Travelogue continued: visiting the Island of the Immortals at a Great Mountain Temple near Kobe
23 November: Once you’re on a Hyakumeizan trip, everything becomes a mountain. By coincidence, the Senpai had chosen to visit a temple called the Taisan-ji – the Great Mountain Temple. When we arrived there, though – by now it was mid-morning – there was nothing obviously mountainous about it except the forested hill it sits in.
Taisan-ji belongs to the Tendai sect. In feudal times, Tendai Buddhism was for the Emperor, Shingon for the nobles, Zen for the warriors, and Jodo for the people. Today, in the bright autumn light, Daisanji was there for everybody.
Babies rode slumped on their mothers’ backs and children scampered, indifferent to the flaring colours of the maple trees. Photographers photographed. Appreciation for autumn hues increases with age. A very old man was helped down, step by painstaking step, from the gallery of the main hall.
We walked across an ornamental bridge into a glade. The shii trees that roof it, as well as the ilex, camellias and evergreen oaks, are said to be a remnant patch of the forest that once stretched in a verdant band all along this coast. By the stream, a stone Buddha seemed to distil green thoughts in a green shade.
On the way out, we noticed a side-temple, the Anyo-in. We shuffled off our shoes and went in.
Hidden from the outer world was a small stone garden, densely planted with curiously shaped rocks. One of them, explained a leaflet, represented the island peak of Horai-san.
We’d found our mountain for the day. I read on:
The concept of this garden came from Horai-Shinsen Thought brought from China, which was the fundamental thought in the long history of traditional Japanese gardens. Horai-Shinsen Thought came from the following legend. It was believed that there were mystic islands including Horai Island far away in the sea, and mountain hermits (Shinsen) who had hidden treasures and a secret formula for everlasting youth and immortal lived there. That was considered the highest idea to reach the Shinsen world of Horai-Shinsen Thought…
I took out my camera to record the garden, even though the leaflet subtly admonishes such behaviour: Please enjoy this garden, it said, sitting down on the floor and looking at the beauty of this garden with changes by four seasons. You can enjoy not only this garden itself but also profound meanings and thoughts behind it.
No, you can’t capture an image of Horai-san any more than you can climb it. Like Mount Analogue, the island peak is inaccessible. That is why, in a garden, it is never joined to other rocks with a bridge. You might, if you are lucky, reach the Shinsen world of Horai-Shinsen Thought, but never Horai-san itself.
Some have differed on that point. In his book Kwaidan, Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) claims to have visited Horai-san. It is a place where the people drink wine from “very small cups”, he reports, and leave their houses unlocked, because there is no need to do otherwise. They are not immortal, however, and the essay ends with a warning: “Evil winds from the West are blowing over Horai; and the magical atmosphere, alas! is shrinking away before them. It lingers now in patches only, and bands – like those long bright bands of cloud that trail across the landscapes of Japanese painters.”
I thought about those patches and bands of Horai-san as we walked back to the van. Just how would you program your GPS if you wanted to find them today? Maybe the Senpai would know. Then, without asking, I understood why he’d chosen to visit Taisanji on a fine autumn day.