A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

The Bamboo Shade is Lifted Once a Year- Revealing the 12th Century Buddhist Cliff Carving in Oda, Tsukuba (小田の磨崖不動明王立像),


For 364 days a year (365 in leap years) the cliff carving looks like this- covered with a bamboo shade

By Avi Landau

Halfway up a wall of sheer granite in the old village of  Oda in what is now Tsukuba City, there is a Buddhist cliff carving (MAGAI BUTSU) which is experts believe to have been created sometime in the 12th century. It is listed as one of Tsukuba City`s CULTURAL ASSETS, and I have also read about it in books on local history and seen it indicated on a HISTORICAL WALKING TOUR map of  Oda (小田), a quiet backwater of a neighborhood which from the 12th through the late 16th centuries was the military, cultural, religious, and administrative center of this area.

Though the presence of a (now lost) Buddhist cliff carving in the Land of Hitachi ( the area that now makes up a large portion of today`s Ibaraki Prefecture) is noted in the HITACHI NO KUNI FUDOKI (常陸の国風土記)- the official survey of this region`s history and customs which was compiled in the year 721 AD, there are today, in the entire prefecture, only a few survivng examples of this genre of religious art - among them the Amida Sanzon in Kanasago Village, Northern Ibaraki, the Wall-Faced Kanzeon (壁面観世音) in Katsura Mura, and the Hundred Buddhas cliff carvings (百体磨崖仏) in Chiyoda Mura (near Tsukuba City).

According to what I had read, however, the cliff carving in Tsukuba`s Oda, known as the MAGAI FUDO MYO-O- (磨崖不動明王立像), though badly worn away by centuries of wind and rain, is still considered a far superior work- and as you can imagine, I wanted to see it .

Using the map that I have mentioned above, The carving was apparently just a bit north of the site of the old Oda Castle (of which now nothing remains), which was the only castle in all of Japan to have been ruled continuously by a single family from the beginning of the Kamakura Period right through to the end of the Sengoku Period- that means from the early 12th century all the way to the late 16th century!

I was able to find the short cliff (about fifteen meters high) on the western face of a low mountain the locals call MAE YAMA (前山), which is at the foot of Mt. Hokyo-zan in Oda, Tsukuba. But looking up at the cliff to where the carving should have been, I saw only a greenish rectangular shade, which looked to be made of bamboo. Reading a sign at the base of the cliff, I found out that this shade was lifted, and the image revealed to the public- ONLY ONCE A YEAR- on January 28th! That was months away!

The scene on an ordinary day- the roof of the Fudo-Zon Hall with the shade covered rock carving in the background

I did notice that there was a chain hanging down the face of the cliff, and it could obviously be used to climb up and have a peak at the carving. Maybe if I were a few kilograms lighter, or a few years nimbler, I would have tried to scamper up the granite face- but I didn`t ! - though I made a vow  to come back on January 28th.

That was several years ago. It turned out that in each of the following years January 28th was  not a very convenient time for me to be heading out to Oda- but this year, fortunately, was different- and I finally made it – and just in time!

The Magai Butsu (Cliff carving) in Oda, Tsukuba

I had been busy all morning and half the afternoon, but was scheduled to be off from about 2:30- after which  I raced out to Oda, hoping that the bamboo shade would still be raised and the carving visible.

As I approached the general location using Rt 125, I realized that I wasn`t sure anymore of exactly where the MAGAIBUTSU (磨崖仏), which means Buddhist cliff carving(s) in Japanese, was located. Then I remembered that the turn-off leading to it also led to a medium sized Hachiman Shrine which could be seen from the road. I kept my eyes open and I spotted the Torii gate to that shrine as I passed by, and pulled into the parking lot of a Ramen Shop which had recently gone out of business (  one with a  chicken on its signboard).

I then walked back to the turn-off and headed toward the Hachiman Shrine- but about halfway there I turned right onto a narrow winding path. This took me up to the base of the cliff. Walking there (about 100 meters) I was joined by an elederly gentleman- and we chatted a bit on that perfectly beautiful late January afternoon, Two large white banners had been set up along the approach to proclaim the SPECIAL EVENT. Past these banners were old , rustic sacred stones and the wooden shelters that protected them from the elements (while they themselves had become raggedy).

