The many archaeological findings in Kagawa Prefercture are considered cultural assets to be proud of in comparison with other prefectures far removed from the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto. The historical period begins arbitrarily with the introduction of Chinese writing along with Buddhism in the 6th Century. But long before that time there was a relatively high level of cultual achievement in this tiny province.
In this geologically active area, Japan originally split off from the Asian mainland and has kept fragmenting further into four main islands and thousands of islets. The earliest people were stranded, and others came by boat, but eventually the Japan Sea became a formidable barrier to seafarers to and from the mainland. An ivory doll found near Shodoshima Island off Takamatsu shows that there were both men and mammoths in this area 30,000 years ago. And yet, the Seto Inland Sea was formed only 10,000 years ago by the dropping down of previous land. The conical islets visible from northern Shikoku were once mountaintops.
Moreover, Takamatsu and most of the present prefecture were then under water until a few thousand years ago, when the weathering of high mountains produced the present plains. The first evidence of human settlements is found in the mountain range behind Zentsuji and Kotohira. On 600m Osayama there were Old Stone Age culture human beings some tens of thousands of years ago.
The New Stone Age culuture of the Jomon Period, from about 10,000 to 2,300 years ago, was characterized by hunting, fishing and gathering in this region, although there was some agriculture in Japan. Earthenware, arrows and stone implements are among the tools that have been excavated in Kagawa. The characteristic rope-design Jomon-style of pottery has been found intact, particularly in Takuma-cho, near the seacoast. Local historians tend to deny any difference in race between Jomon and present-day Japanese people.
Ancient people were religious, though they did not erect Buddhist temples or Shrines until later. The so-called indigenous religion of Shintoism was late to institutionalize in response to Buddhism, so previous religious practices could be termed proto-Shintoism. In this respect Kotohira is one of the great archaeological mysteries in Japan. Now miles inland, it is thought to have been an ancient seafaring capital of southern Japan. Seashells have been found to confirm that possibility. To this day the god of Kotohira Shrine is worshipped for safety at sea, and its Mt. Kompira is a mecca for millions of pilgrims a year. There are indications that the mountain itself came to be worshipped by the first millenium B.C.
To understand the sort of animism involved in mountain worship, we need to see the pre-scientific viewpoint of ancient people. They tended to worship entities more powerful than man, such as elephants and lions, to both ward off their danger and to identify with their greater power. Japan is a land of active volcanoes, and ancient people faced with volcanic eruptions felt awe before what may have seemed like an angry god to be propitiated by religious rituals.
After the Jomon Period mentioned earlier, cultural achievement begins to be more tangible with the Yayoi Period from around 250-300 B.C.to 250-300 A.D. Iron and bronzeworking technology were introduced from China and Korea along with rice agriculture. Swamplands throughout western Japan were opened up to rice cultivation, along with other forms of agriculture. The transition to agriculture also seemed to bring about a social revolution.
According to local historians, during the Yayoi Period people united as villages and worshipped the gods (kami-matsuri), summoning their grace with bronze bells (dotaku) and swords (doken). Considering that rice cultivation was new, they may have been particularly praying for the success of the rice crop. About 13 ritual bells have been found in Kagawa, and the one found in Kotohira is a designated National Treasure in the Tokyo Museum. Another dotaku that a tangerine farmer stumbled on at the highest mountain peak above Zentsuji shocked archaeologists all over Japan because much later the same site was held most sacred by Kukai (Kobo Daishi). Legend has it that he met the Buddha atop that mountain.
The most flat bronze swords in the country have been unearthed in Zentsuji along with bronze bells and other ritual implements dating from around 0 A.D. Only some villages had bronzeware at that time, a source of historical pride and art objects treasured today. It is believed that religion and government were united in the Yayoi Period, government being conducted by divining the will of the gods.
The following Kofun Period from about A.D. 250 to 552 is characterized by raised-mound tumuli. As the village mayor was regarded as intermediary between the villagers and the gods, at death he would be buried near the gods as a clan deity. Village leaders meant to transfer merit to the next world while eternally ruling this one. There are hundreds of tumuli sites in Kagawa, with about 400 in Zentsuji alone. Shinto Shrines always have some object as a conduit to the gods, and some shrines today have the tumuli serving as their conduit, merging the worship of ancestors and gods for nearly two millenia.
As Japan became a united country, the area was named Sanuki Province and placed under national administration in the mid-5th Century. About a century later the eras of borrowing from China began. Buddhism was embraced as the representative of Asian civilization, and from that time on the Japanese have been unusual in having a multiple religious affiliation. They also absorbed the social system of Confucianism, folk religious elements from China and India, weaving new legends identifying the foreign gods with native ones.
