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

National Treasure Picture Scroll Illustrates Life of Ippen (一遍上人), the Founder of the Ji-Shu(時宗), the Ji-Sect of Pure Land Buddhism ( and a bit about the Ji-Sect Temples in Tsukuba)

The wandering priest Ippen, founder of the Ji Sect, leads his followers in an ecstatic Odori Nenbutsu Dance (a detail from the 13th century painted scroll the Ippen Shonin E-den). 

A small segment of the 13th century Ippen Shonin Painted Scroll ( dated 1299, National Treasure) was on display at the National Museum in Ueno (now finished). This amazingly detailed work by an artist named En`i gives a vivid picture of life in Japan of 700 years ago


By Avi Landau

If you ask a Japanese, whether friend, acquaintance or complete stranger, what their religion is, they will most probably respond by saying: I have no religion !  This might seem like a strange answer, especially from someone that you KNOW has a Buddhist or Shinto altar (or most probably both!) in their homes, or from someone that you might actually see praying at a a temple or shrine. The problem lies with the wording of the question. For most contemporary Japanese the word SHU-KYO- (宗教), which is the translation of the English word religion, has negative connotations- suggesting something like a cult, and certainly something which drives people to war and murder (or being brainwashed).

But the fact is that most Japanese ARE religious! In my opinion much more so than contemporary Europeans. If someone asked ME what religion most Japanese people were I would answer: Japanese Religion- which is a combination of Buddhism and native Japanese beliefs and practices called Shinto which play an important part in the lives of most Japanese.

What I am trying to say is that the rituals, customs and beliefs that many non-Japanese would think of as religion- the Japanese look upon as just being a natural part of being Japanese-  and not something which should be referred to as Shu-kyo- (宗教).

It is even true that most Japanese that you meet (or their parents or grandparent, at least)  are officially affiliated with a Buddhist temple (the one million Japanese Christians and a small number of pure Shintoists are an exception).

In fact, for most of the Edo Period (1600-1868) every Japanese family was required to be connected with a Buddhist temple- to attest to the fact that they were not Christians- which was illegal under penalty of death.

The members of a particular temple are called that temple`s DANKA (檀家).

That is why, whenever I want to inquire about someone’s religious customs, I do NOT ask: What is your religion ( Ananta no Shu-kyo- wa nan desu ka),

I ask: What kind of Buddhist temple is your family connected with?: Anata ga DANKA no O-tera wa nani shu desu ka?

Or if I am talking to a local resident of Tsukuba (whose family has lived here for generations) I will simply ask: Doko no O-tera no DANKA desu ka (どこのお寺の檀家ですか?)- Which temple are you a DANKA of ?- since I am familiar with most of the temples in this area and know what sects they are affiliated with.

To my surprise the first living creatures to make their appearance in the highly detailed picture scroll are these two dogs (lying curled up at the top right side

Sects? Yes, there are many of them in Japan (more than 10). And there are even different factions within the sects.

Most westerners with an interest in Japan, probably come here believing that most Japanese are Zen Buddhists (because of the popularity of certain books and films). And though Zen has had in incalculable impact on traditional Japanese culture, especially in the arts, it is surprising (and disappointing) for many foreigners to find that  very, very few Japanese know anything at all about Zen- even those whose are DANKA of Zen temples!

Indeed, it is extremely rare to find the DANKA of ANY sect who knows much about theology.

Each sect does, however, have different customs and traditions which are still practiced by DANKA. So if you know what sect a person belongs to you can gain an understanding of his/her family`s religious practices.

Ippen`s birth house in Iyo Province (what is now Ehime Prefecture)on the island of Shikoku. Near the famous Dogo Hot Spring.

The Buddhist sects with the largest number of DANKA on a nationwide scale are the JODO SHINSHU (founded by Shinran. 1173-1263) and the JODO SHU (founded by Honen. 1133-1212), which were taken up with enthusiasm by the common people who appreciated the message that anyone- rich or poor, man or woman, could be saved through faith in the Amida Buddha- and by chanting a simple mantra- Namu Amida Butsu- as much as possible.