The carving is thought to be from the 12th century and to depict FUDO-MYO-O-

Ascending the staircase ( a couple of dozen steps in all) I came to a small wooden prayer hall which was opened up for the occassion. A man was seated cross-legged inside. I tossed a coin into the offerings box and I received a votive picture of FUDO MYO-O ( the deity depicted in the carving), and some traditional sweets. There were three other men, obviously locals who were involved with running the event who were cleaning up and burning leaves.

It was 3pm. I looked up at the cliff. There it was- the twelfth century carving- twinkling in the bright afternoon sunlight- almost alive ! Despite being so damaged by the years, with my binoculars I could make out its graceful, slightly leaning figure and even what was left of its fierce countenance (the face is more badly worn away than the legs or feet).

A closr look at the bottom of the rock carving

Fierce? That`s right.

There are probably many who knowing only a little about Buddhism  imagine that a Buddhist carving means an image of  The Buddha- the calm、gentle and serene historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama ( the founder of the religion- 563BCE-483 BCE ?) whom the Japanese call Shaka-Sama. The fact is though, that after Buddhists did eventually start creating religious images a few hundred years after  the Buddha`s death  (after having used only the wheel of Dharma – the Law- as a religious symbol) representations came to be made not only of the enlightened Buddha Gautama (these images are called Shaka-Nyorai in Japanese), but of  a very wide variety of of characters in the Buddhist pantheon*.

You might be surprised to hear that in the Tsukuba area (and probably in most of the rest of Japan, as well) the main images found at temples and on sacred stones are RARELY of the Buddha himself- in fact, off hand I cannot think of ANY important images of SHAKA NYORAI in the Tsukuba area !

The cliff carving in Oda is said to be a FUDO MYO-O , one of the most popular figures in the Japanese Buddhist pantheon  and especially in areas like Tsukuba in which the Shingon Sect of Esoteric Buddhism predominates. He is indeed SCARY LOOKING. So much so that when the first Christian missionaries arrived in Japan they noted in their diaries (and reports back to the Vatican) that the Japanese worshipped the devil! But the figure of Fudo Myo-o does not represent a worship of evil, it represents  the fight AGAINST evil and is meant steer the people toward good deeds by filling them with a sense of awe (and fear!).

The characteristic weapons that FUDO-SAMA holds ( and which help us to identify him) help him in his task- in his right hand a sword to cut through evil, and his his left a special rope with which to pull people towards the correct path.

The reason that FUDO MYO-O, which actually means the the UNMOVEABLE ONE, is particularly important in the Shingon Buddhism ( which is the most popular form of Buddhism in the Tsukuba area) is that the founder of this sect, the great preist KUKAI, placed this image on the bow of the ship which carried him back from Tang China. The Unmoveable One prevented the ship from rocking excessively (or so Kukai believed!).

Later, the image of O-Fudo-Sama (as he is affectionately called) was also used to help calm this area  spiritually ( magically) after the bloody rebellion of Taira no Masakado had already been put down militarily in the 10th century.

The fierce expression of the Fudo Myoo-O can still be made out

And why is the curtain protecting the stone image of the Fudo Myo-o- in Oda raised on January 28th?

Well, the 28th of every month is Fudo-Sama`s special day (ennichi, 縁日). In many of Tsukuba`s old neighborhoods special prayer meetings at Fudo Prayer Halls are held. These are usually women`s  meetings, in which prayers for conception, easy delivery, and family health are made. But in some neighborhoods these meetings are for men. At some of these prayer halls special fire ceremonies (GOMA TAKI) are also held on these special FUDO DAYS – which actually begin on the evening of the 27th 0f each month.

January 27th represents a special day because it is the first Fudo Day of the year!

( I have written about many of Tsukuba`s Fudo Prayer Meetings in previous Tsukublog posts:


A close-up of one of the banners raised for the special event

Anyway, all these thoughts rushed through my head as I gazed up at the carving. The image became clearer still to the eye when the sun was blocked out by some clouds. I even thought about climbing up the chain- but no lighter, and  no nimbler – alas, heavier and stiffer, I gave up on that idea. Even watching a man in his 80`s skillfully negotiate the chain and the cliff to get a closer look, did not make me change my mind.

