19th century
mountain hermit
Yamabushi,.or shunenja, are practitioners of shugendo (See Bekow). Traditionally they have been mountain ascetics and are members of Esoteric Shingon and Tendai sects of Buddhism. Traditionally they were shaman or hermits with long beards who lived in huts on sacred mountains and endured rigorous training and exercises. Yamabushi means “those who lie down in the mountains.”

For more than 1,400 years, Yamabushi monks have walked in Japan's sacred mountains, believing that being in a harsh natural environment can lead to Buddhist enlightenment. Early yamabushi went on long treks and mountain climbs and lived for months and even years in the wilderness. Their training and lifestyle were believed to have given them magical and supernatural powers. Villagers welcomed them so they could perform rituals to prevent earthquakes and other natural disasters and bring rain and good harvests.

Yamabushi wear a distinct costume that consists of a white tunic and super baggy pants stuffed into cloth boots. They have black lacquered cups strapped to their forehead, two furry pom poms dangling from the neck, a variety of trinkets hanging from their waist and a huge conch shell at their side. The often have deer pelts on the seats of their pants and a carry ringed or wooden staff.

Steve John Powell and Angeles Marin Cabello of the BBC wrote: In an ancient forest of towering cedars, all was silence except for the chirping of unseen birds. Suddenly I heard the tinkling of a bell. Through the mist, a dozen figures emerged, walking in single file. Led by the Tolkienian figure of a man with a long grey beard, they looked like ghosts, dressed all in white. They were Yamabushi... But theirs is no pleasure hike. Through immersion in nature and rigorous self-discipline, the Yamabushi seek spiritual rebirth.[Source: Steve John Powell and Angeles Marin Cabello, BBC, May 13, 2021]

Today, there are some 6,000 Yamabushi in Japan. To enter the "other world" of the mountains represents the death of their worldly self, "which is why they wear the white robes, or shiroshozoku, that are traditionally used to dress the dead," Yamabushi Kazuhiro, a Yamabushi trainer and guide at Dewa Sanzan, told the BBC

Shugendo (Japanese Mountain Asceticism)

“Shugendo” is the religion of Japanese mountain ascetics. A unique blend of indigenous Japanese beliefs with Taoist and Buddhist elements brought from China, it is regarded as an esoteric Buddhist school that combines Buddhism with ancient Shamanist practices and Shinto beliefs. It was founded by Enno-Gyoja, an ascetic who is said to have had magical powers and is credited with enlightening kami about Buddhism. Enno-Gyoja sat the summit of a mountain called Sanjogdake, chanting Buddhist sutras, for 1,000 days, until he reached an elevated level of spirituality and evolved into the Kiongo Zao ai Gongen deity to end human suffering.

Japanese mountain asceticism merges Shintoism, Taoism, Buddhism, animism and Japanese folk religion. In the old days, mountains were viewed with awe and fear because of their association with the gods and the dead. Beginning in the A.D. 7th and 8th centuries, mountain ascetics began climbing mountains in an effort to tap into the power of kami. Some scholars trace the origins of Japanese mountain asceticism to Chinese Taoism. The first mountain ascetics were Buddhists and Taoists who absorbed local kami — that local Japanese believed dwelled in the mountains — into their beliefs.

Shugendo incorporates elements of esoteric Tibetan-style Buddhism, Shintoism, animism and shamanism. Central to their religion is the recognition of strong powers found within mountains and a belief in death and rebirth experiences. Individual soul searching and direct interaction with the spiritual world is emphasized while Ideology, religious hierarchies and interaction with priests are downplayed.

Early History of Yamabushi and Shugendo

Shugendo dates back to the Nara Period (A.D. 710-794) or earlier and has been popular since the Heian period (794-1192). Early yamabushi sought not only spiritual enlightenment but attempted to obtain magical powers that could be used to heal the sick and prevent disasters. Information on shugendo is limited because the sect is very secretive. Followers learn about plants, mountains and animals and use this knowledge for the betterment of humanity. Their rituals have been described but the mechanisms behind them are still sheathed in mystery. The cult has also been compromised by tourism and modernism.

