Kyōgyōshinshō, Chapter 6, Vol. 2

After Shinran wandered this countryside, he eventually returned to Kyoto, where he lived the rest of his life. We caught a glimpse of his life in this region and our trip was coming to a close. After leaving Zenkōji, we boarded a bullet train headed for Tokyo.

Shinran Shonin, Berkeley Higashi Honganji temple, California

In this region, Shinran encountered the lives and beliefs of common folk, endured severe weather, and the harsh realities of everyday life. He walked great distances, his heartiness and physical strength depicted in statues showing him with sturdy body and strong legs, a contrast with the bony, aging figure on our temple’s altar. Seeing this aspect of his life brings alive more fully his words and teachings. What better way to honor Shinran on his 850th birthday.

Our route (credit: Google maps)

In case you missed:

Read: Shinran Shonin 850th Birthday Tour (Part I)

Watch: Video presentation previewing Shinran’s 850th Birthday Observance

-Rev. Yamada is editor at Higashi Honganji’s Shinshu Center of America