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Image: Vicki L Beyer
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Nanzoin and Kyushu’s great reclining Buddha

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By Vicki L Beyer

The iconic reclining Buddha, lying on its right with the head propped on an arm, is said to represent the Buddha as he moved to “the state beyond Nirvana” (in other words, passed out of this world). It is an image to encourage people that they, too, can one day be awakened or enlightened.

Ask a traveler experienced in Asia where to find reclining Buddha statues and you would likely be told to look in Thailand. Seasoned travelers who know Japan might, instead, point you to the island of Kyushu, where there is a statue of a reclining Buddha nestled in the hills of Sasaguri, a town east of Fukuoka city. At 41 meters long and 11 meters high, it is believed to be one of the largest bronze statues in the world.

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Image: Vicki L Beyer

Nanzoin, a place for prosperity and solace

The reclining Buddha of Nanzoin is not an ancient relic. It is only about 30 years old. Even its home, Nanzoin temple, is only about 150 years old. Its origins can be traced to a temple of the same name on Mount Koya that was forced to close when Shintoism was being promoted over Buddhism during the Meiji Restoration in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1995, the chief priest of Nanzoin won approximately one million dollars in a lottery while in possession of amulets issued by the temple. It is said he used his winnings as seed money for the creation of Nanzoin’s reclining Buddha. Subsequent lottery wins by others after visits to Nanzoin have earned the temple a reputation as a “lottery power spot”. Consider buying a lottery ticket after a visit to Nanzoin, or just visit the temple to pray for economic prosperity.

Big as the reclining Buddha is, it is not immediately visible on a visit to Nanzoin. Visitors enter on foot from the main highway in the valley and must climb a tree-lined walkway into the temple precincts. An enormous statue of Fudo-myo stands watch at the top of the approach. A wrathful deity known, paradoxically, for his compassion, Fudo-myo was a favorite of the Buddhist monk Kukai (774-835), known posthumously as Kobo Daishi. Kukai believed he was saved by Fudo-myo during a storm at sea while Kukai was sailing from China back to Japan in 806. At Nanzoin, Fudo-myo too provides prosperity, most likely in the form of business success.

The main temple building is on the right and a nearby satellite temple is dedicated to mizuko (aborted, miscarried or stillborn babies). Such temples are popular with grieving would-be parents, who pray for the souls of their unborn infants, that they may continue on the cycle of life.

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Image: Vicki L Beyer

To reach the Buddha, continue past the entrance of the main temple. On the left is a tunnel leading to the mountainside behind the main temple. At the tunnel’s halfway point is a small shrine dedicated to Japan’s seven lucky gods, harbingers of several varieties of fortune.

Emerging from the tunnel, there is a charming little pond on the left with a path leading to a small Inari shrine nestled in a narrow valley. A visit here can be meditative, but is perhaps best saved for after visiting the reclining Buddha.

The reclining Buddha

A wider pathway, some parts of it like a catwalk, is straight ahead out of the tunnel. It snakes along the side of the hill and leads more directly to the reclining Buddha. Various small statues of Jizo and other legendary figures decorate the way. Some renditions are quite whimsical.

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Three frogs represent the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" maxim. Image: Vicki L Beyer

The massive statue is on a platform above the hillside path, a large plaza open in front of it to facilitate prayers and to allow visitors optimal viewing. (Nanzoin maintains that it is primarily a place of worship and prefers to downplay its tourism appeal; accordingly tourist visitors are expected to be respectful during their visit.)

Inside the statue are some ashes of the Buddha, a gift from Myanmar in 1995 in gratitude for medical supplies donated to Myanmar and Nepal by the temple and its adherents.

Emulating the posture believed to be that of the Buddha as he passed from this world, the statue lies on its right side. Five colored cords have been tied to the statue’s left hand at the top of the statue. They extend to the offering box in front of the statue. Visitors who touch the cords are metaphorically holding the hand of the Buddha. The colors symbolize five elements, five directions, or five parts of the body: green for earth, Spring, east or the top of the skull; red for fire, Summer, south or the heart; white for west, Autumn, wind/air or the navel; black for space/void, Winter, north or between the eyebrows; and yellow for water, the center point of the compass, and the hips.

Don’t miss the Buddha’s feet. The earliest renditions of Buddha in art were his footprints, commemorating the eight steps he took when he was born. It was reported that at each spot he placed his foot, a lotus flower sprang up. This legend is carried over with the mandala and other symbols on the bottoms of the statue’s feet.

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Image: Vicki L Beyer

The Sasaguri Henro 

Nanzoin’s other claim to fame is as the first temple to visit when completing the Sasaguri Henro, an 88 temple pilgrimage (like the famous Shikoku Henro, but shorter).

The pilgrimage was started in the 1830s by a Buddhist nun from Kyushu who, after returning from the Shikoku Henro, realized that the trip to Shikoku was beyond the means of many. She also realized that Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shikoku Henro, had spent time in Sasaguri when he returned from China in 806, further validating Sasaguri as a pilgrimage site. The 60 kilometer route takes pilgrims to 88 sites in the vicinity of Sasaguri. Pilgrims traveling by foot (the traditional way) can complete the route in four or five days, while modern pilgrims using a car need just two days.

Getting to Nanzoin

The reclining Buddha of Nanzoin can be viewed from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Visitors in large groups (ie, more than eight people) are expected to purchase tickets at the office on the right after emerging from the tunnel.

Nanzoin is easy to access from Hakata station in Fukuoka; just 25 minutes in the Fukuhoku Yukata Line to Kido Nanzoin-Mae Station and then less than a 10 minute walk.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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