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!

Kodo – the Way of Incense

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In a Kodo workshop, there are more challenges than simply identifying different scents. You must grind your own india ink, take notes with a calligraphy brush, and listen very carefully.  On the other hand,  you will not be asked to sit seiza – though you may do so if you wish.

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Ask your Japanese passerbye on the street about the practice of Kodo, and you’re likely to get a blank stare, or a slow shake of the head.  Kodo, which can be translated as the Way of Incense, or the Way of Fragrance, is not nearly so well-known as some of the other Japanese arts.  Yet it is akin to the Tea Ceremony (Sado), and utilizes the accouterments of Japanese calligraphy (Shodo), having emerged along with these more popular disciplines from the same historical milieu, the artistic and spiritual renaissance of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, over four hundred years ago.

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While the enjoyment of incense, in particular the rare “sinking woods” of Southeast Asia, was first recorded in Japan more than a thousand years ago, Kodo in its modern form is a meditative practice that focuses on the individual’s connection with the natural world. Perhaps more than any other Japanese art, it adheres to its Zen roots, offering an antidote to that “blank stare” sense of isolation that pervades our preoccupied, over-stimulated lives



Performed in a group, in a quiet tatami room, a Kodo workshop often begins with the sensei’s comments on the natural world, followed by a “game” of kumikoh, in which practitioners attempt to identify several subtlety different scents.  In this test of olfactory acuity the student is advised to listen (rather than smell) the fragrance of tiny chips of heated wood.  Whether due to the focus of the discussion, or to the intense concentration required to differentiate the scents during the contest, the practitioner will achieve a clarity of consciousness – a mindfulness, if you will – that can continue for hours after.

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For centuries known only to the families of samurai lords and Edo merchants, Kodo is today gaining a greater following in Japan and abroad.  But there are only two schools, the Shino and the Oie, and unless you speak Japanese fluently, you will need to find a workshop with a good interpreter to fully enjoy the experience.   [The Shino school offers bilingual workshops periodically.  See]

It would be worth your time to take a listen.