Teaching Shugendō (A Japanese Mountain Religion)

Shugendō 修験道 (literally, the “way of cultivating efficacious powers” in the mountains) is a fascinating subject to teach in the university classroom. It offers broad potential for discussion on the nature of mountain asceticism, Japanese religions, popular religion, women and gender, ritual, cosmology, religious hybridity, esoteric Buddhism, pilgrimage, healing, and more.

For those interested in teaching a unit on it, here is a short list of sources that I’ve found works well in the undergraduate classroom. Its very bare bones, so please add comments and questions below!


A yamabushi, or practitioner of Shugendo, playing the horagai. (Sanjogatake, Omine mountains)

Two recent films:

Paul Swanson reviews them in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (hereafter, JJRS) (2010, 37/2).

Mark McGuire, co-director of Shugendo Now, has an article on contemporary Shugendō and environmental concerns in the Kumano region that goes very well with the film. JJRS (2013, 40/2, 323-54).

Introductory readings:

Gaynor Sekimori has translated the following works by Miyake Hitoshi 宮家準 (present godfather of the field):

  • Mandala of the Mountain (Keio University, 2005). Excellent topical overviews broken down by chapters that can be assigned separately or collectively. Note that it may only be available for purchase in Japan.
  • “Shugendo,” A History of Japanese Religion (2001, ed. Kazuo Kasahara, 455-74). A short but broad-ranging introductory essay on early modern Shugendō.

Women and Gender:

  •  Benard Faure, “Crossing the Line,” in The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity and Gender (Princeton, 2003). This chapter gives an overview of nyonin kekkai 女人結界 (the practice of banning women from sacred peaks), especially pp. 219-235.
  • Helen Hardacre “The Cave and the Womb World,” JJRS (1983, 10/2-3, 149-74). An insightful analysis of a cave ritual as it relates to issues regarding women and gender.
  • Despite nyonkin kekkai, women still participated in mountain-related rituals, as shown in this 18 minute mini-doc on the Nuno Bashi (cloth bridge) rite at Mt. Tateyama (scroll down to the second embedded movie on the web page for the English narration version).


  • Paul Swanson “Shugendo and the Yoshino-Kumano Pilgrimage: An Example of Mountain Pilgrimage,” Monumenta Nipponica (1981, 36, no. 1: 55–84).
  • Ann Bouchy “The Cult of Mount Atago and the Atago Confraternities,” Journal of Asian Studies (1987, 46/2, 255-77).

Mountain worship in Japan:

  • Hori Ichiro 堀一郎 “Mountains and Their Importance for the Idea of the Other World in Japanese Folk Religion,” History of Religions (1966, 6, no. 1: 1–23). Dated (and needs to be taught critically) but a classic, nonetheless.
  • Allan Grapard “Flying Mountains and Walkers of Emptiness: Toward a Definition of Sacred Space in Japanese Religions,” History of Religions (1982, 21, no. 3: 195–221). One of Grapard’s numerous works on Japanese mountain ritual and thought. This one is another classic, discussing sacred space in premodern Japan and the esoteric mandalization of mountains.

Other resources:

There are many more English-language books, articles, and resources on Shugendō (and of course, much more in Japanese), but this will get you started with some ideas for teaching it in your next course.

Again, add to the conversation with suggestions and questions below!

An App to Ghostly Haunts in Japan

In my Japanese Folklore and Festival course this fall, we devoted much time to pouring through historical sources from the medieval period (Tale of the Heike, oni legends, and temple origin tales), early modern yokai encyclopedia and illustrated monster parades, and rural tales collected by folklorists in the early twentieth century (like Yanagita Kunio‘s Legends of Tono).

But I also wanted to show my students that folklore and ghost legends are not simply a thing of the past or of the countryside (as often nostalgically portrayed in folk studies) but remain relevant today.

For this, I turned to an iPhone app I recently discovered while in Japan called Hontō ni iite wa ikenai basho 本当に行ってはいけない場所, or “Places you definitely want to avoid.” True to the title of the app, the person who introduced me to it was extremely reluctant to do so because he was worried I was actually going to seek out these places. To date I have not, but I have found it to be an interesting guide to present-day beliefs on ghosts and haunted sites in Japan.

The app, also referred to as Shinrei Suppoto 心霊スポット (“places where the spirits dwell”), effectively visualizes haunted Japan through a map which pins sites across the country. Densely populated areas like Tokyo and Osaka or cities with long histories (Kyoto or Nara) host dozens of haunts while scattered pins mark other notorious sites across the archipelago.


