Storming the Demon Gate
When Kyoto was established as capital at the end of the eighth century, it was placed according to careful consideration of the magic properties of its landscape- what one might call feng shui. Different directions had different properties and influences on the city, and the mountains and rivers in those directions could amplify good fortune and repel evil spirits. Northeast was considered an evil direction, a dimensional gate of sorts through which unwelcome beings could breach the world of the living.
Part of Kyoto’s appeal, then, was Mount Hiei, the dark stern mountain placed northeast of the city like a fortress holding back the spirits.
In the early years of the 9th century, the emperor sponsored the foundation of a humble Buddhist temple on the side of Hiei, a temple called Enryakuji. This served the purpose of reinforcing Hiei’s natural properties as a bulwark against evil spirits. Enryakuji also belonged to a relatively new Buddhist sect in Japan, the Tendai. By supporting them, the throne was also attempting to weaken the older, more established Six Schools of Buddhism based in Nara, the former capital. It was, after all, a near coup by a powerful and trusted priest from one of those orthodox groups, that caused the imperial court to move from Nara in the first place.
The throne’s strategy worked too well. Enryakuji grew from a temple into a veritable holy city of its own, with an estimate of more than twenty thousand monks in its golden era around the 11th century. It became the new heart of Japanese Buddhism, the Vatican if one wanted a rough contemporary analogy. Many of the founding figures of other medieval Japanese Buddhist sects, started out as Tendai monks in this very temple before making their split with orthodoxy. Enryakuji also became a worldly power like the medieval Vatican- and a terrifying martial presence.
Go-Shirakawa, who abdicated the throne to run the empire from behind the scenes, claimed the monks of Enryakuji were one of only three things in the world he could not control, along with the roll of the dice and the floods of the Kamo. They could force concessions from the imperial court simply by threatening to march down from the mountain, and sometimes engaged in violent raids against other temples. Even after the old Kyoto order fell, Hiei remained a power player until legendary warlord Oda Nobunaga burned it down in his campaign to bring all of Japan’s fractious factions under his control.
Enryakuji rebuilt as a temple more dedicated to holy studies than schemes. Perhaps their most famous practice is kaihogyo, a trial some monks choose to undergo, lasting up to three years, in which the monk runs for miles upon miles daily through the mountain forests, barefoot at first, then with sandals after three months- all the while completing complicated rites of worship. It is said it brings them to the realm of death and back. They are the only ones who do not have to remove their shoes in the emperor’s house.
To make a long story short: a lot has happened here.
I climbed Hiei as a student in Kyoto almost three years ago, walking the way up and taking a cable car down. I wanted to try something more ambitious- climb up from Kyoto, visit the temple, and climb down the other side into the neighboring prefecture of Shiga.
No cameras were allowed in the hall, so I will have to describe it in words. There was courtyard with a small garden of stone, moss, and gnarled trees. The inside of the temple was a simple room of tatami matting, but instead of an image of the Buddha at the head, the room looked into a larger chamber, with a drop-off guarded by railings. The chamber was dark and cavernous, lit by great torches, the edges of the room impossible to see. In the flicker of the firelight I could barely make out statues, and other regalia I could not identify. The silence in the temple was so deep I could hear the air travel through my throat as I breathed. A deep chill was descending, and I could see my own breath.
And so I began my evening descent down the other side of Hiei, into the prefecture of Shiga.
My cross-prefectural Hiei jaunt was no Kaihogyo, but let me tell you, my feet were continuously sore for a good three days afterwards.