Some people atone for past deeds by finding religion. Others change their lives to help others. One monk in Japan decided to dig a two-hundred meter tunnel. By hand.
Hey – to each his own.
Before the arrival of Zenkai the monk, the people of Yabakei town in northern Oita prefecture had a problem. One of their most revered temples – the mountaintop religious retreat of Rakanji – could only be reached via a precarious climb over rocky cliffs. The path was so dangerous that travelers regularly fell to their deaths.
Enter Zenkai, a former murderer who had found redemption in religious life. Seizing on the geographical conundrum as a way to make up for his past sins, the dedicated monk spent three decades tunneling through the rocky mountain to provide pilgrims to the temple with a safer mode of passage. According to legend, he dug the entire tunnel with a hammer and a chisel. You can actually see a statue of Zenkai with his tools at the south entrance to the tunnel. The real instruments are on display at Rakanji Temple in a small museum dedicated to the monk.
Whether you believe the tale or not, the Ao no Domon tunnel is a rather remarkable feature in a landscape replete with fascinating rock formations. All 185 meters of the tunnel can be walked or driven, though drivers should note that some sections of the original tunnel are either underground or only accessible to pedestrians. Cuts in the rock allow visitors to see out to the Yamakuni river beyond.
For more intrepid explorers, there are paths through the woods up onto the cliffs above the tunnel. It’s possible that these intersected with the former trail to the Rakanji Temple as they are marked at certain intervals with old jizo statues and moss-covered way markers. The initial climb is quite steep and the path gets very slick after rainy weather. Mapboards at the base of the mountain provide several possible routes to take but hikers should at least take a cell phone picture for guidance as signage along the trail is sparse.
In autumn, the Yabakei Gorge itself is one of Oita’s top destinations for fall foliage. While my visit here was just a few weeks too early, it was easy to see the hundreds of maples covering the hills just starting to get hints of red. If you have your own transportation, a day drive through the area in early November would be a highlight.