Shugendo evolved during the 6th and 7th centuries in the Katsuragi mountains between present-day Osaka and Nara then moved to the higher peaks south of Yoshino in what is now Nara Prefecture. By the 10th century shugendo attracted the attention of nobility and the mountains south of Yoshino became a destination for cloistered Emperors. In the 17th and 18th centuries the site attracted the samurai class, and later it became a pilgrimage destination of people from all walks of life. Today it is the Kumano Trail — a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Shugendo was supposedly founded by En no Gyoja, a legendary mountain ascetic during the Nara period (710-784). There are records of his visits to sacred mountains across the nation. Legend has it that he could fly and manipulate fierce deities with witchcraft. Kamo no Chomei (1153–1216) authored Hojoki ("An Account of My Hut"), a famous essay on the Buddhist concepts of ephermerality (things being transitory, existing only briefly) and the transitory nature of life. Ippen (1239–89), the founder of the itinerant Ji sect, was a proponent of the power of the nembutsu (a type of meditation and chanting) to bring salvation

Later History of Yamabushi and Shugendo

. Historically, the Yamabushi lived on the higher mountains of Japan. They would spend years on end in the mountains," Tim Bunting, Yamabushido Project Leader and Yamabushi Master Assistant. told the BBC. "For example, the Yamabushi who self-mummified to become Sokushinbutsu (Living Buddha) had to spend at least 1,000 days in the mountains." The self-mummification process involved severe fasting over an extended period, and the practice was outlawed more than 100 years ago during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). [Source: Steve John Powell and Angeles Marin Cabello, BBC, May 13, 2021]

Before the Meiji period, many ordinary Japanese sought out yamabushi in the mountains because they were believed to have supernatural skills and powers of exorcism. During the Meiji Period, yamabushi were banned as quacks as part of Japan's effort to modernize and promote Western medicine. Under State Shintoism, Shugenda was classified as impure.

The three Kumano Sanzan shrines in Wakayama Prefecture, including Kumano Hongu Taisha, with Mt. Yoshino were deserted after shugendo was banned by an 1872 law. The postwar Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and shugendo was reborn. In the Kumano area, local people rebuilt a path for practice that had been impassable, and the Kumano Shugen group revived the okugake practice in 1988. These days few yamabushi live in the mountains full time. Most are part times who, like other Japanese, carry business cards.

Shugendo Beliefs

Yamabushi beliefs emphasize mediation and liberation through doing difficult tasks. In the old days yamabushi run all day through the mountains for 1,000 days. They also engaged in firewalking and chanting under freezing cold waterfalls. Most yamabushi learn simple spells and chants to enlist the help and protection of deities. A great deal of time and devotion is required to learn the secret magical “mudra” (?positions”) which allows them to merge their spirit with that of a deity, giving them the power to disappear and perform other difficult tasks.

Yamabushi also believe that devotees must spend a long time in the wilderness to absorb the power of nature by living trees, animals, mountains, waterfalls and rocks. Holy mountains are believed to have special powers associated with characteristics such as size and dominance (like Mt. Fuji) or the presence of imposing cliffs or dense forests. Sixty-one-year-old yamabushi Shuichi Sakamoto told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “We place ourselves in a severe environment to drive our mind and body to extreme situations. We refresh our mind by experiencing a situation of almost dying. We get these precious chances from nature. It’s shugen [practice],” Sakamoto said. [Source: Masahira Ueno, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 28, 2014]

Yoshino Area Yamabushi

The Yoshino area, near Nara and Osaka, was a major yamabushi stronghold. The Kii mountain range here encompasses several peaks over 1,500 meters and stretches across the Kii Peninsula into the Yoshino area. Since ancient times, the mountains have been worshiped as a sacred place and have been the site of numerous shugendo ascetics’ practice.

Masahira Ueno wrote in Yomiuri Shimbun: Deep in the Kii mountain range, the sounds of horagai triton shell horns echo around Sho no Iwaya, a cave where mountain ascetics are said to have once spent the winters during their mountain-dwelling shugendo practice to develop their spiritual experience and power. Kumano Shugen, a group of about 30 mountain ascetics based at Seigantoji temple in the Kumano district of Wakayama Prefecture, visit the cave every December as the conclusion of that year’s shugendo practice. [Source: Masahira Ueno, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 28, 2014]

In the old days, yamabushi had to walk the 24 kilometer distance between Tenkawamaru and 1,719-meter-high Mt. Sanjodadake everyday for 100 days. During the first 50 days they were given two days to make the round trip During the second 50 days they had to the round trip trek in a single day, stopping at more than 20 small hokora shines along the route to chant sutras.

