Yamadera in winter. Photos credit Stack Jones.
Before the astonishing event occurred, nobody had any idea who the woman was, or where she had come from. Even after it was over, the woman remained as much a mysterious as on that day when she first arrived. All they knew, that is to say, the people of the small village, located in the mountains of Yamagata, was that the woman was not from Yamadera. The fact that she wasn’t from that village was easy to ascertain, as all the town’s folk knew each other, and if they didn’t know that woman, then she simply wasn’t from their community.
So, who was this woman? And why hadn’t she left since that day when she first arrived, carrying a glow-in-the-dark soccer ball, and a small plastic bag with who-knows-what in it? What brought her to Yamadera anyway?
It wasn’t long after her arrival that the woman became the talk of the town. The nosy folks considered her a nuisance. The worst of the lot believed she was a demon, and would do nothing better than bring the town bad luck. Tourism to the area had already been diminishing, and her presence just seemed to stoke the flames of contention. It’s like that in most bucolic communities. Folks seem to enjoy letting themselves get all worked up over nothing at all. Those who knew better knew to stay out of the natter, knowing it would only lead to more bickering between those who supposed themselves to be close neighbors. Even so, the majority of the town folk were ready to believe that this woman, that complete, and unknown stranger had brought with her something sinister. Even those that didn’t usually believe in such nonsense began to believe that this time it might be true.
Some of the residents were furious, not only at the woman, but also at the local authorities who took no action on their behalf. When they then turned to the police in order to have that woman, that crazy woman forcefully ejected from the mountaintop, which she adamantly refused to depart from, they too would take no action. The town leaders then called everyone together so they could decide what to do about the woman, and what method they were to use to “get rid of her.” Others being slightly more selective in the words they chose to use in communicating their thoughts were to call it, “solving the problem.” After a few polite requests given directly to the woman (that were in reality nothing less than slightly veiled demands), she remained unbendable. This crazy woman soon became as an imperfection, a tarnished spot on a sentimental object that wouldn’t go away no matter how vigorously it was attended to. Under most circumstances where such imperfections exist, one could simply cover it up. Hide it, say, with a lamp, or a doily. But, that wasn’t the case here. That woman took hold of a spot right out in the open, and anyone that strolled along the path to the top of the mountain easily came in contact with her.
The temple at Yamadera where the woman seemed to have taken up residence is known to have one thousand, and fifteen steep steps that extend upward from the base of the mountain to its peak. The region obtained its name from the sect of Risshaku, which was founded in 860, by a priest named Ennin, who is actually better known by his posthumous name, Jikaku Daishi. (How one gets a name change after their death remains as much a mystery as the sudden arrival of the woman). In 847 upon returning to Japan from China, Ennin became the chief priest of the Tendai sect at Enryaku-ji. The Risshaku-ji was founded as a branch of the Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei near the city of Kyoto. Even today the ritual fires brought from Enryaku-ji continue to burn in the main temple on the mountains of Yamadera. It’s said the main ji (temple), Konpon-chudo was built by Shiba Kaneyori, who was the Lord of Yamagata Castle at the time. Even so, most of Risshaku-ji was destroyed during the regional wars of the early 16th century. During the Heian period the seated wooden image of Yakushi Nyorai (Buddha Bhaisajyaguru) became the principal image of the main temple. Konpon-chudo would later be rebuilt in 1543 under the instructions of a monk known as Enkai. By the Edo period (1600–1868) Risshaku-ji had become a powerful institution possessing a fief of 1,420 koku (a quantity of rice measured in liters). The present day Konpon-chudo (main hall) is a Muromachi period (1333–1568) construction of beech wood, which is rarely used as a building material. The temples that cling to the steep rocky hillsides are picturesque, and quite unusual. The “thousand step” climb through the dense cedar trees is the route one would take to the temples at the top, and for the spectacular views that awaits those who do.
Yamadera also possesses many important cultural assets in its treasure house, the Hihokan, including standing wooden images of Shaka Nyorai, Yakushi Nyorai, and Amida Nyorai, a seated wooden image of Dengyo Daishi, a hanging wooden mandala of the Buddha, and a stone monument of the Nyoho-kyo Sutra from 1144.