Haunted places purported in Tokyo and the Kanto region.

And no surprise that many of the infamous sites relevant to famous Japanese legends pop up. For Tokyo, we looked at Suzugamori 鈴ヶ森, a major execution ground on the southern outskirts of Edo for most of the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) – first with photos and background of the area, and then through the app. (Some of the photos I used came from this interesting blog post on the history of the area, others from my time living just up the road from the site.)


The former mass execution site of Suzugamori.

Spirits of people with shady convictions (sometimes politically motivated) have long been thought in Japan to linger in the world, carrying out vengeful acts on the population and the state in return for their premature demise. Much time, devotion, material resources have been allocated over the course of history toward appeasing these ghosts (known as goryō 御霊, literally “revered spirits”) through the construction of shrines, production of ritual, and posthumous lofty titles. These steps sometimes led to the deification of such spirits.

So with estimates of a staggering 150,000 executions at Suzugamori over roughly two centuries, it is easy imagine a fair share being carried out under dubious accusations (see for example, Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan by Daniel Botsman). Hence the numerous votive stele offering blessings to the dead as well as a Buddhist temple on the premise to provide memorial services.

Shinrei Suppoto thus provides the following description:


Details of Suzugamori and why you should avoid it.

“Based on rumors and confirmed reports, there are a great variety of ghosts.

The site served as an execution ground until Meiji 3 (1871)…

[Various methods of execution that were employed follow.]

A great many of those executed did not commit any crime. The execution and death-by-fire post holes remain.”

We see a classic aspect of folklore here in the first line – its vernacular nature. Of course, we shouldn’t discount other modes of transmission, including recent digital platforms like this one.

In this sense,  Shinrei Suppoto demonstrates the continued life of ghosts and haunted places throughout Japan. Incidentally, I found no parallels to this app from a preliminary search on the Apple Store for North America, but a good one appeared for another country with a similarly long history of ghoulish tales and spooky haunts – England.

Given the layout of the map on Shinrei Suppoto, I initially thought the pins were crowd-sourced. That would be especially cool for the folklorist as it would better reveal the interests of users beyond the data provided by the app’s developer. We’ll have to wait for an updated version or a different app for that information to emerge.

In either case, its a fun tool to introduce in the classroom, and if you dare, use for your next itinerary to Japan.


Haunted Japan

Field Trip to Wat Thai

Today I took students of my Intro Buddhism course at UCLA to Wat Thai, a Thai Theravadan Buddhist temple in North Hollywood. Its the oldest Thai temple in the United States (founded in 1972) and serves as a home base for the Thai community residing in greater Los Angeles. There is a main hall, a Thai language school, residence quarters (housing visiting monks from Thailand), a kitchen and dining area, and many small shrines and statues dotting the premise.

Today was the third time I’ve taken a class here and it’s always a wonderful experience. Than Dusit Sawaengwong, one of the long-term resident monks, introduced us to a simple form of meditation, followed by a short talk on Thai Buddhism and the history of Wat Thai. This was followed by a delicious meal of Pad Thai!

 IMG_0672Altar of the main hall of Wat Thai.

IMG_0687An ordained tree (evident in the robes wrapped around it)! This is a common practice among the Thai laity. While there we met the woman who looks after the tree.

IMG_0689 People retire their old and broken buddhas, bodhisattvas and deities under the tree. Apparently the practice is common enough that the monks have to periodically clear out the base of the tree. I hesitated ask where the images go from there…

IMG_0675  Students receiving a tour of the premise over the summer.

IMG_0685.1A shrine devoted to Guanyin (J. Kannon, Skt. Avalokitêśvara), interesting in that Thai do not worship this bodhisattva. Rather, Buddhists from other traditions (East Asian Mahayana here) patronize Wat Thai as well.

FullSizeRenderThe group from today’s visit standing in front of the Main Hall. Also present here is Frederick Ranallo-Higgins (lower left) and Matthew Hayes (behind the lens), teaching assistants for the course and Buddhist Studies PhD students at UCLA.

Doodling on an Edo period map

Ahh…  I’m finally nearing the stage of the dissertation where I can begin to have some fun (not that writing hasn’t been a joy in its own special way).  Tonight, I experimented with Photoscape in drawing roads and place names on an image of a faded map (likely from the late Edo period) of the Togakushi region.  I’m hoping it will help readers get a visual of the sites I discuss in the chapters.  Here are the preliminary results.  (Original image courtesy of the Shinshū Digikura digital archive.)