One Yamabushi’s Story

Shuichi Sakamoto is a a yamabushi guide and leader known as a sento sendachi. Masahira Ueno wrote in Yomiuri Shimbun: “In daily life, Sakamoto works at a manufacturing company. For about 40 days a year, he trades his suits for traditional mountain ascetic attire to attend practice sessions in the Kumano district as well as in other regions. He also participates in gomaku rituals in which offerings are made into a bonfire. [Source: Masahira Ueno, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 28, 2014]

“Sakamoto has adored the Kumano district since he was young. He was born in nearby Wakayama city and began climbing mountains when he was a university student. But he had no opportunity to climb mountains in Kumano. When he was about 40 years old, he happened to learn that the Kumano Shugen group hosted a seven-day walk from Kumano to Yoshino, Nara Prefecture. So he joined the mountain ascetics to participate in the walk.

“That was how it all started for Sakamoto, and shugendo came to be very important to him. His parents are devout members of the Shingon sect of Buddhism and made the Shikoku Pilgrimage to visit 88 temples and the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage to visit 33 temples. With that family background, Sakamoto hoped to become closer to the mountain ascetics he was among.

“About 15 years ago, he told Ryoei Takagi, vice chief priest of Seigantoji temple, that he and a group of mountaineers would climb Mt. Kinpusan, which lies on the border of Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures. The priest then gave him a wooden plaque meant to be a record of ascetic practice. These plaques have been offered to the deities on sacred mountain peaks by ascetics in Kumano for more than 1,000 years.

“Sakamoto offered the plaque at the mountain peak, while wondering if he was truly eligible to do so. When descending the mountain, however, he fell on a road that was easy for him to cross and broke a rib. “[The accident happened because] I performed the offering half-heartedly,” he thought and felt in awe of mountains for the first time.

Yamagata Yamabushi

For more than 1,400 years, Yamabushi monks have been walking the sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan (literally, "the Three Mountains of Dewa Province"). Steve John Powell and Angeles Marin Cabello of the BBC wrote: The sacred status of the three mountains — Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono — dates to A.D. 593 when Prince Hachiko fled Japan's then-capital Kyoto following the assassination of his father, Emperor Sushun. Prince Shotoku, the Emperor’s nephew, advised Hachiko to flee to Mount Haguro, where it was said he would encounter Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. [Source: Steve John Powell and Angeles Marin Cabello, BBC, May 13, 2021]

Prince Hachiko built shrines on each of the three peaks so that the mountain gods would remain there, thereby ensuring peace and prosperity for the region. He established the mountains as a centre for Shugendo.

Dewa Sanzan became a popular place of pilgrimage. According to Kazuhiro, "after Prince Hachiko helped bring an end to a plague that was decimating the local farming community". After 100 days in seclusion praying for an end to the plague, the prince had a vision instructing him to make a huge fire. He shared his vision with the people, who then built a large effigy of a demon and burned it.

Yamabushi Practices and Training

Yamabushi seclude themselves in the mountains for months or even years at a time, praying endlessly, performing fire rituals, fasting in caves, and subjecting themselves to various physical and psychological tests, such as hanging headfirst from cliffs and standing under frigid waterfalls. Early yamabushi not only pursued inner enlightenment they also sought magical powers which could used to cure disease and prevent disasters.

In addition to mountain practice, once a month Sakamoto, the yamabushi described above, conducts a rite and prays at a temple near his home in Kishiwada, Osaka Prefecture. The prayer is meant to send people’s various wishes to the deities. “It may be difficult for us to find the meaning of living now, but by being distant from social status, constraint or demands [during practice], we have time to think of what we are,” Sakamoto told the Yomiuri Shimbun. After beginning ascetic practice, he feels more comfortable at work.

Steve John Powell and Angeles Marin Cabello of the BBC wrote: To become a certified Yamabushi, one must complete the week-long Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual. The exact nature of the ritual is secret, but it is known to include activities like meditation under a waterfall, nightwalking and visiting places where the gods reside on the mountains and praying to them. After that, how long and how often they walk in the mountains is up to each individual. "Most Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi would at least repeat the Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual every year. Some do their own training by themselves," Bunting said.[Source: Steve John Powell and Angeles Marin Cabello, BBC, May 13, 2021]

Through this immersion in the mountains, they become one with the mountain's spirit and re-emerge from the mountains enlightened. "In walking we are born again. We rejuvenate our life," says Master Yoshino, a 13th-generation Yamabushi priest, now in his 70s, and head of the Haguro Yamabushi.

Yamabushi Hanging From a Cliff Ritual

Shugendo devotees must observe strict ascetic rituals that have traditionally been held deep in the mountains. They seclude themselves in the mountains for months or years at a time, walking for days on end, praying, performing fire rituals, fasting in caves and subjecting themselves to various physical and psychological hardships, such as hanging off of cliffs or standing under waterfalls. In a bizarre yamabushi purification ritual, acolytes and ordinary people are held headfirst over the edge of a cliff at Mt. Omine near Yoshino to contemplate the transient nature of life and repent their sins. It is belied that people who don't repent are burdened with an extra load that will cause them to fall to a body-breaking death.

