Korean residents find peace of mind at Mount Ikoma temples



The earsplitting sound of Reiganji Temple’s bell echoed across Mount Ikoma, home to nearly 300 religious institutions along the border of Osaka and Nara prefectures.

The temple is one of 30 “Chosen-dera” Korean religious institutions — as they are commonly known in Japan — built on the mountain to serve as an anchor for the many residents of Korean descent in the Kansai region.

Many of these temples perform unique religious ceremonies that represent a mixture of ancient Korean shamanism and other folk religions, along with Japanese and Korean Buddhism. Many of them were built at the western base of Mount Ikoma by first-generation Korean immigrants.

Founded 70 years ago, Reiganji Temple’s tin-roofed structure could easily be mistaken for an ordinary residence but for the doorplate at its entrance. Inside, however, stands a magnificent altar decorated with lanterns in red, pink, yellow and other vivid colors.

At a recent prayer session, about 15 devotees gathered in front of the altar, surrounded by burning incense as a monk sat in the center facing a Buddhist statue, chanting a Buddhist sutra loudly and rapidly while banging intently on bells and gongs.

The ardent believers stood up and clasped their hands together in prayer, then knelt and bowed, touching the tatami floor with their foreheads. Clamor and intensity filled the room, creating an overwhelming atmosphere.

All of the temple’s followers are female, and almost all are of Korean descent and in their 50s or 60s. In many cases, their mothers and grandmothers were also devotees of the temple.

“We come to pray to our ancestors, asking them to watch over our family’s safety,” one of the women said while nibbling homemade kimchi during recess.

Chosen-dera temples began to appear on Mount Ikoma soon after the end of World War II. It was apparently a favored location because of its proximity to Osaka’s Ikuno district, which has a sizeable population of Korean residents, and also because the remote site allows the lively religious rites to be conducted without bothering any neighbors.

“Amid the harsh living conditions, it was a place for women to unleash their worries and distress,” said Ko Jongja, a 65-year-old resident of Ikuno who used to visit a Chosen-dera on the mountain as a child.

According to Hizuru Miki, 54, an Osaka International University professor who is well-versed in Mount Ikoma’s religious institutions, the number of temples at the site has dropped to less than half from a peak of more than 60, due partly to the aging of devotees.

The temples’ role as a spiritual anchor for their Korean female followers remains unchanged, however.

“Whenever I come here, I can get any weight I am feeling off my chest,” one of the believers said.