Growing Neck Buddha Keeps His Head

Japan became a slightly less mysterious place earlier this year, when one of its most interesting Fortean conundrums passed into the realm of mundane, scientific fact.

Back in 1991, the head of the Manji–no–Sekibutsu (Stone Buddha of Manji), a 3.3–meter tall statue in Japan's mountainous Nagano Prefecture, was found lying alongside its body. After the neck of the 63-centimeter long head had been reinserted into the body of the statue, a crudely carved outcrop of natural rock, a photographer, who annually snapped the statue, noticed that the neck seemed to be growing. After the local media picked up on this phenomenon, the Buddhist statue, which is situated near a Shinto shrine on the outskirts of the town of Suwa, became a popular site of pilgrimage.

But fears that the head, which was now protruding by around 7cm, would once again tumble off and possibly injure some unwitting pilgrim or tourist led the health-and-safety lobby to demand repairs. This led to the mystery finally being solved.

From deposits found in the neck socket it was concluded that the neck had become loose, allowing water in, which in the winter had frozen into ice and expanded. This had gradually pushed up the neck and created more space for leaves, twigs, and dust – as well as the occasional coin from pilgrims – to get into the socket, preventing the head returning to its original position. Over several winters, this process had led to the head edging up and was the same process that had decapitated the statue in 1991.

With this mystery cleared up, the 17th-century statue has lost much of its mystique, but luckily an earlier legend remains. This states that a few hundred years ago the locals wanted to make a torii (a ceremonial gateway) for the local Shinto shrine. In need of stone for this project, a stonemason decided to carve the outcrop that formed the body of Manji–no–Sekibutsu. After excavating a quantity of stone from its back, however, he was horrified to see blood issuing from the stone and immediately stopped his work. Later that night, it is reported, he had a dream in which Buddha revealed to him an alternative source of good stone in nearby Mount Uehara, thus preserving the peace between the two religions.

Colin Liddell
October 2008
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