The first scientific survey of the cliff carving in Tsukuba, Oda

Then, after I had been there for no more than ten minutes, the man in charge, who had seemed to be happilly surprised by my visit ( he told me that only 20 visitors had come all day!) told me that they would now be replacing the bamboo shade (with a freshly made one).  One of the other local men, with the new shade on his shoulder, deftly rappelled up to the image in what was probably little more than a minute, the image was covered again- until January 28th NEXT YEAR. As I have already said, I had arrived just in time.

Saying my goodbyes and thank yous I then headed back down towards the car, filled with a strange, unnameable kind of excitement- and a determination to make it back once again to this place on some January 28th in the future.

Getting ready to put up the new bamboo shade

But I also started thinking about the carving I had just seen and  to wonder whether it really was a depiction of the popular deity FUDO MYOO-O.

Being as worn down as it is, making a positive identification of the image seems to me to be quite difficult. Isn`t it possible that because FUDO MYOO-O is such a popular figure for adherents of the SHINGON sect (to which most of the locals belong) that many years after it had been carved and had already become worn down that the people ASSUMED that it was a FUDO MYOO-O and gave it that name?

Let me give you the reasons for my susspicion:

First, besides the frightening countenance (which other Buddhists images- especially the TEN, the guardians of the Buddhas and the Law can also have), the most important identifying feature of the FUDO MYOO is his weaponry- a sword to cut through evil in his right hand- and a special rope- to pull people towards the true way- in his left.

Well, in my opinion, it is not possible to say with any certainty that there was ever a rope in the left hand.

The MAGAI BUTSU as seen from the bottom of the short cliff

The posture also seems to be off, if this were really a FUDO-SAMA. Remember I have already said that this name means the UNMOVEABLE ONE and images of him are almost always of a figure standing firm, stable and well balanced. The image on this cliff carving looking to the left with his hips slouching to the left.

This is a typical posture for the various TEN (天) in the Buddhist pantheon.

And what makes me lean more towards the idea that this image was actually orinally make to be a TEN- specifically a BISHAMONTEN (毘沙門天)?

Well, the TENs protect specific directions- with BISHMONTEN protecting the north. Now think about what I have said at the beginning of this article- the carving is just NORTH of the ruins of the old ODA CASTLE!

Since the castle was built before Shingon Buddhism had come to completely dominate the area, isn`t it possible that this was a BISHAMONTEN meant to protect the northern side of the castle?

To be continued……………………………………..

The nimblest of the local men at the event was able to scamper up the cliff (with the help of a chain) and set the new shade into place


The banners proclaiming the special event


At the approach to the Fudo-zon


A Daishi-Sama image representing the great Buddhist Priest Kukai (an Edo Period map of the Tsukuba area refers this cliff carving as Kukai`s Fudo. And though the story that Kukai himself actually carved this image is almost certainly a legend, it is because Fudo-Myo-o- was so dear to Kukai that this deity is so popular today


The Fudo-zon Hall is open only twice a year ( while the cliff carving`s curtain is raised only once)

The O-Fuda votive image I received (after I had made a small donation)

* Buddhist images can be classified into groups:

The Nyorai (如来)- Beings, including the Buddha himself (SHAKA NYORAI), who have achieved enlightenment. Popular Nyorai are Yakushi Nyorai,  Amida Nyorai, and Dainichi Nyorai.

Bosatsu (菩薩)- Boddhisatvas. Being which could have achieved enlightenment but have delayed doing so in order to help others. Popular BOSATSU are: Jizo Bosatsu (one of the most commonly found Buddhist images in Japan), and Kannon Bosatsu.

Myo-o- (明王): Fiercly visaged wisdom kings particularly associated with Esoteric Buddhism (the Shingon and Tendai Sects), with the most popular of these being the Fudo Myo-o.

Ten (天): Guardians of The Buddha and Buddhism. These include the Shitenno (四天王)- the Four Heavenly Kings, The Kongo Rikishi (金剛力士)- the Two Guardian Warriors. Most of these are armed and in armor, but some, for example the very popular female TEN- Benzaiten, look quite gentle (she bears only a musical instrument!).

Great Preists: It is also common to find images of great priests of the past. By far the most commonly found of these is the type of image called a DAISHI-SAMA (see photo above), which ismeant to be a depiction of the priest Kukai, the founder of the Shingo Sect.

One of the oldest and most important Fudo Myoo-O images in Japan- a 9th century wood carving at the To-Ji Temple in Kyoto

At the most famous site for Buddhist cliif carvings in Japan- Usuki, in Oita Prefecture


To be continued………………….

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