The colorful wolf

The caves of heaven and hell

Deep down in the mountains of Shikoku, on a small mountain road sloping slightly upward, there exists a place that, with a sense of misplaced fantasy, could be called a tourist attraction. A place that I would describe as weird. It’s something I never really expected to see in Japan, yet if I would gather up all the mental images of the weirdness of Japan in my mind, I could imagine a place like this existing. The caves of heaven and hell.

We walked slowly because the road was sloping upwards quite a bit. Long past the much-famed vine bridge, which turned out to be a boring tourist attraction, we were still walking (climbing?) up the road. A local told us there would be caves nearby that tourists sometimes go to visit, but we already walked for quite a while, and we still didn’t see any caves. We were about to give up and go back when we finally found what seemed like a sign that we were on the right way to our destination unknown. A building in the middle of the mountain with a huge sign on it. The caves of heaven and hell await us.

Arriving at the entrance we found no-one but a lonely old woman sitting at the ticket counter. The place looked like it hadn’t seen tourists for months. The entrance certainly didn’t look like a tourist attraction at all. It was, though, and when we tried to walk in the old woman called us back. Entrance fee. 600 yen too. It seemed hardly worth it. But we walked a long way to get there, it would be a waste to go back without at least looking at the caves. The caves of heaven and hell.

The entrance was a small tunnel passing through the edge of a mountain cliff. A sign written in blood-red Japanese characters told us: the cave of hell is to your left. The oldness of the sign only made it more creepy. Finally, entering the cave, we found something quite abnormal. It was a collection of statues and scenes that no normal person would ever dare to see, let alone show it to tourists. Some were to be expected: demonic figures of ancient Japanese culture, displayed like in so many temples and shrines around Japan, usually amid the other gods that the Japanese worship, but this time they were alone.

Gruesome scenes we saw. Demons gnawing on bones of humans. Decapitation. Statues covered in what we hoped was red paint. Crying, screaming faces. Skulls. Statues of persons broken to pieces. To what purpose they were put there I cannot imagine. Certainly not to amuse the casual tourist. I doubt the Japanese would be interested in that. The place seemed so far from reality that I wonder why it was made in the first place. Besides the evil statues we also saw a lot of displays of gnomes with huge penii, or big penii by themselves. Perhaps they were meant to make the women suffer? Hell must be a horrible place indeed.

After experiencing hell we had a chance to experience heaven, too. But heaven, as it seems, is definitely not accessible by everyone. Many religions claim that only they can enter heaven. As we found out, there is another criteria to which one must comply: you must be over eighteen. The heavenly cave was clearly smaller than hell, and it only had three displays. The first was a very large display of Buddha, and a lot of smaller statues of gods to both sides of the room. So there’s the final proof: Buddhists go to heaven.

The other two displays were decidedly more interesting to watch, and it was clear to us why no one under eighteen was allowed to enter heaven. The reason is simple: in heaven people have sex. We experienced a vision of heaven in that cave: in a darkened grotto, two realistic looking mannequins were positioned on a carpet in a sexual pose. The mannequins were of young people, representing people in their twenties, and judging from the deterioration on the surface of the mannequins I would venture that they had been there at least as long. Pieces of ‘skin’ of the mannequins had fallen off, and the mannequins looked like it had been lying under the rubble somewhere for 20 years.

The last display showed two similar mannequins, female, whose condition had also deteriorated quite a bit. They posed naked next to two statues of a penis. A big penis. Both heaven and hell have penii, how interesting the mind must be of the person who made this exposition.

Having finished both the cave of heaven and the cave of hell, we ventured to the other side of the cave to explore further. Coming back into the light we found a modern-looking building, shaped to look like a traditional Japanese house, or castle. Next to the building were several cages. In one cage was a very large wild boar, and the other ones were populated by some monkeys. The animals did not look very well, and I doubt that they are taken care of well enough. In front of the strange modern building were gathered a lot of statues that did not seem to have any relation to each other. Amongst religious figures and historical figures we found a monkey, and Donald Duck.

The whole place gave off quite a creepy feeling, and the whole thing seemed to come straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. There was nobody there. Just us, and the old woman who sold us the ticket. She never came out of her booth. Even though a tourist attraction was maybe 15 minutes away on foot, nobody ever came to these parts. Nobody ever follows the road through to this place. And who could imagine such a creepy collection of peculiarities could be found in a mysterious cave in the middle of the mountains of Shikoku? It seemed like the time stood still there, and it had been standing still for 20 years. The ancient vending machine could only confirm this.

Leaving the poor monkeys and the old woman behind, we walked back down into the modern world. It was quite a unique experience, and one I will not soon forget. Of all the places in Japan that I’ve been, this one stands out so far as the most creepy. A place totally disconnected from reality. The caves of heaven and hell.

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1 Comment »

  1. Thank you for this interesting information.
    There is actually a big photo book about strange places like the one you mentioned above (since similar places can be found all over Japan, believe it or not). The book I have is called “Roadside Japan” by Kyoichi Tsuzuki (Aspect, 4800 Yen) and is bilingual (japanese/english) and I know he has published several sequels in smaller versions. The caves of heaven and hell don`t show up in my book but might in the newer sequels.
    One of the reasons I love Japan, by the way, are strange places like that. 🙂

    Comment by Lena Bauer — October 19, 2008 @ 19:58 | Reply


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