Less-Traveled Roads: Gofukuji Temple and Mt. Hachibuse

Fri, Sep 25, 2020

One thousand meters above sea level doesn’t feel all that high when the mountain right above you rises another thousand. Deep in the quiet of the forested hillsides of southeast Matsumoto it’s hard to tell how high you are – or how far back in time you’ve gone.

Then you stumble upon a couple of bronze cows and you really start to wonder what the hell is going on.

The old calendar read Year 24 of the Suiko Era – and the really old calendar read 1276 – when Prince Shotoku forged a statue of the eleven-faced Goddess of Mercy, Kanzenon Bosatsu (aka the Buddhist Kannon Bodhisattva) and had it placed here in the woods below Mt. Hachibuse. Though let’s be honest, princes don’t forge statues as much as they have them forged, but either way Shotoku is considered one of the earliest proponents of Japanese Buddhism and did his part spreading statues and temples around.

The shaded approach to Gofukuji.
The Sanmon Gate. “Kinpo-zan Gofuku-ji” (from right to left)
The Main Prayer Hall with the legendary cows of Emperor Xuanzong.
The view from the steps leading to the Nio-mon Gate.
One of the two Nio guardian deities of Gofukuji.

Note: For reference, when Shotoku forged his statue (had it forged, ahem) the Gregorian calendar would have read 616 AD if it had been introduced yet – which it hadn’t. The Julian calendar had been though, making this statue’s birthday sometime in 1369 AUC, more or less.

Anyway, it’s old. And in case you are wondering, no you can’t see it.

So deep in the woods, on the side of a mountain, this temple housing Prince Shotoku’s Kannon was initially and for a while known as Fugen-in, the “Ordinary Wisdom Temple” – a name which seems to bleed with something less than inspiration. Then in (Gregorian Year) 756 the 7th Emperor of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Xuanzong, came through the area and mixed things up a bit. (The history is fascinating if you can make sense of all the changing Chinese names.)

Basically, after ushering in what is generally now considered the Golden Age of China’s Tang Dynasty, Xuanzong grew tired of being the Grand Poobah and switched his focus to the more pleasurable pursuit of being the Grand Philanderer, filling his pad with concubines. With Xuanzong thus distracted the struggle for imperial power was on, and before long Xuanzong fled from all the fighting with his favorite friend, Yang Guifei, reputed in the annals of history as one of the Four Great Chinese Beauties.

They were traveling through the Chengdu region when, convinced by some of his soldiers that Yang Guifei’s blood relatives were responsible for an attempted uprising against the rightful heirs to China’s poobahship, Xuanzong had Yang Guifei executed by strangulation. Details are sketchy if not non-existent, but that same year Xuanzong made his way to Japan and was on his way to Zenkoji Temple in Nagano to mourn the death of his favorite plaything when he passed by Fugen-in.

The Kannon-do Hall.
O-Binzuru-sama: Touching him where you have an injury or affliction, then touching that part of your own body, is said to bring healing and relief.
Serenity, for sure.

As part of his entourage, Xuanzong had two cows with him. One red and one black, these beasts were laden with six hundred volumes of the Daihan’nyakyō Sutra, to be placed in the repositories of Zenkoji; hardly seems to make up for having his girlfriend choked to death until you read up on the colorful and sordid habits of the Tang dynasty powerful.

But back to the cows. As the legend goes, as Xuanzong was leading his entourage past Fugen-in these two cows dropped dead at the same time. Xuanzong, believing the only rational explanation had to involve Shotoku’s eleven-faced Kannon Bodhisattva, ordered his six hundred volumes of Sutra to instead be placed here at Fugen-in (he sure as hell wasn’t going to carry them to Zenkoji himself). He had his cows buried in the mountain and their spirits enshrined in the temple, changing its name to Gofukuji, the Temple of the Prostrating Cows (a nice way to put it I guess).

History aside, the Gofukuji Temple complex offers a beautiful, spacious, serene setting in an area seldom visited by tourists. The downside is you will either need a car or a bicycle (and a lot of ambition) to get out here. Prayers for the deceased are conducted daily; check it out if you don’t mind what amounts to sitting in on a stranger’s funeral.

If you do make the drive out here, and the weather is cooperating, a minute or so up the road you can park it and go get your feet wet in the river. A drive up to the top (well, almost) of Mt. Hachibuse is also well worth your time, with the azaleas blooming like crazy in June and views of the mountains in every direction. On a clear day you can see Mt. Fuji. For less hiking (and free parking) Takabocchi is another great place to put yourself into the middle of some of Matsumoto’s best scenery.

Just play it safe and leave the cows at home.

Azaleas in June near the top of Mt. Hachibuse.
Lake Suwa – and, sometimes, Mt. Fuji – from Takabocchi.

Check out the map below to plan your route out here. Note that the road to Gofukuji does not continue up to Hachibuse, you have to backtrack to the fork in the road. Bring a barf bag for your carsick-prone friend.