Photo/IllutrationTourists scoop natural spring water from the mouths of dragon-shaped faucets with ladles in the Shibokusa district of Oshino, Yamanashi Prefecture. (Eiichi Murano)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories featuring the aesthetic landscapes of Mount Fuji, Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture and Izu in Shizuoka Prefecture, which have been visited by an increasing number of tourists from overseas. Based on conversations with travelers, the series casts light on sceneries and cultural heritages that gave form to these areas.

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Brimming with crystal clear, cobalt blue water, Waku-ike is the representative pond of the eight sacred Oshino Hakkai ponds in Oshino, Yamanashi Prefecture.

The ponds are revered because they are fed with natural spring water from Mount Fuji. As a result, the beds of the ponds, about four meters deep in places, are clearly visible.

Gushing at a rate of about 2.2 cubic meters per second, the water inflow causes submerged tape grass to dance rhythmically. A subterranean cavern is known to measure at least 55 meters, but it could well stretch further.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the Hachidai Ryuo (eight great dragon kings), or Buddhist guardians of the Lotus Sutra, were enshrined in stone monuments set up near the eight ponds where “Fujiko” religious groups performed ablutions.

Based on the stone monuments and ancient documents, the Oshino Hakkai ponds are included in the World Cultural Heritage status granted by UNESCO to Mount Fuji and a huge swath of countryside in 2013.

“The water is so pure that it makes me feel refreshed,” said Luo Luqiang, 64, a visitor from Shanghai, at the edge of Waku-ike as he praised the beauty of the pond. Luo didn’t know about the Hachidai Ryuo monuments, but added: “Dragons are very celestial.”

Close to Waku-ike pond is a water fountain decorated with dragon-shaped faucets, from whose mouths groundwater gushes out.

“It tastes sweet, and it’s good. It’s groundwater flowing from Mount Fuji, isn’t it?” Sasa, 33, from the Chinese city of Luoyang, said after taking a gulp. “Heavenly dragons protect people. We Chinese love dragons.”

The Oshino Hakkai ponds are particularly popular with Chinese visitors.

According to estimates by the village office, about 1 million tourists visited Oshino Hakkai last year. Officials from the local tourist information center said that more than 50 percent of visitors were Chinese, and 70 to 80 percent were foreign nationals.

During the Tenpo Era (1830-1844), Oyori Tomoemon, one of the village chiefs of what is now the Ichikawa-Misatocho district in Yamanashi Prefecture, designed and dredged the ponds as areas for pilgrims to perform ablutions. He also established pilgrimage routes and ordered the Hachidai Ryuo monuments erected in 1843.

Tomoemon promoted the entire area as Moto-Hakko, a scaled-back version of the Uchi-Hakkai lakes, including the Fuji Five Lakes visited by pilgrims before they scaled sacred Mount Fuji, the nation's highest peak. Fujiko followers from across the Kanto region flocked to the area.

According to documents from Toenji temple in Oshino, the work to transform the site into a pilgrimage route cost about 180 “ryo,” about 18 million yen ($160,000) in today's money, and involved more than 2,000 workers.

The Tempo famine that raged from 1833 to 1836 claimed the lives of 100 workers in Oshio one year. But once the project was completed, the figure dropped below 10.

Visiting pilgrims brought a measure of prosperity to the village and unquestionably saved many lives through their powers of healing.

Of the eight Oshino Hakkai ponds, Waku-ike and six others are all located in close proximity, within a radius of 200 meters. The only exception is Deguchi-ike pond, which is about 1 kilometer away.

In light of the historical background to the pilgrimage site, an advisory body to UNESCO noted that the inter-connectedness between the eight ponds was an issue that needed to be worked out when Mount Fuji and its surrounding areas were designated as a World Cultural Heritage site.

Interest in the pilgrimage tradition is not what it was, and only a small number of people go out of their way these days to reach Deguchi-ike pond on foot.

“Most people don’t know it is a Cultural Heritage site, and they go there thinking it is a Natural Heritage site,” said an official at the tourist information center who handles inquiries from foreign visitors. “To get them interested in it, we explain that it is a pilgrimage site of mountain worship unique to Japan.”

Toenji, eager for future generations to understand the historical importance of the area, views the Hachidai Ryuo dragon kings as a key item of interest.

Since spring, priests have placed the names of the eight dragon kings on “goshuincho” books brought by worshipers who collect “goshuin” seal stamps available at temples and shrines, on the 8th, 18th and 28th of each month.

Temple officials also have plans to build an octagon-shaped hall dedicated to the Kannon deity to enshrine the Hachidai Ryuo in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

“Oshino became a designated World Cultural Heritage site precisely because Oyori Tomoemon built the ponds for ablution, and it owes it prosperity to that decision. He is the savior of our village,” said chief priest Jijo Takano.

Temple officials intend to display the ancient documents that record Tomoemon’s achievements in the planned hall for public viewing.

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Eiichi Murano is chief of The Asahi Shimbun’s Odawara and Atami bureaus.