International Travel

The monks walking Japan’s mountains

The monks walking Japan’s mountains

In the ancient forests of Dewa Sanzan in Yamagata Prefecture, Japanese mountain worshippers, called Yamabushi, have been walking the mountainous paths for 1400 years.

Though it is an enjoyable place to hike, the monks are walking in pursuit of spiritual rebirth.

Yamagato lies in the northernmost region of Japan’s Honshu island, and is an isolated, mountainous region prone to heavy snowfall.

Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan, and Mount Yudono of Dewa Sanzan - literally “the Three Mountains of Dewa Province” - have been deemed sacred since 593 A.D., when Prince Hachiko fled to Mount Haguro following the assassination of his father, Emperor Sushun. The prince was told the mountain would be where he would encounter Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, so he built shrines on each peak to keep the mountain gods there and ensure the region would experience peace and prosperity.

The mountains were established as a centre for Shugendo, a Japanese form of worship dating back to when the mountains were considered deities. Eventually Shugendo would incorporate elements of Shinto, Buddhism, and Taoism and form the religion of the Yamabushi.

“Historically, the Yamabushi lived on the higher mountains of Japan. They would years on end in the mountains,” explained Timm Bunting, a 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,” he said.

This self-mummification process required the Yamabushi to fast for an extended period, and was outlawed more than 100 years ago.

Today, the 6000 Yamabushi still in Japan believe Shugendo’s training in the harsh environment of the mountains can bring enlightenment.

To become a certified Yamabushi, a week-long Akinome Autumn Peak Ritual must be completed. Though its exact nature is secret, the ritual is known to include meditation under a waterfall, nightwalking, and visiting places where the gods live on the mountains and praying. This immersion in the mountains is thought to help the Yamabushi become one with the mountain’s spirit and allow them re-emerge enlightened.

“In walking we are born again. We rejuvenate our life,” said Master Yoshino, a 13th-generation Yamabushi priest and head of the Haguro Yamabushi.

A growing number of people around Japan and the world have rediscovered Dewa Sanzan’s healing energy, and thousands have taken part in Yamabushi training offered in both Japanese and English.

During the one-day, two-day, or four-day course, participants can only say one word, “uketamou” (I accept), in response to instructions. Phones, watches, brushing teeth, shaving, reading, and writing are also prohibited to help participants partake in self-discovery and mindfulness.

Maiko Ito, a Yamabushido Project Leader, said: “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.”

Images: The Dewa Sanzan / Instagram