Clouds smudge the nearby hilltops as we reach the carpark. When I open the van’s door, the Sensei hands me a bear-bell. “You’ll need this,” she says. I raise an eyebrow, but accept it anyway. One should always show respect for the heavies with fur overcoats. And, of course, for the Sensei’s judgment
Bear attacks don’t seem to concern the shrine authorities. Instead, the signboard by the entrance says (loosely translated) that complaints have been received about ill-informed guides disturbing the peace with their erroneous opinions. So visitors are advised to tour the precincts with local volunteer guides who know their stuff. With this admonition in mind – and keeping the bear-bell muffled – I start off up a long flight of roughly hewn stone steps.
Passing under a torii, I spot a sign pointing away from the main path. It shows the way to a pool ringed by tall trees. This is a solemn place, especially in the gloom of a grey autumn afternoon. Another signboard confirms that this is where the Hakusan deity appeared to Taichō in 716, the year before he made his Hakusan ascent, promising she would reveal her true shape on the summit.
The following summer, Taichō at last reached the long-sought mountaintop, only to be confronted by a nine-headed dragon coiling upwards from the crater lake that still mirrors the sky near Hakusan’s summit shrine. Unabashed, the monk commanded the apparition to show its true shape, whereupon it shimmered into a vision of the Eleven-Headed Kannon. Taichō and his companions forthwith prostrated themselves in front of the goddess, understandably weeping tears of gratitude.
Leaving the pool, I wander uphill, across mossy slopes and through a grove of lofty red pines. Higher up, these give way to a tangled forest, sunk in gloom under the louring clouds. A warning sign fastened to a tree has me reach for the Sensei’s bear-bell. As you know, a chime in time saves nine.
A far pavilion, on the forest’s edge, marks the start of the path to Hakusan. Generations of pilgrims certainly came this way. But did Taichō? These days, first ascents need to be authenticated with a verifiable summit photo. That’s a bit much to ask from an eighth-century monk, but even the most ardent Taichō fan must ask how far the facts corroborate his Hakusan feat.
Some elements of the legend are compelling. Especially persuasive is the way in which a sightline extended from Ochi-san, Taichō’s first mountain, though Heisenji, leads logically over a series of ridges to Hakusan’s summit. Indeed, you can still follow that path today, although some stretches are said to be sketchy.
No less sketchy, alas, is any independent evidence for the ascent. We do know, on the evidence of a scroll preserved by the Imperial Household Agency, that a monk called Taichō was copying sutras around the second year of Tempyō (730). Yet it’s hard to credit, though some have done so, that this lowland scribe is the same monk who climbed Hakusan.
On the other hand, it is probable that Hakusan really was climbed at an early date. A chronicle compiled around the turn of the tenth century, the Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku, says that a monk named Sōei ascended Hakusan in the year 884, accompanied by two magical crows who lit the way for him through the night.
Could it be meaningful that Sōei belonged to the Tendai sect? For, in 1084, the monks of Heisenji decided to throw in their lot with the Enryakuji on Mt Hiei, the sect’s head temple, switching their allegiance from another Tendai institution, the Onjōji. That seems to have been a shrewd move. Thereafter, in the words of the English-language brochure helpfully handed to me at the visitor pavilion, “the amount of donations increased, allowing for the temple to increase its sphere of influence. Heisenji is considered to be the place of origin for the Hakusan faith, and as a result, became extremely prosperous.”
It was during this heyday that the Taichō legend became widely known. The Tendai connection may also have influenced the characters that spell the monk’s name. He shares the character for the “chō” (澄) in his name with Saichō, the Tendai sect’s founder. As for the “tai” (泰), this character corresponds with the second one in the name of Monk Nittai, who is said to have climbed Hakusan in the Tengi era (1053-58).
Rain is starting to spit, hinting that this pavilion is far enough for today. Also - let's admit it - bear-bell or no, I’d prefer to avoid a rencontre with any fur-coated heavies who might be lurking in the underbrush. Nearby stands a monument to that mirror of medieval chivalry, Kusunoki Masashige, but I suspect that investigating it might lead to complications in this post. Oddly enough, the monument gets no mention in the shrine's brochure. Anyway, it's time to start back.
On the way down is the site of recent excavations on the grove’s southern flank. These have uncovered a well-made cobbled road running straight down the hill, past a series of terraces that could have accommodated a large village. And they substantiate what Heisenji’s brochure is telling me: “At its peak, Heisenji was home to 48 shrines, 6,000 temple quarters, 8,000 warrior monks, and approximately 90,000 koku of rice.”
For a time, the warrior monks carried all before them. When another temple of the Hakusan faith got into a tax dispute with the governor of Kaga – this was in 1176 – the armed bands of all the Hakusan temples rose “as one mountain” and chased the erring governor back to Kyoto, bearing the Hakusan deity along in a palanquin on their shoulders.
|Nitta Yoshisada in action, print by Tsuchiya Koitsu (1870-1949)|
Probably their greatest feat of arms - it is celebrated in the Taiheiki, a martial epic - was to face down Nitta Yoshisada when he besieged their fortress at Fujishima in 1338. This victory led to the disintegration of Yoshisada's army, his self-decapitation and, ultimately, to the forwarding of his head to Kyoto in "a vermilion-lacquered Chinese box". Yoshisada was, of course, the most distinguished lieutenant of Kusunoki Masashige, the very same warrior whose memorial I'd just inspected further up the hill. The legacy of the Kemmu Restoration is complex, one has to conclude.