I have written about Shinran and the Jodo Shinshu in connection with this part of Japan HERE.


Coming to Tsukuba, I was surprised to find that even though the charismatic priest Shinran, the founder of the Jodo Shinshu, Japan`s largest Buddhist sect, lived for many years near Tsukuba (in Shimotsuma and Kasama) and had a huge impact on this region, there are very few Jodo Shinshu temples in the eastern and northern parts of Tsukuba- instead most belong to the Shingon Sect of esoteric Buddhism which was founded by the great priest Kukai in the 10th century.

This sect is the one most closely connected to India and Tibetan Buddhism. At many such temples in Tsukuba you can still experience ancient fire rituals which have their roots in India- thousands of years ago. I have written more about this HERE.


Another characteristic of the Shingon sect is the importance of the fierce-looking Fudo-Myoo. Prayers to this deity are held at many Tsukuba temples and prayer halls each month on the 28th. Read my article about this HERE.


In fact it might be because of this deity- whose name means the Unshakeable One- that Shingon is so prominent in this area. Shingon was promoted by the Imperial Court and by the powerful Fujiwara Family as a way of spiritually calming this region after the Rebellion of Taira no Masakado in the 10th century. In later years, when Tsukuba was located to the north-east (the unlucky direction) of Edo Castle, these temples were also important for rituals held to keep the calm in the realm ( during the Edo Period what is now the Mt. Tsukuba Shrine was a huge Shingon-Sect Temple Complex).

Another important custom for DANKA of Shingon temples is the Osegaki (feeding hungry ghosts) Ceremony, held at least once a year- usually on August 28th.  I have written about this HERE.


At the age of 13, after his mother`s death, Ippen journeyed to Dazaifu on the Island of Kyushu to study with the Jodo Sect Priests Shotatsu and Kedai。

The Ji-Sect in Tsukuba

Besides Shingon Buddhism, I was surprised to find ANOTHER sect of Buddhism relatively prevalent in Tsukuba. A sect which most Japanese you ask will never even have heard of never heard of. It is the Ji-Shu (時宗). In fact, whenever, I meet someone who says they are from Shimana, Tsukuba, I say: Oh, is your family Ji-Shu? And they are usually amazed that I should know. The reason I do, is that there is an old ( and beautiful) thatched-roof Ji Shu Temple in Shimana- which once buried deep in the woods is now soon to be surrounded by a housing community and is visible from the Banpaku Kinen Koen Station on the TX Line ( the right side when headed towards Tokyo). Most of the old residents of that area of DANKA of that temple.

There are also  Ji-Sect Temples in Hojo (Muryo-In) and Tamatori (Saiho-Ji). There are also  Ji-Shu Temples in Konda, Anyo-Ji ( which was used as a school after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 until a proper elementary school was built), and Shosai-Ji in Tegomaro.

So it is not rare that when I ask people in Tsukuba what Temple they belong to I find that they and their ancestors have been connected to Ji-Shu. I also detect that more than the DANKA of most other temples, these people are proud of their association with this obscure branch of Buddhism.

The fact is though, that as with the other sects, most DANKA of JI-SECT temples do not know much about theology. And even more unfortunately, the unique characteristics historically connected with Ji-Shu have also been almost completely lost.

And just what are these characteristics?

Another dog depicted as part of the details of life in 13 century Japan

Original features of the Ji-Shu Sect of Pure Land Buddhism

The Ji-Sect was founded based on the life and teachings of the charismatic wandering monk Ippen (1239-1289) who is often referred to as Yugyo-  Sho-nin (遊行上人)- the Wandering Saint, or Sute Hijiri (捨て聖)- the Holy-Man Who Abandoned Everything

