The Kumano Magaibutsu

Japanese History in Stone


I don’t recall when I first became enamored with the shape and beauty of stone, but it hasn’t been too many years since my love of things lithic morphed into a fascination with images carved upon natural rock surfaces. I’m referring specifically to Japan’s stone reliefs, images of Buddhist deities etched into cliffs or hollowed out rock outcroppings. These immoveable renderings are referred to as magaibutsu, in contradistinction to free-standing stone statues of Buddhas, commonly called sekibutsu.


While natural rock reliefs are found throughout Japan, the most famous magaibutsu are at Usuki, in southern Oita prefecture, and it is in this region of the country that one finds many of the finest old reliefs. When I say “old” I am referring to works of the late Heian (794–1185) or early Kamakura (1185­­–1333) times, the beginning of long centuries of feudalism, when common Japanese folk began to seek refuge from war, calamity and uncertainty in the Buddhist faith.


While there is much speculation about the reasons for the preponderance of reliefs in Oita prefecture, here I’d like to draw your attention to just one impressive work, one of the largest and oldest in Japan, which is located in the northern part of this scenic prefecture. It is the famous Kumano magaibutsu, on the rural Kunizaki peninsula. For anyone smitten with an interest in such relics, this one is a “must see.”


The Kumano site is actually two large faces carved into a high rock precipice, accessible only after ascending several hundred stone steps from the parking lot of Taizou-ji Temple. Though very little is known about who or why most of the old reliefs were commissioned, about this one the temple history clearly states: “A monk went up to Kishu to receive the authorization of Kumano (to carve the image), and upon returning completed the work in four or five years.” The work referred to is the eight-meter tall, sword-brandishing Immovable One (Fudou Myo-ou); the other image, the face of the Dainichi Buddha, was carved an estimated one to two hundred years later.

Perhaps at this point you are asking “so what?” Well, not only is this relic designated a Significant Cultural Asset of Japan, with a distinct connection to the ancient Kumano tradition; it is located in a serene glade, high up in an old-growth forest, offering a lovely spot for mediation. Moreover, it is historically associated with nearby Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine (which was burned down in the last years of the Gempei War, just around the time the carving was initiated), and is located at Taizouji Temple, where Japan’s native Shugendo faith, which combines the spiritualism of Shinto with the core tenets of Buddhism, is still practiced today.


That’s a lot to think about, I know, and then there’s this: While viewed straight on, the expression on the Immoveable One’s face is a seemingly impossible curl of the lips, and clearly a smirk of resignation, or even disdain. Yet when viewed sidelong, from the final stone steps leading up to the shrine above, it is something quite different.  From this vantage the expression becomes a gentle smile of patience and understanding.


What a fine labor of love that monk left for future generations to ponder and enjoy!

Usuki calling…

I’ve been talking about this place ever since I got back from my recent visit to Japan.  Perhaps it cast a spell on me!


Usuki is an old castle town about an hour south of Oita, Japan, and it is surely one of the prettiest places in the prefecture, if not on the entire island of Kyushu.

The castle environs include Meiji-era homes, and everywhere along the narrow alleys and streets are old shops filled with curios and handicrafts.

The food in Usuki is delicious, much of the fish taken fresh from the nearby the Bungo straits, at the southern end of Japan’s inland sea (seto nakai.)  Usuki has gained a bit of fame for its organic farming collective, as well, which was featured in the documentary  Hyaku Nen Gohan (One Hundred Year Rice) by Chigumi Obayashi.

But a short bus or taxi ride from the train station is a another treasure.  Above the rice paddies, along the forested hillsides of cedar and giant bamboo, are numerous images of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, carved into the volcanic tuft.  No one knows exactly when, or by who, these carvings were done, but it is agreed they were created between 1200 and 900 years ago, and then at some point largely forgotten.  In recent decades much has been done to restore and preserve these mystical renderings, and they have been designated by the country as national treasures, there being nothing else like them anywhere in Japan.

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You won’t find many tourists here – it’s just too remote.  What you will find is serenity, even a strange sense that time has stopped.  I would recommend a visit here to anyone who seeks to escape the rush and clamor of modern city life – which Japan surely has plenty of!