Describing the experience Doug Ogata wrote in Kansai Time Out, "Everything happened so quickly. They passed my arms through the loop of the rope and made me clasp my hands. 'Whatever you do. keep them clasped.' was the advice of the second monk as he gestured for me to get on my stomach and inched my way off the cliff. Then he grabbed my ankles and helped me forward."

"Before I knew it I was upside down, a vast gorge above my head and the wind whistled around me. The leader monk had fastened a rope to his waist. He was the only thing keeping me from plummeting to my death." Only after Ogata promising to respect the earth and his parents was he pulled back from abyss.

In another bizarre yamabushi ritual, acolytes and ordinary people are ensconced in complete darkness to simulate death and then suddenly exposed to bright lights and the sound of crashing bell to simulate rebirth. The scholar Carmen Blacker described the experience as "awakening by shock to the ultimate Emptiness of our natures."

Standing Under Waterfalls

Christal Whelan wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The Shinto, Buddhist and Shugendo practice of misogi or spiritual cleansing through standing under a waterfall, or dousing oneself with buckets of bracingly cold water, derives from the deep desire to be united with the clarity and purity of water. Water by its very nature changes form according to the container in which it is placed. This quality suggested the Buddhist wisdom of the emptiness of form, and the social value of flexibility and a situational ethic over an unchanging stance for all occasions.”

Cold water ablutions are performed under a waterfall at the Shokoji Temple?a Zen Buddhist temple in Kawachinagano, Osaka Prefecture. In recent years the temple has found that many of the people that participate in the ritual are young adults who having trouble finding jobs and a direction in life.

Devises that capture the sound of water are found at many temples and shrines. “The sui-kin-kutsu is a musical instrument played by water as it drips into an overturned perforated bottle buried underground, wrote Whelan. “As droplets fall languorously through the hole, the bottle resonates like music from a dragon's chamber. The sozu, a miniature bamboo seesaw poised above a basin in a balancing act played by water alternately spilling from each end, Kyoto's version of a scarecrow. Its loud, rhythmical, and never-ending clacking characterizes the sound of summertime in the city.”

Hunger, Freezing and Ascetic Buddhist Training

Akira Anzai wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: Sporting shaggy beards and nursing cracked skin, 156 priests celebrated completing a special form of training called Dai-aragyo, which involves following extreme ascetic practices for 100 days. The annual training by the Nichiren sect of Buddhism is conducted from Nov. 1 to Feb. 10 at the Hokekyoji temple in Ichikawa. Dai-aragyo is regarded as one of the world's most disciplined ascetic routines. In the 2011-2012, 156 of the 159 priests from temples around the nation that attempted Dai-aragyo, successfully completed the program. [Source: Akira Anzai, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 2012]

During Dai-aragyo, priests begin their ascetic practices by waking at 2 a.m. and going to bed at 11 p.m. every day. Dai-aragyo is known for three practices: suigyo, which is regular cold water ablutions; dokyo, chanting the Lotus Sutra; and shakyo, copying its words. Suigyo is performed seven times each day, with the first ablution beginning at 3:00am. Priests must endure these harsh practices while only being allowed to eat simple meals served twice daily. The meals consist of white-rice porridge and plain side dishes such as pickled plums.

At 6:00am. on February 10, the last day of Dai-aragyo, a gate connecting the center of the temple--the so-called secular world--to the sacred training grounds was opened for the first time in 100 days. Priests' families and temple parishioners were waiting at the gate with banners bearing the names of those who had completed the training. The priests chanted a mantra as they marched through the crowd.

Kaisho Takeshita from Homyoji temple in Nagayocho, Nagasaki Prefecture, participated in Dai-aragyo for the first time. "The cold temperature and hunger was really tough to deal with. I recited the sutras as loud as I could to overcome the harsh conditions," the 28-year-old Takeshita said. "I was gradually filled with a feeling of well-being as I went through the water ablutions again and again. I look forward to trying Dai-aragyo again," he added.

Image Sources: 1) 1st Daruma, British Museum, 2) 2nd daruma, Onmark Productions, 3) Koyasan and diagrams JNTO 4) Monks, Ray Kinnane, 5) 19th century monks and hermit 6) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 7) calligraphy, painting, Tokyo National Museum.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2024

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