The Ji-Shu is recognized as having begun in 1274. It was in that year, that after having made pilgrimages to the Shitenno-Ji Temple in Osaka (supposedly founded by Prince Shotoku and deeply connected woth the Jodo Faith) and Mt. Koya ( one of the most important Shingon Temples) Ippen, arrived at the Kumano Shrine. There he had an experience which changed his life. Encountering someone whom he took to be the deity of the shrine (the Kumano Gongen) as well as a manifestation of the Amida Buddha, he came to understand that Amida had made a vow to save humanity and assist them in being reborn in the Jodo Paradise- and that this did not depend on chanting the name of Amida (as taught by Honen of the Jodo Sect) or by true faith in Amida (as taught by Shinran of the Jodo Shin Sect). Anyone could be save whether they chanted or didn`t chant, believed or didn`t believe. Just being handed a paper talisman (O-Fuda) with Amida`s name on it would be enough to earn someone salvation.

After this experience Ippen took on the name Ippen (he had used different names up to that point), abandoned his wife and daughter (who had apparently been with him on his pilgrimage), and began a life of ceaseless wandering around Japan, chanting the name of Amida and distributing talismans to everyone he met. He picked up devoted followers on the way.

The main features of this original form of Ji-Shu can be said to be:

1) The distribution of paper talismans on which the Nembutsu (the name of Amida)- NAMU AMIDA BUTSU was written, along with the enigmatic phrase-.Ketsujo- O-Jo- Rokuju-mannin, which probably can be translated as something like- It has been decided that 600,000( the population of Japan at that time?) shall be reborn in the Jodo Paradise.

All together the writing on the talismans looked like this: (南無阿弥陀仏決定往生六十万人)

2)These were distributed to everyone encountered in the belief that they would aid anyone who received one, believer or non-believer, in attaining salvation by being reborn in the Pure Land Western Paradise.

3) Ippen and his followers (all mendicant travelers- wandering holy-men) drew large crowds wherever they went because they would perform ecstatic dances- while being drums and chanting Nembutsu. This was called Nembutsu Odori- which many say is the source of todays Bon Odori Dancing held throughout Japan in mid-August. They were expression of joy at the knowledge that one would be reborn in Paradise.

4) Of all the Buddhist sects, the Ji-Shi was probably most deeply intertwined with the native Shinto Deities. In fact, Ippen`s most defining religious experience came at the Kumano Grand Shrine after encountering what he believed was the deity of the shrine.

Monkey guarding horses- a custom common at the time. Monkeys were believed to have the power to keep evil away and were often tethered next to stables

Besides the fact that a toned down version nembutsu dancing can be seen twice a year, in autumn and spring, at the Ji-Shu`s main Temple- Sho-jo-ko-Ji * (清淨光寺)in Fujisawa,Kanagawa Prefecture, none of these original features survive as a part of the lives of the DANKA of Ji-Shu Temples.Because of this, I might go as far as to say that belonging to a Ji-Sect temple today is probably the least interesting of any sect in Tsukuba.

See some footage of the contemporary version of Nembutsu Dancing at Sho-jo-ko-Ji:


In Tsukuba`s Ji-Sect temples, there are no special rituals, sermons, or festivals .Danka pay their annual dues for the upkeep of graves and maintenance and memorial services are held for ancestors and deceased family members.

There are many reasons for this.

First, the Nembutsu dancing of past ages was apparently not merely ecstatic- but downright bawdy. Some scholars suggest that this type of dancing originated with coupling festivals called KAGAI (which was held twice a year on Mt. Tsukuba) and then after its popularization by Ippen even gave birth to what is now known as Kabuki Theater.

After the Meiji Revolution of 1868, under puritanical western pressure, such LUDE behavior (by the European standards of that time) was discouraged or outright banned.

And since during the early part of the Meiji Period (the 1870`s) certain fanatics tried to violently separate what they judged to be FOREIGN Buddhism from NATIVE Shinto, the Ji-Sect , which more than any other of the Pure-Land Sects made use of Shinto deities, was a perfect target for suppression. The Ji-Sect had to lay low. And that`s how these temples remain today  quiet and unassuming.

That makes it surprising to read that from the 13th to the 15th centuries Ji-Shu was one of the most important, maybe THE most important Pure-Land Sect- especially popular among warriors for whom it provided convenient battlefield funerals and recourse to prayers to popular Shinto Deities.