Yamadera is also where the famous haiku poet Matsuo Basho wrote his famous poem, “Ah this silence, sinking into the rocks, voice of cicada.” A museum of Basho’s writings, paintings, and other related art are stored at the Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum, which is a short walk up the hill on the opposite side of the modern day road that cuts through the steep valley of the small village.
The Ministry of the Environment also selected the cicadas of Yamadera as one of the great soundscapes of Japan. Who would have known that of all the great treasures, the accolades bestowed upon them, and the deep mysteries that are part of the lore of Yamadera, there would soon to be another added to it. But for that phenomenon that followed the crazy woman’s sudden appearance this would not be so. Even the most pessimistic, and disagreeable of the town’s people stand firmly in their belief that neither would have occurred without the other.
The woman didn’t arrive in Yamadera seeking accolades. She wasn’t interested in being held in high regard. She wasn’t concerned with any of the historical significance that the town held either. Despite all of these matters, none of it was the reason she arrived in town, on foot, in near rags, and clutching that glow-in-the-dark soccer ball.
During the brief stint when the woman became the focal point of the town’s gossip, the monk who lived at the top of the mountain was the only one who ever sided with her. He’d always end the heated arguments over the woman’s presence by stating, “There is a purpose for all things, as well as an impermanence of all things. When the time comes for the woman to depart, she will go. Let us give it no more thought.” The idea that the woman’s departure was to be some future event remained unsettling to the local people. They wanted her gone, and they wanted her gone yesterday. Better yet, they collectively wished she never arrived in their quiet little community, and took up residence at the top of the mountain. The woman’s presence, at first a minor annoyance, now irked the entire town. She must go!
As word spread that there was a crazy woman who wouldn’t leave the mountain top shrine, outsiders became curious. They began arriving at the village just to get a glimpse of her. They would ascend those more than a thousand steps, and find the woman, as they had heard, dressed in near rags, and kneeling before the children’s shrine. It seemed as if she never moved from that position, as if she never shifted, or repositioned her body either. It turns out that none of what was transpiring was really particularly interesting, or inspiring, especially in the full heat of the summer. What was all the fuss over?
In the evening, the monk would bring the woman rice, and tea, but as he rose early each morning he would discover not only had the rice not been eaten, but also the tea he had left for her hadn’t been drunk either. This pattern went of for several days. If it continued much longer he thought, “They won’t have to drag her out. She’ll die of starvation, and thirst.”
Yamadera children’s shrine. Photo credit Stack Jones.
Before the woman, that crazy woman, sat rows, and rows of hundreds, and hundreds of little childlike figurines. Each one was colored in white, and had a tiny bright red scarf draped around its neck. Each represented a child who had passed away, and were placed there by family members. And just like the woman who now knelt before the iconic figures, each, and every one of those families had their entire existence torn away from them through the senseless, untimely, and unbearable passing of a young boy, or girl. These children would never obtain the age of adulthood. They would never grow feeble, and they would never learn to do the things that adults do, such as having children of their own. From all over Japan they came. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, as well as siblings; they would ascend those numerous steps, and place at the children’s shrine one of those red scarf cladded figurines. They did this so their child wouldn’t be alone in whatever was to follow that thing we call death. They believed, or at least hoped their child was to be surrounded by other children, those who had suffered similar fates, and were in need of comfort, and companionship. In reality, it would not be the children who agonized over their early departure. No, it would be those who would be left behind with sketches of memories, or items that the child claimed as their own, and the photos that froze moments in time. Many of those images were important events, while others less significant at the time of their taking. But beginning the day of that terrible wrenching away, those less significant images became moments memorable. Those photos would be of holidays, trips, school recitals, graduations, certificates of achievements, birthdays, awards, and rewards, and other matters that mattered most in the life of a child, and the parents who adored, and cherished them.
The woman came from Sakuranbo-Higashine. This small town had become famous for the overpriced cherries that sold well in small shops, kiosks at train stations, and supermarkets from all over Japan. Sakuranbo-Higashine was famous for their cherries, and pears too. In fact, the word sakuranbo itself actually means cherries. Ironically, most every town scattered throughout Japan was famous for something or another.
There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary about the woman’s life. She had married about a dozen years earlier, and the marriage produced a boy. Her father passed away before the boy was born. The woman’s mother had died shortly before the boy did. That was about the only thing the woman was really thankful for. She was, for lack of any other way of putting it, grateful that the elderly woman, who adored the boy, wasn’t around to agonize over his sudden, and sad departure.
