Hell and Heaven Cave / Keishoji Temple in Ajimu 地獄極楽 桂昌寺 安心院町
The jigoku (hells) of Beppu in Oita prefecture are among of the most famous tourist attractions of the hot spring town. They are boiling hot ponds and both in the Western and the Buddhist imagination, hell is boiling hot. In fact, one of the central punishment spots in Japanese Buddhist hell is a boiling pond called Blood Pond (Chinoike). It has sort of a visitable equivalent in the red-colored 78° Celsius pond by the same name in the Shibaseki section of Beppu.
Another pond, the Kamado Jigoku in Beppu-Kannawa, has a red devil sculpture presiding over the boiling water. Kannawa's local food specialty is Jigoku mushi (hell steamed). Fresh meat, fish and vegetables steamed right in the hot spring steam. Bus stops have names like Jigoku Baru - translating as Hell Meadow.
If however you want to know about the real ancient concepts of Japanese hell, Kyushu country-side style, do a half-hour drive out of Kannawa, to a village named Ajimu. There you can visit the truly impressive Jigoku Gokuraku (Hell and Heaven) cave.
Driving on Route 500 towards Usa, you pass by the African Safari Wildlife Park and finally enter a perfectly rural area dominated by wooded mountains and paddy fields.
There are a few impressive waterfalls not far from the route. The 85m high Higashi Shiya waterfall is quite a beautiful sight. Ajimu is also famous for the suppon farmed and served here, a kind of turtle.
They make for good stews - and in the more upscale suppon restaurants you can drink the turtle blood, too. It comes freshly drafted from a slit turtle's neck.
Look for the signs pointing towards Keishoji Temple and take a right once the intersection comes up. The road ends after a few hundred meters in the midst of the paddy fields. There is a little shelter room for visitors equipped with a drink vending machine and a toilet and a parking lot outside.
Walk over to the stone steps leading up the hill. A sign at the foot of the steps says in Japanese Jigoku Gokuraku (Hell and Heaven).
If you come here in late September, you will see higanbana flowers lining the steps. What could be more appropriate? Higanbana are the Japanese flowers of death after all.
The first time I visited the cave, it was the time of full higanbana bloom and right at the bottom of those stone steps a large black snake slowly made its way through the blood red flowers. Once it spotted me, it quickly made its exit into the higanbana-dotted shrubbery.
The blood-red flowers of death and a black snake crossing the path? Was that a special welcome by the temple's netherworld gods?
Once you have climbed the steps, you arrive at a rather new, unmanned little wood & glass structure. You can sign in at the guest book, if you like. There is nothing left of the ancient Keishoji Temple except the Jigoku Gokuraku cave.
Walk to the right. A big sign in English informs you that the cave you are about to visit was created in 1820 by a monk named Godo Hoin. At that time Keishoji Temple had already been abandoned. But the temple left the legacy of a system of man-made caves.
Godo Hoin turned those caves into the hell & heaven re-creation we can see today. He obviously felt the need to teach the local farmers about the horrors awaiting those in the afterlife who behaved in undesirable ways. But he also wanted to show them the pleasures waiting for those who lived their lives pleasing the gods.
Enter the cave. The first room you walk into is the court room of the netherworld. A statue of Enma is sitting in front, the judge who decides where you will go in the afterlife. By his side are the Ox-Head and the Horse-Face, his adjutants.
The Enma looks grim and ready to send the departed to the deepest depths of hell. He is an irascible judge and you better show a clean record or else.
The river the dead souls have to cross has not been re-created here. You walk straight into hell - for purely educational purposes, of course. The cave is getting narrow, the ceiling is low. Devils of all sorts are placed into carefully carved-out spaces in the cave walls.
Eventually, you make it to the center of hell: the Blood Pond. It's a small clear pond on a narrow section of the cave, the Red Devil and the Blue Devil stir it with sticks. The Blood Pond (Chinoike) is where the worst of the worst offenders have to swim in for eternity, to be subjected to further torture by the Red and the Blue Devil and their many helpers.
Atop hangs a bare light bulb illuminating the scene. Unfortunately, the cave has electrical light today. One can only imagine what impression this cave gave to the deeply religious farmers back in the 1820's when it was completely dark, save for the flimsy lanterns the visitors brought.
Walk on and see more devils lurking in the walls - but gradually their faces get less grim and the cave widens. Here, the lesser offenders find their place.
Eventually you cross see the daylight again - and are greeted by a row of happily smiling Buddha statues outside the large cave opening to heaven - or rather the open sky. A banana tree grows next to the smiling Buddhas. You are right in paradise here.
But that's not the final step of reaching heaven yet. From here, you can enter a vertical tunnel with a chain dangling down. Climb that chain up and you reach the top of heaven. Climbing up that chain is however only for the more athletic types.
Everyone else may get to the same high elevation of heaven by hiking up a steep pathway - occasionally also to be climbed with the help of chains.
Reaching the top, you get a great view over the paddy fields below and of the towering Mount Yufu (Yufudake) in the distance. A Buddha statue smiles its mysterious smile while you overlook the beauty of the landscape.
Access - Getting to Ajimu
Driving is the easiest and by far most convenient. Follow Route 500 in direction Usa, turn right at the sign for Keishoji Temple.
No bus service from Beppu to Ajimu. Bus service from Nakatsu Station and Usa City: www.onthestreet.jp/busride.php?od=2057nakatsu-usa
The cave is a long walk from the bus stop.
Hitchhiking: Take the Kamenoi Bus from Beppu Station bound for the African Safari, get off the stop before the final stop. Try to hitch a ride on Route 500 in direction Usa.
Address: Ajimumachi Higashiera, Usa-shi, Oita Prefecture 872-0702
Tel: 0978 34 4839
Admission: free of charge
Opening times: daytime, daily