The first Buddhist institutions appeared in the Asuka Period from the year 552 to about 645, and in the following Hakuho Period from about 646 to 710 there were already temples in faraway Sanuki Province. Buddhism did not become a national religion until the Nara Period from 710 to about 794, by which time Sanuki had 30 or more temples. Local historians consider it destiny that Sanuki had so many temples so early, compared to other remote provinces. In the following Heian Period, from when the capital moved north to Kyoto in 794 to about 1185, Sanuki also had a disproportionate number of great Buddhist saints.
Kobo Daishi, one of the greatest geniuses Japan has ever produced, is a father of Japanese culture and civilization. He made a great contribution in remoulding Japanese religion, while making unparalleled achievements as a scholar, poet, artist, calligrapher, sculptor, architect, educator, social worker, inventor, discoverer and civil engineer.
Kobo Daishi was born in Zentsuji in 774 to the Saeki Family - a branch of the Otomo Clan, once protectors of the Imperial Family. His father was the Lord of Tado County. It is a well-known fact that the Saekis (the father's side) and the Atos (the mother's side) were both distinguished families, producing a number of great scholars, priests and bureaucrats.
The boy Kobo Daishi was so bright and gifted that his parents naturally expected him to go into government service, the most respected profession at that time. When he was 14, he was sent up to Kyoto, where he studied with his maternal uncle, a great Confucianist and tutor to one of the Emperor's sons.
At 17, he entered the university. He studied very hard. But soon he was disappointed with the curriculum offered there - the principles of government, history, poetry, filial piety and loyalty. What he had been searching for was the ultimate truth. Then he happened to meet a Buddhist monk, who taught him to practise meditation. This made him choose Buddhism and the priesthood rather than Confucianism and bureaucracy. He left the university. It was a very hard decision for him, because he was turning his back on the traditions and expectations of his clan. Yet he had to. He was 18.
For many years, Daishi applied himself alternately to the intense study of Buddhist texts and to meditation deep in the mountains. This made him wander far and wide. It was "the mantra-reciting one million times" according to the proper method that not only enabled him to acquire a phenomenal memory but also led him to attain enlightenment at the age of 24, in a cave at Cape Muroto in Kochi.
Not satisfied with the Buddhism of those days in Japan, Daishi was searching for something like the unity of the Buddha's teachings. Then he found the sutra that presented the Buddha Dainichi as idealizing the truth of the universe. But there were several passages so mysterious that no one in Japan could tell him anything about them. Daishi decided to cross the sea to China to find out the secrets of those passages. It was realized in 804 when he was 31.
6 months later, Daishi reached the Chinese capital, Ch'ang-an 西安, and met Abbot Hui-kuo, the 7th patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism, who, at the moment he set eyes on Kobo Daishi, knew the young man from Japan was the very person he had long been waiting for - his successor. All those years of hard study and ascetic practices had brought Daishi so close to his Chinese master that, after 3 months of study under the old patriarch, Daishi was ordained as the 8th patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism at the age of 32.
The very next year, Abbot Hui-kuo passed away. Before his death, he had told Daishi to return to Japan as soon as possible to spread the teachings to increase the happiness of the people there. So he left China in less than 2 years.
During his stay in Ch'ang-an, then the greatest metropolis in the world, Daishi had been enjoying encounters and friendship with many interesting people from all walks of life. Now their kind help, along with his own efforts and versatility, enabled him to bring back so many things material and practical as well as intellectual and religious.
According to "the catalogue of the objects brought home from China", there were 247 scrolls of precious sutras, 44 scrolls of Sanskrit mantras and stotras, 170 scrolls of commentaries, 9 kinds of ritual implements, and a large number of religious images and objects. There must have also been some Chinese works of literature, language, medicine, calligraphy and art. It is generally believed that he also introduced measures and rules, Chinese-type medicines, varieties of seeds, as well as the arts of dyeing, of making Indian ink and writing brushes, and of building temples, bridges and banks. It is said he was the first person to have learnt to grow tea and process it, to use coal and petrol, to prepare udon and tofu, and to make cakes and candies.
Daishi was fortunate enough to have the Emperor Saga, a good scholar, poet and calligrapher, as his patron and longtime friend. In 809 the Emperor presented Daishi with a state temple, To-ji in Kyoto, as his headquarters in propagating his Esoteric Buddhism of Shingon which, like the original Buddhism of the Buddha, focuses on this life, saying that men and women have the seed of the Buddha within them, and that by following its strict precepts and practices, anyone can achieve enlightenment in this lifetime.
In 816, Daishi was granted possession of Mt. Koya or Koya-san now in Wakayama Pref., where he founded a monastic centre for students of meditation. It was also his spiritual home, where he wrote many books of immense value. Now Koya-san, the greatest Buddhist sanctuary in Japan, is also home to the souls of many of different sects of Buddhism.