It was in Japan’s Warring Country period (1467–1603) that Heisenji’s luck turned. In 1574, religious fanatics razed all its buildings to the ground. Eventually, the temple was rebuilt, but never on anything like the previous scale. In a final indignity, Heisenji had to give up all its Buddhist images during the Meiji government’s campaign to disentwine the country’s two main religions. For this reason, it is now officially the Heisenji Hakusan Shrine.
For a paltry 50 yen, visitors can inspect a garden that purports to be the oldest in Hokuriku – it was laid out around 1530 by a regional official of the Muromachi shogunate. I deposit my coin in a box at the gate, as nobody is on hand to accept it, and step into a verdant space. Here the moss has taken over, flowing over stones and paths, and filling any pond or pool that may once have been there. It is a place for thinking green thoughts in a green shade.
The thought which occurs to me there is that we're skating round the question. In the past week or so, we’ve visited the hilltop where Taichō first practised his austerities, set eyes on one of the few original scrolls that tell his story, and ogled the treasures of the imperial court that promoted him to “kashō”. We've even inspected a ritual staff of the kind that monks like him took into the hills. And now I stand in the grounds of a temple, or a shrine, supposedly founded in 717, in the very year of his ascent of Hakusan. The question can no longer be avoided.
So did Taichō really exist?
Ideally, you’d want to put that question to somebody who knows about Taichō – for example, somebody like Hiraizumi Takafusa, Heisenji’s head priest, who also happens to be a grandson of Dr Hiraizumi Kiyoshi, the Tokyo University professor who published the Taichō-kashō-denki back in 1953. (Incidentally, back in the early 1930s, Professor Hiraizumi used to visit Prince Chichibu, the Imperial family's most alpinistic member, and deliver a lecture on "Japanese Political History" every Wednesday evening. It's a small world when it comes to mountains....)
Fortunately, I don’t have to knock on Hiraizumi-sensei’s door right now, as the officials of Echizen-chō have already interviewed him for their brochure commemorating Taichō’s 1,300th anniversary. This is how he replied:
Of course Taichō existed but, as he was a personage of the Nara period, it’s very difficult to establish the facts, and we need to do more research. Our thinking about him has been based mainly on the Taichō-kashō-denki, which was set down about two centuries after his death, and it’s a mixture of gemstones and dross, with some puzzling passages. For that reason, many researchers have been sceptical about its contents. But recently, among the scriptures collected at the Kanazawa Bunko, a text was discovered that was read at the inauguration ceremony of Heisenji, and which has, all of a sudden, started to reveal how things were in the late Heian period. Although this is still about 400 years after Taichō’s death, it says that Taichō lived below the approach to the present temple, in Kitadani. In the absence of other surviving traditions, details like this from the document are exceptionally valuable. So we’re getting ever closer to the firm conclusion that he really existed.
Abruptly, the peace of Heisenji is shattered. Up the stone steps from the lower world are advancing three groups of pensioners, each with a well-informed volunteer guide addressing them through a loud-hailer. Yet their timing is providential. When I move aside to let the last platoon through, I overhear their guide pointing out Taichō’s tomb or memorial.
The simple stone stele would be easy to miss, so unassumingly does it stand in its little enclosure aside from the temple’s approach. In front, the ground is still drifted deep in pine-needles blown down by the typhoon. Stepping up to pay my respects, I suspect this is about as close as I’m going to get to the Hakusan pioneer, at least on this trip.
Echizen-chō Kankō Renmei, Taichō Daishi: Echizen ni umareta, Echizen ni ikita, brochure celebrating the 1,300th anniversary of Taichō’s ascent of Hakusan.
Higashiyotsuyanagi Fumiaki, Taichō to Hakusan kaizan denshō, in Hakusan Heisenji: yomigaeru shūkyō-toshi – Katsuyama-shi
Samuel C Morse, The Buddhist Transformation of Japan in the Ninth Century: The Case of Eleven-Headed Kannon, in Heian Japan, Centers and Peripheries, edited by M Adolphson, E Kamens and S Matsumoto
Mimi Hall Yiengproksawan, Hakusan at Hiraizumi: Notes on a Sacred Geopolitics in the Eastern Provinces
Paul Varley, Warriors of Japan, as portrayed in the war tales, University of Hawaii Press.
John S Brownleee, Japanese historians and the national myths, 1600-1945, The Age of the Gods and Emperor Jinmu, UBC Press/University of Tokyo Press.
Fukada Kyūya, the Hakusan chapter in Nihon Hyakumeizan translated as One Hundred Mountains of Japan.