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Ryokan - A place deeply tied to Ryokan, who loved nature and children

The life of Ryokan

* Ryokan (1758 - 1831)
Ryokan was a Buddhist monk of the Zen sect in the late Edo Period. He was also an accomplished composer of poetry, both in Chinese and in Japanese, and calligrapher.

Ryokan was born as Yamamoto Eizo. He took the tonsure at age 18, but never had his own temple; he was instead an itinerant monk who obtained his daily sustenance by begging. At age 34, he departed on a pilgrimage that took him through many provinces of Japan. He became versed in the Shingon (True Word), Jodo (Pure Land), and Nichiren sects of Buddhism as well as in the indigenous Shintoism. He died at age 74 in 1831.

Ryokan was born into the house of Tachibanaya Yamamoto in 1758 in the town of Izumozaki, Echigo province (present-day Izumozaki-machi, in the Santo district of Niigata Prefecture). The Yamamoto were a distinguished family, and Ryokan's father was both the town headman and a shipping agent. Ryokan was named Eizo, and was the first-born of four sons and three daughters. Besides being the town headman, his father Yasuo served as one of the Shinto priests at Ishii Shrine, and composed haiku poems under the pen name Inan.

When Eizo was seven years old, he began attending Sanpo-kan, a school run by Omori Shiyo, a scholar of Chinese learning, at Jizo-do (in what is now the district of Bunsui in city of Tsubame, Niigata). There, he enthusiastically studied the Chinese classics.

At age 18, Eizo was apprenticing to succeed his father as the headman, when he suddenly decided to become a monk. In preparation, he betook himself to Koshoji Temple, which belonged to the Soto school of Zen, at Shirise, and was tonsured there. At age 22, Koshoji received a visit from Kokusen, the superior of Entsuji Temple in Tamashima, Bitchu Province (the present-day city of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture). It was at this time that Eizo underwent the rites for ordination and was given the name Ryokan. Ardently admiring the lofty character of Kokusen, Ryokan studied under him at Entsuji Temple for about 12 years, before receiving his certification for teaching as a Zen monk himself. Ryokan then departed on a pilgrimage that took him to various provinces.

In 1796, Ryokan returned to Niigata. At age 47, he took up residence in a hermitage he named "Gogo-an" in Kokujoji Temple on Mount Kugami (located in today's Tsubame), and spent the next approximately 20 years there. He then moved to a hut in the precincts of Otogo Shrine, at the base of Mount Kugami. In 1826, he left Mount Kugami and moved to the house of Kimura, a distinguished family in the city of Shimazaki (present-day Nagaoka). It was around this time that he made the acquaintance of the Buddhist nun Teishin. The two shared compositions of waka poetry with each other and developed a heart-to-heart friendship that continued until Ryokan's death. Ryokan expired at the Kimura house in 1831 at age 74.

Ryokan was a monk of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. He was faithful to the teachings of his master Dainin Kokusen and Dogen, the founder of the Soto school. All of his life, he never had a temple of his own and never married. He adhered strictly to the vow of poverty and lived simply.
Ryokan wrote more than 600 poems in Chinese, and is one of the foremost Japanese poets in this genre.

The surviving specimens of Ryokan's calligraphy contain mainly his own poems. They show he was a master of the square, semi-cursive, and cursive scripts as well as Japanese kana syllabary. Coupled with his letters, these works are praised as representing the acme of Japanese esthetics in calligraphy.

Ryokan composed about 100 haiku poems. Some of them are known around the world, such as the following one.

The winds gives me
Enough fallen leaves
To make a fire
(translated by John Stevens)

Ryokan sometimes bounced balls and played hide-and-seek with children, and there are many anecdotes about his doings. He endeared himself to both young and old. The deep humanity permeating his Zen outlook, poetry, calligraphy, and behavior still command the love and respect of many people.

The city of Tsubame is the place where Ryokan underwent Zen training and reached maturity in his artistic endeavors. It is the site of the Gogo-an hermitage and Otogo Shrine hut where Ryokan lived for many years, and the Nakamura house where he stayed while attending the school run by Omori Shiyo. It also contains the houses of the Abe, Kera, and Harada families, whose heads were fellow-poets and supporters of Ryokan. Visitors may find sites associated with Ryokan and monuments inscribed with his poems in many parts of the city. We urge you to come and see for yourself!

The Bunsui Ryokan Archive collection

Ryokan iai no kazarimari
A decorative temari ball with which Ryokan used to play

Ryokan shofuku "Sakura no uta"
"Song of the Cherry" hanging scroll with calligraphy by Ryokan

Ryokan temari no zu
A painting of Ryokan bouncing the temari ball

  

Mount Kugami, a locale favored by Ryokan

Connected to Mount Yahiko, which is itself an object of Shinto worship, Mount Kugami rises 313 meters above sea level and has numerous historical sites. The main ones are Kokujoji Temple, which is located about halfway up and is the oldest temple in all of the former Echigo Province, and Ryokan's Gogo-an hermitage and Otogo Shrine hut. It is also celebrated in legends such as the tale of Shuten Doji.

