Pilgrimages to the Ancient Temples in Nara

Watsuji Tetsurō

Translated with an Introduction by Hiroshi Nara


2012, 252 pages • illustrated • index

ISBN 978-1-937385-10-1 Paper $35.00
ISBN 978-1-937385-11-8 Cloth $65.00

"Although a number of works by the celebrated Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsurō (1889–1960) have been translated into English, the publication of his Pilgrimages to the Ancient Temples in Nara (Koji junrei), first published in 1919, now makes available his most accessible and beloved work to an international audience. Written after Watsuji had immersed himself in European philosophy, and written a book on Kierkegaard in 1915, this account of his trips to Nara and the surrounding area serves both as a travelogue and a moving account of the interior spiritual journey of a man who, like so many of his generation, wished to grasp the early roots of his own culture, now so influenced in this century by the Western example. This book remains a perennial favorite among Japanese readers and has never been out of print. A modern classic of Japanese cultural history, Pilgrimages makes absorbing reading in this elegant translation, particularly when accompanied with so many striking photographs of the sites that Watsuji describes. This book is a major contribution to modern Japanese cultural studies and should find a wide audience."
—J. Thomas Rimer, Professor of Japanese Literature,
University of Pittsburgh (Emeritus)

Watsuji's Koji Junrei is a book of impressions of a trip Watsuji took with a few of his friends to the city of Nara in 1918, the capital city of ancient Japan, where he saw a number of Buddhist temples. Watsuji was 29 at the time of the trip. By the time he took this trip to Nara, Watsuji had already published influential, groundbreaking books on Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and the book Gūzū saikō (Resurrection of Idols).
    Koji junrei is significant in that it began a modern literary trend (and commercial publications) of "travel writing" about ancient temples and shrines in Japan and elsewhere. While the genre has existed for centuries, it was Koji junrei that almost single-handedly resurrected this genre. The book still retains a timeless appeal to the Japanese. Even today some travelers visit Nara temples clutching a copy of Koji junrei, ninety years after its first publication. Richly illustrated, its cultural significance cannot be underestimated.

Watsuji Tetsurō (1889-1960) taught ethics at the Kyoto Imperial University beginning in 1925, and taught at Tokyo Imperial University from 1935 to 1949. He wrote a number of important books on Japanese cultural history, religion, and ethics. His prewar work was considered to be very influential in forming the emperor-centric ideology.

Hiroshi Nara is professor and chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. He works in Japanese linguistics and interwar Japanese intellectual history. His best-known work is The Structure of Detachment (2004), which includes an English translation of The Structure of 'Iki'.




In the Japanese original, “Koji Junrei” (1919), this book is a classic, much imitated and still quite widely read, although it has also been sometimes controversial. Tetsuro Watsuji (1889-1960), renowned as a thinker, was 29 when he made the journey it records, and had already published books on Western philosophy, notably on Friedrich Nietzsche. With this volume he turned in a different direction.
    For a domestic travelogue, the book opens somewhat oddly, with reflections on reproductions of paintings in Ajanta that the writer had seen just before departure. But his close attention to these, and his astute comments on them, announce one of the wider subjects with which his book and journey are concerned: he notes the sensual depiction of women, part of ‘the naturalism specific to India,’ and wonders whether it might not represent a bridge between classical Greek art and Buddhist statuary in Japan.
    Stopping with an uncle in Kyoto, Watsuji is stirred by the backdrop of Mount Hiei, its misty summit just beyond the temple-gardens of the city. Thus begins his exploration of Japan’s earliest tradition, one that leads him on to Nara, and speculations about the deeper reaches of the past. Already, taking a bath, it occurs to him that ‘the custom of bathing originated in Asia’ and that perhaps ‘Westerners do not appreciate the subtlety of bathing.’ This announces a change.
    The change, and in an important sense the purpose of the journey, is a reconsideration of his own culture as set against the new thought and values so precipitately introduced in the Meiji era, after Japan’s opening to the West. Since the book is written as a diary, with dated entries, and was never substantially revised, it presents the young author’s thoughts as they occur. So Nara, after Kyoto, seems to him “much more wide-open, straightforward and unconcerned.”
    Meeting up with friends in Nara, Watsuji begins exploring its varied sights, traveling by rickshaw or on foot. A temple on the outskirts fills him with an ecstatic feeling, before he turns to the museum, finding it a muddle in the arrangement of its treasures. There are detailed, deeply appreciative, notes on his impressions of different Buddhist carvings, above all the statues of Kannon. But the more notable speculations come in his discussions of the ancient temple dances from which Noh evolved.
    Behind the plays and music, as with the carvings on display, lie continental origins, in China, and even further west in India, and these are the hints that Watsuji picks up and considers. Sometimes quite emphatic in his observations, he is also deeply aware how these ancient temples connect to things long before the new modernizing Japan. Above all, it seems, he would like to discover the spirit of ancient Greece in Japan, a spirit that he thinks may have reached it from afar, even as it faded elsewhere.


Feelings at once of peace and familiarity inform the better moments of this journey of refreshment and return. Standing still, the writer dreams himself back into the past, the first flowering of Buddhist culture in the ancient city: “Imagine what it would have been like to listen to all the temple bells surrounding the capital being struck in unison.” No wonder, then, that Watsuji’s account has been such an important inspiration to others to retrace the journey, as well as an influence on later writers.
    The tanka poet Yaichi Aizu (1881–1956) shared many of Watsuji’s ideas, especially about the importance of ancient Greece, and his poems, published later, complement the other’s prose reflections. The haiku poet Shuoshi Mizuhara (1892–1981) went to Nara with Watsuji’s book in hand, and composed lyrical verses about the city that broke with the dominant haiku conventions, creating a new style.
    Ghosting this book, too, as the informative introduction tells us, is another volume of travel writing by a European poet. Watsuji refers briefly to the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), who went to Italy on a similarly self-searching journey, before settling to his lifework as a poet. Where Goethe went south to examine the origins of European culture, so Watsuji travels to western Japan, to rediscover the sources of the modern country.
    Two things are going on here. On the one hand the writer is deeply refreshed by this turning back to what matters most: the intellectual and artistic flourishing that followed the Buddhist enlightenment. At the same time, since that enlightenment came from China, and was transmitted together with its writing system, and a whole range of other cultural intrusions, the diarist is also searching for a way to negotiate the new, and almost overwhelming, absorption of Western science, thought and practice.
    The dated entries cease after several chapters, when the author warms to his deepest subject, which is to understand and cherish what has gone before, and wonder how it might accommodate the future. Near the end there is a transfiguring moonlit scene that echoes one in Goethe, and the book closes with rapturous descriptions of Horyuji. Hiroshi Nara has performed a valuable service in making this volume available in English, with ample explanatory notes.”

—The Japan Times