SBP Blog

Flash Fiction: The Hill of 500 Buddhas

Thomas Joel - Friday, July 08, 2016

Fiction Fridays is a new online series from Stone Bridge Press devoted to bringing readers short stories from and about Japan. This piece is from KeKe Cribbs and was inspired by the possible spiritual symbolism of the black butterflies in Japan.


The Hill of 500 Buddhas by KeKe Cribbs

 My first trip to Japan was to teach a workshop at the Toyama City Institute of Glass. How could I have known that one small request to visit the Gohyaku Rakan on the outskirts of Toyama City would strangely be life-changing? The Hill of 500 Buddhas had looked so sublime and peaceful in the photos before my trip, no doubt taken at a much colder time of year. But at the end of September the air was still hot and humid, and the contrast of deep shade and trees surrounding the rows of Buddhas, or arhats, gave an unexpected air of mystery to the place. I walked the rows of perched stone figures, each one very different with personal expressions, some wrapped in bits of cloth or ribbon. I did not know then that there was a belief that if you touched a figure and the stone was warm it meant they were one of your ancestors, but now I am sure that is probably true. I also was initially unaware that the Kureha Hill and Choukei Temple look down upon another vast city of Buddhist graves. I have never seen a cemetery so beautiful, though it reminded me of others I knew in Corsica and Italy with the stone-lined plots and graceful cedar trees. It was explained to me that only the ashes of the deceased were brought here, but the visits of the families tending the plots were regular, and the communion and respect for the dead of great importance. Perhaps the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, combined with a culture in love with ghost stories, has influenced my thinking on what happened that day, but there are just too many coincidences for me not to take it seriously.

My friends and I entered the small wooden temple after removing our shoes. The woven tatami mat had a surprisingly soft, deep bounce to it, and the altar was at once simple and lush with its gold and black trappings. We sat on the front steps a bit before leaving.

It was then that I noticed an elderly man dressed in a white linen suit with a Panama-style hat. He was looking up into the cedar trees at the edge of the cemetery. I walked down towards him, intrigued, and followed his gaze. There, caught in an upward spiraling eddy were two enormous black butterflies, kissing and flirting as they slowly fluttered upwards towards the tops of the trees.

I must have gasped with surprise; the man turned towards me and said, “Nagasaki-ageha … that is what they are called. Some people believe they are the spirits of the dead.” Then he laughed and extended his hand. “My name is Lafcadio. What is yours? Will you be in Japan for a while?”

Delighted to hear English spoken and happy to make new friends, I said, “I am only here for two weeks, but I have waited my whole life to be here, and somehow I know I will be back; I am already in love!”

With a nod he turned to walk away. “Maybe I will see you again then sometime.” And then with a mischievous smile he added, “Always look for the butterflies … they know how to find me.”

Utterly charmed, I went back to look for my friends so we could leave before dinnertime. They had not seen the man or the butterflies and seemed skeptical. When I said the man’s name was Lafcadio and he spoke English, they both turned pale. “Lafcadio Hearn is the name of an Irish writer who lived in Japan; he is famous for writing Kwaidan, a compilation of Japanese ghost stories.”

“Really?” I said. “How fascinating! Where does he live now?” There was a deep and uncomfortable silence.

“He died in September of 1904.”

Now I simply plot my return to Japan, hoping that I will indeed once again meet the man dressed in white with the black butterflies at his side. Some part of me stayed on that hill of the 500 Buddhas, or maybe it was always there and I simply found it again, but I know I must return.… My heart is in Toyama.


KeKe Cribbs is a self-taught artist working in glass, vitreous enamels, and mixed media. She often teaches workshops around the world, sharing her unique approach to working with glass and glass mosaics. As a natural storyteller, she is now writing and illustrating for both adults and children. Her work can be found in many museum collections around the world, including the Kanazawa Museum and the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art. You can connect with KeKe via LinkedIn.


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