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

Discovering Another Prayer Wheel (輪廻車、後生車) in the Tsukuba-Tsuchiura Area

By Avi Landau

I cycled by this low, inconspicuous, stone pillar, standing by the roadside in the middle of nowhere (on the border between the Yasaku and Shishizuka  in Tsuchiura) – but instead of letting inertia carry me onward toward my distant destination (the Tsuchiura Library), something made me pull tight on the breaks and turn back for a closer look. (In the distance you can see the Kashima-sama Kofun Tumulus, a hill which the Tsuchiura Gakuen Road cuts through)

And my instincts proved right! What I had caught glimpse of was not the remnant of some old gate (which anyone might have taken it for) – it had engravings on it on all fours sides – in BONJI (梵字- Indian Siddham script) , as well as Chinese characters,  and inside the hole which while passing by I took to be a slot for inserting a rail to form a gate, I found the remnants of a rotten old wooden wheel! This pillar was a prayer wheel pillar – made of concrete (instead of stone) with a wooden wheel (insread of stone)! In Japanese these are often called Rin`ne kuruma (輪廻車 – literally: Transmigration of the Soul Wheels), but in the Tsukuba-Tsuchiura area they are referred to as Gosho-guruma (後生車, literally: Afterlife-Wheels)

Also, grooves divided the upper part of the pillar into five segments – with the BONJI characters on all sides. Those facing east read: BAN (on the top segment), representing Dainichi Nyorai (the chief deity of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism) and then KYA  KA RA BA A (representing the Five Elements comprising the Buddhist universe (sky, wind, fire, water and earth) – just like you`d find on  SOTOBA wooden memorial tablets in Tsukuba area cemeteries, or the more impressive GORINTO (five-ringed stone towers)

The Indian and Chinese characters found on the pillar on the pillar. The first vertical row on the left is in Sino-Japanese and  reads: TAME UMURYO-EN TONSHO-BODAI – which expresses the hope that any unconsoled spirits on the spot quickly attain a Buddha-state, no matter what their connection to Buddhism was. the same invocation, interestingly, can be found on on prayer pillars for anonymous women who worked in the various pleasure quarters….. As for the BONJI characters, well, the vertical line on the right (which faces east on the pillar), I have already explained above. The next row to the write (facing south on the pillar reads: KYA- KA- RA- BA- A- (all with extended vowels) is just a slight variation in spelling, meaning the same things. The next vertical row found facing west on the pillar and reads: KEN KAN RAN BAN AN and the last row (facing north) reads: KYAKU KAKU RAKU BAKU AKU (once again, another variation, based on the direction faces, of: Sky, Wind, Fire, Water and Earth

What I had come across was obviously a Buddhist memorial stone – equipped with a prayer wheel !

A close-up of wooden wheel, worn away by time – and all sorts of little creatures!

At the library, I was able to learn some more about the prayer wheel (but not very much). Apparently while doing some construction sometime in the 1920s, a group of workers discovered a mass grave filled with human bones. In consultation with the nearby Hannyaji Temple, it was decided to erect this prayer wheel to console the spirits of the dead who lay there. The idea was that passersby could turn the roadside wheel, and each turn would be equivalent to the recitation of a prayer.

A Tibetan man in Ladakh (India) twirling his prayer wheel (or Mani wheel) inscribed with a mantra. There are many types and forms of such wheels, but they are all based on the same concept – that the written sutra (or mantras) possess the same power and the uttered words and thus, turning or spinning them are equal (or even more efficacious) than chanting or reciting. They are a great idea because even those who cannot read or properly recite the sutras can gain merit by simply turning, spinning or twirling them.The wheel itself represents the Wheel of the Dharma, one of the most important Buddhist (as well as Hindu and Jain) symbols (it is in fact right there in the center of the Indian national flag!). They have been used in Tibet and China since the 4th century, and were introduced to Japan in the 9th century by Kukai, the founder of the Shingon Sect – which strongly resembles  Tibetan Buddhism. The most impressive one I have ever seen in Japan is Issaikyodo at the Narita-san Temple (Shinshoji), in Narita. It contains a COMPLETE set of sutra and turning the enormous octoginal case around once is said to provide plenty of merit!

Mani stones in Ladakh, India inscribed with prayers that are carried by the winds to the four corners of the earth.

Another prayer wheel – this one in Tsukuba`s Oda village, and well known to anyone with an interest in local culture and history (even indicated on local guide maps)

The Goshoguruma (prayer wheel) in Oda, Tsukuba, was erected in June 1900 (Meiji 33). Besides the Sanskrit based characters (Bonji) representing the Five Elements , it also has engraved upon it a part of a Buddhist tract (The Treatise on the Mind Aspiring for Enlightenment) which reads: 若人求佛慧通達菩提心父母所生身速證大覺位 – If a person seeks Buddhist wisdom, he passes through (certain stages of realization), achieves the state of Boddhisatva, and quickly comes to embody the great state of awakening in the physical body begotten of ones mother and father. Behind the pillar are 17 very old and unusal sacred stones – some of them reminding me of the Mani Stones I had seen in Ladakh (shown above)

The Oda Goshoguruma

And a more recently erected prayer wheel – at Jinryu-ji, in Tsuchiura, offers consolation to the spirits of naval aviation pilots (and crew) who trained at the old Tsuchiura Naval Aviation Base.


Close-up of prayer wheel at Jinryu-ji. It reads: 皇風永扇(KO-FU-EISEN) –  May The Benevolent Reign of the Emperors Be An Eternal Blessing

I chanced upon the prayer wheel because was too lazy to pedal over the Kashima-sama Kofun which the Tsuchiura Gakuen Road (constructed in the 1970s) cuts right through (along with some other historically important sites. I turned to the left and then passed under the Joban Highway (which also cuts through the Kashima-sama and some other Tumuli, as well)

Beautiful Jizo statue in a graveyard atop the Kashima-sama Kofun

Beside the grave-yard, all you`ll find there are the Kashima-sama Kofun Woods.

A rusty old sign that tells you you are standing atop an ancient tumulus.

Back to the prayer wheel in the field – this picture was taken when the sun was just right! This is the front side (facing east) and the inscription reads (from the top) BAN KYA KA RA BA A (in BONJI script) and then TAME UMURYO-EN TONSHO-BODAI (in Sino-Japanese) – the meaning is provided above.

Another side shows the beginning of a Shingon School mantra: 一見阿字五逆消滅

Another side has the rest: 真言得果即身成仏 This mantra says: Just one look at the sacred AJIMON (Bonji) characters erases even the greatest sins, and in accordance with Shingon, the Buddha-state will be achieved.

A tree frog (amagaeru) on the pillar

Another side inscribed with the Shingon mantra:NAMU HENJO KONGO

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