The summit affords a spectacular view of the Sea of Japan below and, further in the distance, the island of Sado, Noto Peninsula, and the three peaks of Echigo. A short distance down from it is Jakuzure, which is known for its picturesque rock formations and old pine trees. The view of the Echigo Plain from here is breathtaking. There are also many hiking trails that are sure to be enjoyed by both novices and veterans. At the foot of Kugami is Temari-no-Yu, a hot springs where all can bathe and soak after a hike.

Visitors who arrive at Mount Kugami by car are asked to park in the parking lot in front of the Visitor Service Center. The climb from that parking lot to the summit takes about 25 minutes. The walk to see Gogo-an and other historical sites takes about 1 hour. There is also a hiking trail that begins at the Kugami Michi-no-Eki store. For more details, please see the Mount Kugami Trekking Map.

 

Tour of Ryokan historical sites

Kokujoji (Kokujoji Temple)

Located halfway up Mount Kugami, Kokujoji Temple belongs to the Shingon (True Word) sect of Buddhism. It is a venerable temple that was built in 709, making it the oldest one in Niigata Prefecture. On its grounds is an impressive array of imposing buildings. Besides the Main Hall, these include the Reception Hall, Hexagonal Temple, Master Teacher Temple, Sutra Repository, Bell Tower Building, and Treasury. Legend has it that Shuten Doji was a novice at this temple.
In 2009, the temple celebrated the 1,300th anniversary of its founding.
* Contact
- Kokujoji Temple
-- Tel: 0256-97-3758
-- Kokujoji Temple website

Map of Ryokan historical sites

 

Gogo-an (Hermitage)

This is the hermitage where Ryokan lived for about 20 years beginning in 1797, when he came back to Echigo after finishing his difficult training at Entsuji Temple in Tamashima (present-day Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture) and visiting eminent monks in various parts of Japan to learn more. The name came from the five bowls (go go) of rice which were said to have been given every day to the monk Bangen, who rebuilt the Main Hall of Kokujoji Temple.

 

Otogo Jinja Soan (Otogo Shrine hut)

As the Gogo-an hermitage grew dilapidated and he found it increasingly hard to go up and down the mountain in his old age, Ryokan moved to the office of Otogo Shrine in 1816, and lived there for about 10 years. Before he knew it, the office came to be known as the Otogo Shrine Soan (hut). The 10 years he spent here are regarded as coinciding with the full ripening of Ryokan's art.

 

Yugure-no-Oka (Sunset Hill)

Yugure-no-Oka (Sunset Hill) is located on the eastern bank of the Okozu diversion channel. Legend has it that Ryokan often rested here as he made his rounds begging. The name derives from one of the tanka (31-syllable) poems written by the monk Bangen.

 

Bunsui Ryokan Archive

The Archive displays specimens of calligraphy and drawings by Ryokan and related materials dating from the days of his residence at Gogo-an and Otogo Shrine. The highlights are superb works passed down by the Kera and Abe families, which had close ties with Ryokan in his twilight years.

- Opening hours: 9:00 AM - 4:30 PM
- Closed Mondays (open on holidays) and for the New Year's holiday season
- Admission
-- Adults: \300
-- Students: \200
-- Grade school and junior high school students: \100 (group discounts available)
- Address and contact
-- 9-9 Kamisuwa, Tsubame, Niigata Prefecture (a walk of about 5 minutes from JR Bunsui Station)
-- Tel: 0256-97-2428
-- Bunsui Ryokan Archive website

 

Tour of monuments inscribed with poems by Ryokan

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Born to the family of the town headman in Izumozaki in 1758, Ryokan took up residence at Gogo-an on the slopes of Mount Kugami after a long period of difficult Zen training and a pilgrimage to Zen masters in various provinces of Japan. In the vicinity of Mount Kugami are many monuments inscribed with poems written by him. People who go to see these monuments, one after the other, feel they have been brought that much closer to Ryokan's spirit.

For more details, click here.

 

Visitor Service Center

The Center is a tourism information facility halfway up Mount Kugami. It features specimens of Ryokan's calligraphy, photos of the Mount Kugami area in each of the four seasons, and other exhibits. There is also space which visitors can use free of charge for resting.
- Visitor Service Center Tel: 0256-97-1661
- Closed on Tuesdays and during winter (December - February)
-- Please note that the opening hours may be changed due to the weather or other factors.
 
Tourism Promotion Office
Commerce Promotion Division
City of Tsubame
1934 Yoshida Nishiota, Tsubame City, Niigata Prefecture 959-0295, Japan
TEL (Overseas) +81-256-92-2111 / (Domestic) 0256-92-2111
FAX.0256-77-8306 / E-mail:kanko@city.tsubame.lg.jp
Tourist Association of
City of Tsubame
4336 Omagari, Tsubame City, Niigata Prefecture 959-1263, Japan
TEL (Domestic) 0256-64-7630
FAX.0256-64-7638 / E-mail:tsubame-kankou@za.wakwak.com
Tourist Association of
Tsubame District, City of Tsubame
6856 Higashi Ota, Tsubame City, Niigata Prefecture, Japan (Tsubame Chamber of Commerce and Industry)
TEL (Domestic) 0256-63-4116
FAX.0256-63-8705 / E-mail:
 
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