A monk from Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture has been making pilgrimages to China for 30 years, following in the footsteps of Kukai, the Japanese monk who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism in the early ninth century.

“Kukai and Mikkyo (esoteric Buddhism) have revived in China,” 71-year-old Jien Shizuka said in an interview.

“China is a great nation, but Kukai is also great,” Shizuka said. “We feel anew his greatness.”

Mount Koya is the holy place Kukai opened to serve as a training site for his sect.

Shizuka first arrived in China on the seashore of a fishing village in the province of Fujian in 1984, where a ship carrying the Japanese delegation including Kukai is believed to have washed ashore in 804.

Shizuka was one of the first foreigners to visit after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.

On his first pilgrimage, Shizuka walked, drove and took trains with four other monks from Mount Koya along the same 2,400-km road to the ancient capital of Chang’an (now Xian), believed to have been taken by Kukai (774-835) some 1,200 years ago. Along the way, they made stops to visit such cities as Hangzhou and Luoyang, before arriving at their destination at the end of March 1984.

Shizuka was hoping to visit China earlier and had been preparing for the trip since 1983. But arrangements stalled as China had not yet followed through on economic reforms or opened its market.

“What we needed in the end was a political decision between the then-leaders of both Japan and China,” he said.

His pilgrimages have since passed 40, earning him plenty of friends in China.

Shizuka said his knowledge of the teachings of esoteric Buddhism, which are no longer handed down in China, often impress local residents.

“Everything was originally brought back to Japan from China by Kukai,” he said.

As its economy grows, China is building more temples with “a hefty amount of donations from wealthy families,” he said.

Since 2010, some Chinese have also taken part in his pilgrimages to “the Kukai road,” and a Kukai study group has formed in Fujian province, he said.

Shizuka also co-hosted international conferences in China in 2011 and 2012, bringing together Buddhism researchers from such countries as South Korea, Mongolia and India, plus Japan and China, with the Chinese government’s endorsement. His latest pilgrimage was in late November.

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