It was a tragic, and senseless death. The boy was riding his bicycle, his chain fell off, and he was unable to avoid being struck by a car. He died instantly. The authorities that investigated the tragedy never faulted the driver. Regardless, that never lessoned the burden of the one who was behind the wheel. Sadly, the driver would end up committing suicide almost one year later after countlessly recalling how unbearable it was to relive that disastrous event, night after night, after night in recurrent nightmares.
The woman’s marriage to the boy’s father came to an end about the same time the driver of the car decided to take their life. This suicide story made it in the local newspaper, and kept all the pain of the boy’s passing in frequent thoughts of his parents. This while both had yet to move beyond the initial grieving stage. So, here they were again, facing the tragedy anew, and watching it expand inward, and upon itself. It wouldn’t be long before the woman, and her former husband stopped speaking to each other. Not that they didn’t truly care about one another. It was just that the boy’s tragic passing was too much for either one to bear. The pain was bad enough in their own private hells. Together it would manifest itself twofold in every conversation, act, or inactivity.
The boy was born on May 5th, which is Boy’s Day. Too much time has passed since anyone could recall for sure when the observation of the Tango-no-Sekku began, but historians trace it to an ancient Chinese custom known as Sechie, in which the royal guards wore ceremonial helmets, and carried about with them their bows and arrows. These items would later become popular at the court of the Japanese Regnant Empress known as Suiko.
The boy’s favorite things were playing soccer, and collecting Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards, that, and bike riding with his closest friend Takeshi. At one point the boy studied English. However, the lessons got in the way of nearly everything that was important to him. Finally, his parents gave him the choice of remaining in his Eikaiwa class, or playing soccer. It was a no brainer. Of course the boy would chose soccer. What boy wouldn’t? However, this decision was to be one aspect in the chain of events that played a role in his untimely passing.
It happened on a Saturday morning. The boy was on his way to play in his first scheduled game. His team, the Sakuranbo-Higashine Tigers were to play against another team from the nearby city of Tendo. Sadly, he would never make it to the game, as that’s when the tragic accident occurred. It was also about a week before Boy’s Day was to arrive.
It would be a year since the boy was gone. Prior to this mournful period the woman had already began to give away, and sell off all the things she owned. When everything was gone, and there was nothing left but the clothing on her back, the boys collection of trading cards, and his favorite soccer ball, the one that glowed in the dark, and what little money she collected from selling those paltry few items, she would then head on foot to the town of Yamadera. Why was she going to Yamadera, and the mountaintop shrine? Simply because she believed!
Yamadera is an ancient, and beautiful small village, which is located right in the heart of Yamagata’s steep mountainous terrain. The river that runs through the community is pristine, and the local people frown greatly upon anyone who’d dare to throw any rubbish into it. One would have to look very hard, and for quite some time to find even the smallest piece of debris in that river. At least in that area!
In the summer, Yamadera has numerous beautiful waterfalls that cascade down the mountains, and into crystal clear, shallow pools of water. There is no place in Japan that can rival the aesthetics, and sheer beauty of this particular region. One would take this all in while hiking along, or fishing for trout in the winding, and majestic river. During the winter, it’s a short train ride from Yamagata City to any of a number of fantastic skiing locations. In Yamadera one can simply step off of a train, and right onto a ski lift. It really is an amazing, and adventurous location. But, this too is not why the woman was heading on foot to that very same town. She was on her way to the top of the mountain to place a figurine as a representation of her child, and to pray, and to leave the trading cards, and the soccer ball amongst all the other toys, stuffed animals, baseball mitts, caps, dolls, action figures, and whatever else had once been held in the grasp of a smiling child’s hand.
