Japan’s mountain ascetic hermits

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: Japanese mountain worshippers. For more than 1,400 years, centuries before anyone spoke of “forest bathing”, Yamabushi monks have been walking the sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan (literally, “the Three Mountains of Dewa Province”) in Yamagata Prefecture. But theirs is no pleasure hike. Through immersion in nature and rigorous self-discipline, the Yamabushi seek spiritual rebirth.

Yamagata lies in Tohoku, the northernmost region of Japan’s Honshu island. Much of Tohoku is isolated, mountainous and prone to some of Japan’s heaviest snowfalls. It is the land that haiku poet Matsuo Basho described in his book Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689).

Yamabushi training has changed little in the last 1,400 years

The sacred status of the three mountains – Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono – dates to 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. 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, a unique Japanese form of mountain worship that dates back to a time when mountains were considered to be deities. As it evolved, Shugendo incorporated elements of Shinto, Buddhism and Taoism.

Shugendo is the religion of the Yamabushi. “Historically, the Yamabushi lived on the higher mountains of Japan. They would spend years on end in the mountains,” explained Tim Bunting, Yamabushido Project Leader and Yamabushi Master Assistant. “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).

Today, there are some 6,000 Yamabushi in Japan. They believe that Shugendo’s ascetic training in the harsh natural environment of the mountains can bring enlightenment. 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,” explained Yamabushi Kazuhiro, a Yamabushi trainer and guide at Dewa Sanzan.

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.

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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.

Dewa Sanzan became a popular place of pilgrimage some 1,400 years ago, 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.

Miraculously, the plague ended.

During the Edo Era (1603-1868), pilgrimages to Dewa Sanzan gained popularity as a means of recovering one’s youthful vigour. Samurai warriors were among those who came to train here, and the climb became known as the Journey of Rebirth.

Prince Hachiko’s name is still invoked in times of crisis. In May 2020, a special fire festival was held at Dewa Sanzan shrine to pray for an end to the Covid-19 pandemic. “We hope to borrow the power of our founder Prince Hachiko and support the exhausted feelings of the people during the coronavirus pandemic,” a priest told the local Shonai Nippo newspaper.

Meanwhile, a growing number of people from around Japan and abroad are discovering the continuing relevance of Dewa Sanzan’s healing energy. Yamabushi training has changed little in the last 1,400 years. The difference is that now you too can join them. After some 30 years running courses in Japanese only, interest from abroad convinced Master Hoshino to start offering his courses in English too. “I live by the Yamabushi tradition and I teach others to do the same,” said Master Hoshino.

Several thousand people took the training course in 2019. “The course has been particularly popular with high-achiever Steve Jobs-types, overworked executives seeking to reconnect with themselves through a deep connection with nature,” said Hiroyuki Yoshizumi, a Yamabushi at Haguro Tourist Office, who arranges Yamabushi experiences for visitors. “Many return to take the course three or four times.”

There are various options, including one-day, two-day and four-day courses, with accommodation usually in Shukubo, or pilgrim’s lodges, dotted around Mount Haguro. Participants must walk in silence for the entire duration. Also, no phones, no watches, no brushing teeth, shaving, reading or writing are permitted.

Only one word is permitted to be spoken during the entire course. “When the Master Yamabushi gives you an instruction, you have to respond by saying ‘uketamou’ (I accept),” explained Tokyo-based PR consultant Yumiko Nishitani, after completing the one-day Mount Haguro hike. “Through this routine,” she added, “you learn to accept everything as it is. This way, participants are forced to live in the moment. So, Yamabushi training is for not only for enlightenment and self-discovery but also for mindfulness.” Challenging as this sounds, it helps you transcend your habitual ways of thinking and acting, and focus on the present moment rather than fretting about the future.

We want people to face themselves, to look at the feet they are standing on, and to feel a connection with nature, society, and the world,” said Maiko Ito, a Yamabushido Project Leader. “Once you know yourself, you start to think about what you want to do, and what you should do and how you can best participate in society.”

For the Yamabushi, each of the three mountains embodies a different deity and a different step on the road to rebirth. Mount Haguro represents the present, and people pray here for worldly happiness. Mount Gassan, the Mountain of the Moon, is the past, where the spirits of the ancestors rest. Here, people pray for a peaceful afterlife. Mount Yudono is the future, and the place of rebirth.

The trek begins at the great red torii or gateway at the foot of the mountain. Like all torii, it marks the entrance to sacred ground where deities dwell. Just 414m tall, Haguro is the only peak to remain open all year, while the other two taller montains spend winter snowbound.

Haguro is home to a splendid five-storey wooden pagoda that rises 30m high amid the trees like a natural part of the forest. A few metres away looms the equally marvellous Jiji-sugi or Grandpa Cedar. Believed to be more than 1,000 years old, this Designated Natural Monument wears a shimenawa rope around its trunk, indicating the tree’s sacred status (in both Shinto and Shugendo, trees, rocks, rivers and other natural phenomenon are believed to be inhabited by deities).

Yamabushi training is for not only for enlightenment and self-discovery but also for mindfulness

From here, a spectacular stairway of 2,446 stone steps (about 1.7km) leads to the summit. The path, dating from 1648, is lined with 580 cedar trees, some more than 600 years old. Immersed in utter silence among these magnificent trees, the niggling worries and noisy chatter that usually clutter your mind are replaced by a serene well-being, like when you meditate. As Master Yoshino said, “we leave ourselves in Nature, we make space in our minds.”

Finally, you arrive at the Sanjin Gosaiden shrine where the deities of all three mountains are enshrined, making it a major place of worship. Its thatched roof is more than 2m thick – the largest in Japan.

Mount Gassan, the second peak, is the highest and most imposing of the three mountains, standing at 1,984m. A long ridge connects Gassan to the other two peaks, offering superb vistas of the surrounding countryside. Gassan’s open pastures and fresh breezes contrast with the deep forests of Haguro. Your heart smiles at the sight of myriad alpine flowers around the wetlands of Midagahama Moor. As Gassan is the abode of the spirits of the ancestors, you are symbolically passing through the Land of the Dead on your way to rebirth.

The climax of the hike is Mount Yudono, the 1,504m mountain of the future, and holiest of the three peaks. Half way up is a copper-coloured boulder where hot spring waters gush out. This spot is so sacred that no photos are permitted. It is forbidden to even speak in detail of what you have seen at the shrine, said to be the point of rebirth. As Basho wrote:

I cannot speak of Yudono

But see how wet

My sleeve is with tears

What I can tell you is that Mount Yudono is also home to a spectacular dual waterfall that thunders into a rock pool below. Here participants are instructed to stand under the icy cascade while reciting a sutra for a teeth-chattering minute. With a hearty “Uketamo!” you stride into the pool. Unsurprisingly, this part of the programme is discontinued once summer passes, when it becomes too cold for all but the hardiest of ascetics.

But if cold showers and strenuous hiking are not for you, there are other less-demanding options, like the one-day Mount Haguro-only hike. As Kazuhiro explained, “That way, you still get to visit Dewa Sanzan shrine. The deities of all three mountains are enshrined there, so it’s the same as visiting all three peaks.”

Now anyone, regardless of age or fitness, can experience the therapeutic effects of Dewa Sanzan’s Journey of Rebirth. As the Yamabushi motto proclaims: “Back to Nature, back to yourself.”

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Desk Team