Photo:Photo by Maculosae tegmine lyncis on Wikimedia Commons

Kunisaki Peninsula and Its Unique Religious Culture – Rokugo Manzan

High settled near the peak of Mount Futago, the temple Futago-ji stands through time with its Nio guardian statues at the entrance. Here is the center of Rokugo Manzan, where Buddhism and Shintoism intertwined, blending along with local mountain worshipers and creating its own unique religious culture.

What is Rokugo Manzan? Not to confuse it with rakugo and manzai like I did first, it is actually the collective name for temples and shrines built in Kunisaki Peninsula, northern Oita Prefecture. Known for its Shiitake mushroom production, the peninsula is covered in forests and farmlands, listed by the FAO as one of the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) for its Sawtooth Oak forests as well as interlinked irrigation ponds. In the past, the region was divided into six, hence the name Rokugo Manzan (六郷満山), which literally translates into “Six Towns, Full Mountain”.

Typical Kunisaki landscape.

The first time I went to Kunisaki Peninsula, I hadn’t known a single thing about what I’ve written above. I’ve only ever heard of the place before, when I picked up a brochure of Fuki-ji Temple, another famous temple in the area, known for being the oldest wooden structure in Kyushu and a designated National Treasure.

It was mid-autumn when I went there with my college Shamisen Club and our teacher’s shamisen school members. We were going to perform, but in what occasion exactly, I hadn’t known. By car, we traveled through rustic areas of sparse houses and lush green, up to the mountains where I couldn’t even spot a bus stop. It was a secluded temple called Reisen-ji, that stood along with another temple and a shrine. A small stage was propped up at the yard, banners were hung, the monks and locals going around preparing for the show. When the night fell, torches were lit up and the performance began with something that was akin to a ritual dance; I was left mesmerized by the costumes, the masks, and the beatings of the drums.

Only much later I found out what’s the unfamiliar, somewhat mystical performance all about, it was a light-up event to commemorate the 1,300 years founding of Rokugo Manzan.

As shamisen were playing the nagauta, “Kanjincho”, the monks joined in with their chantings.

I returned to Kunisaki not long after, this time on a field trip and armed with information. One of the lectures I was taking focused on GIAHS, so the professor arranged for the class to go see directly one of the actual sites.

Our first stop was the Futago-ji Temple, said to be founded in 718 by Ninmon Bosatsu and has now become the central temple for Rokugo Manzan. It’s quite a large complex consisting of three halls, with various Shinto elements cohabiting with Buddhist statues.

A closer look to one of the Nio guardian statues.
Shimenawa, a sacred rope usually found in Shinto shrines, hung at the gate of Futago-ji Temple.
A small Shinto shrine within the temple ground.

We were welcomed by a monk, guided into one of the halls where he explained about the brief history of how Tendai Buddhism syncretized with the local Hachiman gods, creating the Rokugo Manzan that we know today. He then also told us about their rice production system, tourism, as well as their annual festival, the Kebesu Matsuri—and no, it didn’t have anything to do with a certain vegetable. As a re-enactment of an ancient legend, the festival is a fire battle between a strange creature with a mask called the “Kebesu” and the white-clad “Touba”. It is also believed that if you come in contact with a spark of fire during the festival, any illness will be healed. I remember my professor mentioned about participating in this festival with the locals, where he tried his best to avoid the fire torches but another professor chased him around with it.

Futago-ji was itself was very serene, shaded by trees and with a river within its temple ground.

[Leading up to the Inner Hall, there’s a large stone torii gate, another hint of Shinto influence.

Mysterious and slightly forgotten, Kunisaki is that place where time feels frozen at one point in history and refuses to move forward too quickly, holding the peninsula in a stretch of quiet days and lovely country sceneries. There’s no railroad and the public buses are scarce, giving the land an impression of being ancient and unexplored, yet intriguing in its own way. Lasting through centuries as a training place for monks, it once had sixty-five temples and shrines. The number has since shrunk down to thirty-three, though the old pilgrimage route that snakes around them remains in use to this day.

A hidden gem of northeast Kyushu, Kunisaki Peninsula might be a place worth visiting when you’re looking for a unique experience away from the bustling city.

Practical Information

Futago-ji Temple
Address: 1548 Akimachi Futago, Kunisaki City, Oita Prefecture
Open: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Admission fee: 300 yen
Phone: 0978-65-0253

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