In 1271, at the age of 33, Ippen made a pilgrimage to the Zenko-Ji Temple in what is now Nagano

The Shingon Temple on Mt Koya was then an important center for the worship of Amida. Ippen arrived there in 1274, when he was 36 years old

Travelling along the Kumano River on the way to the Kumano Shrine- believed to be the closest place on this earth to the Pure-Land Paradise

Ippen`s defining moment- an encounter with what he believed to be the Kumano Gongen- a manifestation of Amitaba Buddha, who encouraged Ippen to distribute paper talismans to everyone he met, whether they had faith or not. This experience happened in the mountains near the Kumano Shrine in Wakayama Prefecture.


A detail (with more interesting dogs) from an early scene of Ippen`s life (when he was in Dazaifu as a boy)

As you can tell, I find the history of the Ji-Shu- as opposed to its present state- quite exciting. I even feel a strange connection with it since I once had a very strange Ji-Shu related experience.

Once I was waiting to be picked up for a job that I had. I was accustomed to being picked up by the same person, every week, over a period of several years/ On that day, however, I got into the car and there was a stranger in the drivers seat. The usual person was busy that day, and he had come as a replacement to take me to the class.

I still can`t imagine why, but for the whole 30 minute drive I was talking- quite rapidly, about the history of Ji-Shu, and about Myotoku Ji, the Ji-Shu Temple in Shimana Tsukuba. I had NEVER spoken with anyone, ley alone a complete stranger, about these topics.

The driver, said nothing as I continued to rant away about the history of the sect and that particular. In fact, he looked quite agitated- even disturbed by my rambling.

Finally, when we reached our destination, he faced me and said: To tell the truth, I live at the Myo-toku Ji Temple. My father is the priest!

Ippen giving one of his paper talismans to wealthy man. Notice the hawk (top right) and the party (complete with prostitutes) going on in the house.

That is why when I found out that the Ji-Shu`s greatest treasure (and a National Treasure of Japan)- the Ippen Shonin Eden Picture Scroll would be on display at the National Museum I knew I would have to go.

I am very familiar with that AMAZING art work because I have a book, a very large one, which contains the COMPLETE work. I have spent many hours examining the details of this work, trying to get a sense of what life was like in Japan 700 years ago.

In 1273, at the age of 35, Ippen underwent asceticisms at the Sugo- Cave on the island of Shikoku

Unfortunately, when I got to the exhibition, held in the special National Treasure Room at the museum, I could not help but be disappointed. The details of the scroll were difficult to see behind glass and at a distance- and even more importantly- only one relatively small segment of the scroll is shown.

So while it was nice to bask in the energies of the original work- it just was not as rewarding as sitting down with the book and examining the smallest details at my leisure.

The sadness as Ippen, his wife and daughter leave their home


Ippen Shonin, and what are probably his wife and daughter, begin their pilgrimage


The old thatched-roof main hall of the Myotoku-Ji Temple (founded in 1297), one of the Ji-Sects Temples located within the Tsukuba city limits. Unfortunately (in my opinion) the temple has “renewed” it`s beautiful old roof – and put in a tiled one! And the rustic village it once sat in among large trees has been turned into a densely packed new housing community.


Let me sum up the story of Ippen`s life- which is basically the same story illustrated by the scroll.

In 1239 Ippen was born to a prominent family in Iyo Province (now Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku) near the famous Dogo Onsen Hot Springs. His original name was Matsujumaru (松寿丸).

In 1248, when he was 10, Ippen`s mother passed away. He went off to a temple to be a Buddhist novice and took on the name Zuien (隨縁).

In 1251, Ippen went to the Dazaifu on the island of Kyushu to study with the priests Shotatsu and Kedai. He name was changed to Chishin.

In 1263, Ippen heard news that his father had passed on and returned to Iyo Province where he married with the intention of keeping up the family estate.

In 1267, he left home once again for the religious life ( though probably with his wife and daughter).