In 821, Daishi was appointed as director for repairing a reservoir called Manno-ike in Sanuki, the largest reservoir in Japan. Its banks had often broken, bringing terrible disasters to the Sanuki Plain. Now great numbers of local people rushed to lend their hands, and the repairs were completed in less than 3 months. The huge earthen dam he built then still remains, redounding to the credit of Daishi as a great civil engineer.
In 828, Daishi founded the first school open to the poor as well as to the rich. Poor children were given free meals and a good sound education by excellent teachers, who were also given free meals if necessary. The dictionary of 30 volumes, which Daishi compiled for the pupils there, was the first dictionary in Japan.
It is widely believed that Kobo Daishi invented hiragana (Japanese syllabary) and created katakana (another Syllabary) through his knowledge of Sanskrit. Until then, reading and writing were restricted only to scholars and aristocrats who could spend years in learning thousands of Chinese characters. Now kana syllabaries enabled common people to write their language phonetically. Women also took up kana, producing fine novels, essays, diaries and poesm. It was with this kana that Lady Murasaki wrote the world's first great novel, The Tale of Genji. Hiragana is often recited as "I-RO-HA ", because it takes the form of a poem delivering the Buddhist purport:
I ro ha ni ho he to shi ri nu ru wo wa ka yo ta re so
tsu ne na ra mu u i no o ku ya ma ke fu ko e te
a sa ki yu me mi shi e he mo se su, N
Flowers, though fragrant, will soon fade.
Who in this world will remain immortal?
If, today, we pass the inner mountain
of illusions, there will be no more empty
dreaming and no more drunkenness. Un
There are about 1,000 folktales and legends about Kobo Daishi, told and retold all over this country. Reflecting our love and admiration for him, many of the tales are about how he helped people by bringing forth a spring, digging a well, taming an unruly river, opening a hot spring, healing the sick, giving the blind sight, the crippled ability to walk, and so on. These stories are based on the fact that he never tired of putting the profound ideas of his religion into practice, bringing happiness to people wherever he went.
In the spring of 835, Daishi announced the day he would pass out of this life - April 22. After bidding farewell to the Emperor and the 2 retired Emperors in Kyoto, making his will, and naming those who would succeed to large responsibilities, Daishi confined himself in his tomb - Mt. Koya's innermost sanctuary. It is said he told his weeping disciples that he would come back when Miroku, the future Buddha, the saviour of the world, comes to this earth, and that until then he would always be watching people from the Pure Land of Miroku.
After his passing away, those who believed in his nyujo or entering into a new life of meditation, began to make the round of his memorial places in Shikoku. This is said to be the origin of the Shikoku Pilgrimage.
The Shikoku Pilgrimage known as Shikoku-henro is the most famous pilgrimage in Japan - the pilgrimage around the 88 Sacred Sites of Shikoku, following the trail Kobo Daishi himself walked in his youth for ascetic practice, searching for the Truth. That is why the best pilgrims go on foot as Daishi did long ago. It takes about 60 days to cover the 1,647 km.
Some young people go by bicycle or by motorbike. Some family groups drive their cars, while yet others hire a taxi. Still others ride the nearest trains and buses to the temples on their own. However, most people join a conducted bus tour - the easiest, though far from the best way - which still takes about 2 weeks, and retains a hint of ascetic practice.
Naturally it is most desirable to make a complete circuit of the 88 Temples at one time. But one can make it at one's own convenience. Many people divide it into 4 or more pilgrimages over a year or several years. It does not matter how one goes, when one goes, how many temples one covers or which temple one begins with, as long as one retains the spirit of pilgrimage. Traditionally there are 2 pilgrimage seasons - spring and autumn with the equinoxes as the climax, when pilgrims are generously presented with o-settai (free gifts of food and drink) by local people at the temples.
Many people go in their sportswear or everyday clothes, in sneakers and wearing hats. But not a few wear the formal or semi-formal costumes of o-henro-san or Shikoku Pilgrims. The hat, the wooden staff, the white jacket and pouches bear the calligraphy 同行二人, meaning "Daishi and I, going together." This faith keeps the pilgrims cheerful and brave during the journey. Accommodations are excellent in or around the temples. There used to be a charming custom of zengon-yado or giving a pilgrim free bed and board. In the evening, a child of the house was sent out to the nearest temple to find one or two pilgrims to take in that night. All the host expected from them was a piece of osame-fuda or a name card they carried to offer at temples, for he was doing it for Daishi himself.
Begging was also an important part of pilgrimage as ascetic practice. So even the rich of high rank had to beg from time to time. That enabled even the penniless to make a pilgrimage, living on donations from local people. Now begging is banned by law, and the zengon-yado custom is gone. But not all of those communal feelings have died out, for they did compose an essential part of the spiritual climate in Shikoku.