This would not be the woman’s first trip to Yamadera. Years earlier before getting married, she, and her former husband had gone there by train. They spent the day walking along the river, splashing each other in the waterfalls, and walking across the numerous bridges that crisscrossed back and forth across the river. Finally, at the end of the day, the couple ascended those thousand or so steps to where a wooden structure had been built for visitors to look at the town that sat far below, and as well, take in the wonderful views of the mountains that surrounded them. Ironically, it would be that very evening the boy would be conceived. Soon, they were to marry, and spend their honeymoon in Oahu, Hawaii, getting sunburned on the beaches of Waikiki, just as many other Japanese honeymooners so often do. However, during her trek upward upon those steps, the woman wasn’t thinking about the views of the mountains, and the valley far below. She gave no thought of the waterfalls, and the numerous bridges that crossed over it. Too, she wasn’t interested in the winding river that split the beautiful little village into two, or the waterfalls that cascaded down into it.
There was nothing spectacular, or peculiar about the woman when she first appeared in the town. She merely passed the train station, the rows of tourist shops that sold ice cream, sweets, and the usual items found in souvenir shops. The woman crossed the red painted bridge, over the river, and began immediately ascending the steps that led to the children’s shrine at the top of the mountains. She never noticed the sounds of the cicadas made famous in the haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s famous poem.
As she walked up those steps, the same ones she had taken years ago, young couples, and families with children of their own were heading down as the sun was already beginning to set. Never once did the people look at the woman as they passed her. No one thought it odd that a lone woman was ascending the stairs with a small pouch, a glow-in-the-dark soccer ball, or of the demeanor of a person whose mind was already set upon performing a specific task.
As the woman reached the top of the stairs, the monk who lived alone at that location politely told the woman the temple would be closing soon. She hadn’t heard a word as she continued onward toward the place where the children’s shrine was located. When she arrived at her destination she placed the new child like figurine at the front of the sea of others. Next, she placed the soccer ball below it, and then placed the trading cards beside the ball. She then placed all the money she made from selling all she had owned, in an offering box the monk had prepared for the maintenance of the shrine. There would be no one to tell it to, but the woman now possessed nothing in the world. No home, no job, no clothing, no money, and as a result, no security. She had but one thing on her mind, and that was to pray for the return of her son. To her there was nothing left, but the hope she had in her faith that somehow, prayers really did get answered. Finally, she knelt down before the figurine, and remained there until the town folk, in their fury, and outrage would forcefully cart her away.
For three days nobody took notice of the woman, save for the monk who remained silent. Eventually, word got to the town people that a crazy woman was scaring off visitors. The self appointed officials then formed a small committee, and ascended the thousand or so steps to investigate the matter. In a state of exhaustion, they finally reached the top, and found the raggedly clad woman.
The committee returned to town, and told of their discovery. It was agreed that the committee would return to the shrine, and tell the woman she had to leave. On the next morning the committee ascended those stairs, and found the woman in the same kneeling position as they had the day before. They went to the monk’s residence, and inquired as to how long the woman had been there? The monk merely replied she hadn’t harmed anyone, not since she first arrived, and not to that very moment. He said, “She remained orderly.” This didn’t satisfy the committee. They approached the woman, and demanded she leave immediately. The woman remained vigilant. The committee realizing they were not receiving any response from the woman, returned to the town. By now most everyone agreed that the crazy woman must be forcefully ejected. The town folk chose a dozen of their strongest men to take care of the matter once and for all.
The following morning most of the town’s residence stood at the base of the steps. There were a few who were visibly shaken as they had once left behind a figurine that was a representation of the child that they lost. Others just wanted her gone, and were there to show their support in that. Since word had gotten out that there was a nutty, and disheveled woman who was haunting the mountain temple, the town’s people felt that their community had been stolen from them. This was their collective effort to get it back. It seemed clear that this woman was responsible for bringing a curse upon them. Enough was enough! Today was the day she was to finally go. And hooray for that! After a few words of encouragement, the dozen men chosen out of the community began to ascend the steep steps to the top of the mountain. This was to be the last time.
As the group of men approached the woman, they first tried to reason with her, stating that whatever it was that she had hoped to achieve hadn’t, and wouldn’t happen. But, she had given it her best effort, and that nobody could fault her for that. Their words fell on deaf ears. Next, they would drop their tactfulness, and tell her it was time for her to leave. But, again she would not regard their demands. Finally, the men felt they had no other choice but to forcefully remove her from the mountain. Having been there for several days without sustenance, the woman was in no physical condition to resist, although she desperately tried. But it would all be in vain.