In 1271, at the age of 33, Ippen first made a pilgrimage to the Zenko-Ji Temple (in what is now Nagano Prefecture) and then went back to Iyo Province and cloistered himself at the Kubodera Temple.

In 1273, at the age of 35, he underwent asceticisms at a remote mountain retreat in Iyo Province.

In 1274, Ippen and two others, probably his wife and daughter, set out on a major pilgrimage to Shitenno-Ji in Osaka, Mt. Koya, and then the Kumano Shrine. At Kumano, he had a life-changeing religious experience.

In 1276, at the time of the Mongol Invasions, Ippen crossed over to the island of Kyushu, and visited a Hachiman Shrine in what is now Kagoshima Prefecture.

In the same year, in what is now Oita Prefecture, Ippen met and ultimately converted the warrior Otomo Yoriyasu, the governor of the area, who went on to establish the first Ji-Sect Temple in a town called Chinzei

A wider view of the great Nembutsu Odori Dance event held in Kyoto

In 1279, Ippen visited the capital and stayed at the Inaba Do Temple. Then in Saku (in what is now Nagano Prefecture) the first Nembutu Dancing sessions were held.

In 1280, Ippen travelled to the North-East (Tohoku) Region of Japan and passed through what is now Ibaraki Prefecture. Perhaps this accounts for the relatively large number of Ji-Sect Temples in this prefecture- about 50 out of a nationwide total of 410.

In 1282, just after the second attempted Mongol Invasion, unable to enter Kamakura, Ippen stayed at Katase .

In 1283, Ippen passed through the Tokai Region, Owari and Omi and spent New Year`s at the Seki Dera Temple.

In 1284, Ippen entered Kyoto where he preached and danced Nembutsu.

In 1286 he visited, Shitenno-Ji, the Sumiyoshi Shrine, the Taima Dera Temple and the Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine.

In 1287, at the age of 49, he visited Shoshazan in Harima (now Hyogo Prefecture).

In 1288, visited the  O-Mishima Shrine in Iyo.

In 1289, after visiting the Zentsu-Ji Temple on the island of Shikoku he fell ill. He than crossed over to what is now Hyogo Prefecture and passed away at The Kannon Do Hall.

The Saiho Ji Temple in Tamatori, Tsukuba- a Ji Sect Temple




Ippen praying at his grandfather`s grave

After Ippen’s death his disciples established Ji-Sect Temples (possibly in opposition to what the founder would have wanted. During the Edo Period (1600-1868) there were 12 branches of the sect. These merged into one after WWII.

Monks throwing themselves in the river out of grief after Ippen`s death


Nenbutsu Odori


Nembutsu Odori


Ippen being confronted by a foe in Fukuoka

Gakushinji, a Ji-Sect Temple in Yoshinuma, Tsukuba

* Sho-jo-ko-ji is more commonly referred to as Yugyo-Ji (遊行寺)- meaning the Temple of the Wandering Holy-men and its abbot called Yugyo-Shonin (遊行上人)- the Wandering Saint – despite the fact that adherents of the Ji-Sect are no longer a band of travelling mendicant who perform ecstatic dances and distribute talismans to anyone they happen to meet.

This temple was founded in 1325, in Fujisawa (in today`s Kanagawa Prefecture) by the fourth generation leader of the sect after Ippen`s death, a priest called Donkai (呑海). The complex was burned down once during the Period of Civil War (Sengoku Jidai) in the 16th Century, but was rebuilt in 1607.

As opposed to the Ji-Sect Temples in Tsukuba, Yugyo-Ji maintains a busy calendar of ceremonies and events, many which are distinctive to Ji.

See the schedule (in japanese):


The Hitotsubi Ho-yo- (一つ火法要) Single Flame Ceremony held each year on Nov. 27th at the Yugyo-Ji Temple in Fujisawa. The ritual is meant to cleanse one of one year`s worth of sin in preparation for the start of a new year. The entire temple complex is darkened- then the name of Amida is chanted. Finally a new flame is lit illuminating the darkness.


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