Article updated on May 20, 2020
Text & photos: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
The smell of incense sticks burnt by worshippers mixes with the scent of offered flowers. The calling song of cicadas is interrupted by the jingling of coins being dropped in bowls before a believer prays, with now and then the soft clicking sound of my camera. Capturing my subjects is not very technical, as the stone Buddhas of Usuki have been standing still for at least 700 years for the most recent ones. More than 60 Buddhas were carved, and 59 of them have been designated a National Treasure in this sacred place on the west coast of Kyushu Island.
Bhuddas are often carved in wood, or made of metal, and their stone versions (a reminder of their much larger version in the Longmen Caves in China) is unique in Japan. In Usuki, they were carved in the soft volcanic rock face, soft ashes that erupted from nearby Mount Aso and hardened over thousands of years. They remain a mystery: sculpted during the Heian period (794-1185) for the most ancient ones, and the Kamakura period (1185-1333), no one knows for what purpose or by whom these statues were made.
The attention and dedication with which these Buddhas were carved is impressive. Their facial expressions convey warmth and peacefulness. The figures of Buddha are gathered into four groups. Some colours are still visible, especially on the Buddhas of the first Hoki group. The Amidas showcase very delicate facial expressions, while the most sacred group is the Furuzono stone Buddhas. More specifically, the Dainichi Nyorai is considered as the finest stone Buddha statue in Japan. Since the 12th century it has been overlooking the peaceful and beautiful countryside surrounding Usuki.
After all these centuries, and 14 years of restoration including the building of protective structures, it is a miracle that no more of these masterpieces have been eroded by rain and humidity.
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