As the men reached the final step, the woman struggled to be freed. She cried out, and begged to be allowed to return to the shrine. Most of the people who were standing nearest to her shook their heads, and clicked their tongues. Even in their anger, they took pity upon her, seeing the woman was half mad. Some openly mocked and ridiculed her. Others wondered what all the fuss was about as they fanned away, or wiped away the perspiration that was the result of the heat, and humidity, and which easily accumulated. It was at this moment that one of the town folks suddenly shouted, as she looked skyward.
Although it was a bright, and sunny day with few clouds overhead, it appeared to be snowing on the top of the mountain. It was snowing, but it was sunny, like one of those odd days when it rains, but the sun still shines downward as everything is being drenched in water. The snow also appeared as though it was on fire. The entire crowd collectively gasped, forgetting all about the crazy woman as they stared at the sky in disbelief. The woman then loosed herself from the men’s grip, and raced back toward the top of the mountain. Even in her weakened, and emaciated state, she never once stopped to pause.
As she raced past the monk’s simple cottage she hadn’t noticed that he was already on his knees, prayer beads in hand, and weeping profusely.
When the woman reached the children’s shrine, all of the white figurines, each having their own little red scarf, began to disappear. As she made her way to the pinnacle, the very peak of the mountain, she looked up to see that the snowflakes that were falling really did appear to be on fire. As each snowflake floated downward from the sky, it landed upon the cedar-stained soil, and sprung to life. Just as soon as each landed, a child, dressed in all white, and wore a red scarf around their neck. Immediately after landing, they took to the steps, and began to descend in an orderly manner. It wouldn’t be long before the town folk could see hundreds upon hundreds of children calmly, and quietly descending those one thousand, and fifteen steps. At the top of the mountain, the woman stood knowing her prayers had indeed been heard.
One by one as the children passed the woman, they stooped, and pick up one of the weather beaten toys. Each child had a destination secured in their hearts. They were heading home. Home to where mothers longed for them, and fathers mourned over their loss. Homes to where grandparents had once doted over them, and where their brothers, and sisters had once played with them.
The last of the fiery snowflakes to fall was to be the woman’s boy. He took his place in the line of the onward moving children. Each child held a stuffed animal, a baseball mitt, a cap, a doll, an action figures, and whatever else they had once laid claim to. As the boy reached his mother, he took her by the hand, and they silently walked to the shrine, where the boy picked up the trading cards, and the glow-in-the-dark soccer ball.
As the woman, and her son approached the location where the monk was still kneeling, and weeping in great astonishment, she bowed to the man. The monk bowed deeply, face, and hands melding into the cedar stained soil.
As the woman, and her son descended those numerous steps, behind all those other children, the monk turned, and gave this miraculous event one long and final look. He continued to absorb what was occurring until each, and every one of the children were no longer in his view. He then looked up to the sky. He then suddenly leaped up, and darted toward the lookout tower. From there he could see, far below, many children, dressed in white with little red scarves making their way from the steps, and into the valley. Some were already embracing their mothers, and fathers. He could see other adults racing towards children who had descended those steps. Other fiery snow children continued onward. They walked over the red bridge, where the river ran beneath it, past the myriad of souvenir shops, the train station, and headed down the road toward Yamagata, and Sendai. They would press onward until they reached their destination, home where there would be no more sorrow, and weeping for children who left this world long before it was their time to do so.
Word spread rapidly that the children had returned from the sky. The train cars to the village were packed. Cars jammed the single lane road that led into the small village community from both east, and west. From the top of the mountain, the monk could see parents embracing tiny children. The sight of these precious young rushing into their parent’s arms caused the monk’s eyes to cloud over in tears that just kept streaming down his face. Finally, the only thing he could see was the colors of white, and red that seemed to dance within the clear liquid layer that covered his unbelieving, no… his eyes that believed now more than ever before.
As the woman, and her son descended the final step, the entire town had already lined the road she first arrived in Yamadera upon. Everyone bowed, and then dropped to their knees, and began to weep, just as the monk had. The woman never noticed any of it.
The view from Yamadera. Photo credit Stack Jones.
Author’s Note: When I first saw the children’s shrine at Yamadera Temple in the northern mountains of Japan, I had no idea it was a place of mourning for those who lost a child. I wouldn’t learn of this until long after I took photos of the location, and its numerous child like figurines, each representing a child who has passed away.