Go toward the temple’s main hall. Inside is an imposing yet peaceful 5-meter-tall statue of Shakyamuni, the historic Buddha on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. This is just one of many daibutsu, or large statues of Buddha, located across Japan.
Not long after the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, the wandering monk Gyōki came to Unzen and established a Buddhist temple on the mountain in 701. While the temple buildings and the other temples that built later were destroyed when Shimabara became a Christian domain in the late sixteenth century, Manmyōji is in direct lineage of that first temple.
This statue was built in Kyoto, then reassembled here in 1914 after the temple’s original statue was destroyed. In fact, Manmyōji has been destroyed many times across Unzen’s long history of religious unrest. The statue is made of wood and specially covered in an incredible five layers of pure gold leaf—a single layer would soon begin to lose its color from the sulfur in the air.
Go back outside and follow the path into the nearby forest. Here, you can spend some time walking a miniature version of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage of Shikoku. On the island of Shikoku, there are 88 temples associated with the famous monk Kūkai. Temple pilgrimages were a popular way to earn karmic merit and a good excuse to travel, but Edo-period (1603–1868) travel restrictions often presented a barrier. For those who could not make it to Shikoku (or spend two months walking), several symbolic pilgrimages were established across Japan and still see traffic today.
Each of the 88 statues has a unique face and a small amount of soil from the temple it represents buried at its base.