Shinshū Togakushisan sōryaku zue 信州戶隱山惣略繪圖 with roads and sites of note labeled.

Shinshū Togakushisan sōryaku zue 信州戶隱山惣略繪圖 with roads and sites of note labeled.

Photo Archive of Japanese Religions

S7Photo Archive of Japanese Religions

A beautiful collection of photographs by Japanese religions scholar Ian Reader has just been uploaded on to the Nanzan Institute website.  The photos are organized into thematic categories (shrines, temples, festivals, pilgrimage, etc.) and each contain helpful descriptions.  Photos can be downloaded free of charge.  Well worth a visit!  Visit site here.

Edo period texts from Togakushi

After about a year of requesting to view archives at Togakushi Jinja that are relevant to my research, I finally finagled my way into seeing a number of them on my last visit before returning to the States.

These documents were archived and catalogued in the 1960s and have since sat in a storage shed at the shrine, for the most part untouched.  A huge thanks to local scholar and priest, Futazawa Hisaaki 二澤久昭, who spent hours rummaging through them (apparently in disarray) and then further hours helping me to decipher some of them.  Futazawa-San by the way, descends from one of the Edo period cloisters (shukubō 宿坊) and has converted his into a wonderful Japanese inn and serves delicious food.

Here are samples of some of the texts we checked out.

These first three images are from a text titled the Dai hannya hōsoku 大般若法即 (Regulations of the Great Heart).  I haven’t looked closely at it yet but the title refers to Prajñāpāramitā literature and the nature of the text is ritualistic.  It’s not listed in the catalog so was a surprise to find.




The date on the last page here reads Keichō 慶長 3, or 1598.

The two volume set below, titled the Shugendō hiketsu hōsoku 修験道秘決, was the most exciting text of my find and will probably factor into my assessment of Shugendō at Togakushi during the Edo period.  Its undated but based on the content, must have been composed in a hundred year period between the 1720s and 1818.IMG_2961


This is a registry of Togakushi-san’s from 1814 (Bunka 11).  It lists 32 Shugendō households affiliated with the mountain at this time.

The information for each yamabushi 山伏 presented here includes his rank, year of birth, year of tonsure, temple location and name, and his affiliated Togakushi cloister.

Often these yamabushi would serve as disciples to the priests of the mountain and eventually succeed them.  For this reason, Shugendō became central to the identity, practices, and thought of Togakushi during the Edo period (I argue), despite its subordination to the Tendai Buddhist institution at this time.

At the end of the Edo period, there was a major drive at Togakushi to strengthen its branch of Shugendō.  This next text, titled the Togakushi-san Kenkōji kanjō saikō gan 戸隠山顕光寺灌頂再興願 was composed by the mountain’s chief administrator (bettō) in 1861.IMG_3006

The effort only lasted a few years, as the temple-shrine complex was converted into a national shrine at the beginning of the Meiji period.



Below is a presentation I recently gave at Keio University on the nine-headed dragon (Kuzuryū) of Mt. Togakushi.  Sorry English readers (its mostly in Japanese).  The title translated though, is “From narrative and ritual object to resident deity:  Tracing the formation of the nine-headed dragon at Mt. Togakushi.”  Textual passages are also translated into English and there’s a brief conclusion in English at the end.



 第一 アジアにおける龍の信仰




危険的 保護的
水に関する災害(大雨、洪水) 雨を与える(水不足、農業などに対する)
激しい・不安定的な状態 郷土、佛法、王権など


1)密教儀礼:雨乞い(rain-making rituals)、曼荼羅や印相(mudrā)などに関連する。

2)説話・物語:釈迦牟尼佛(Śākyamuni Buddha)の人生の物語を始め、法華経にある説話(八大龍王、龍王女の成る佛)、寺社の縁起などとよく結びついている。





第二      九頭を持つ龍(Nine-headed dragons


  • CBETA大正新脩大藏經(漢語で書かれたインドから中国・朝鮮に渡った佛典):「九頭龍」は34個の検索結果があった。
  • SAT大正新脩大藏經(大正大藏經+日本の佛典):「九頭竜」・「九頭龍」は69個の検索結果があった。
  • 法華經文献:法華經には、八大龍王が現れるが、九頭龍はその中ではない。その一方、以降の法華經に関する文献(論、義釋、伝記など)によく現れる。
  • 中国の天台系:『法華傳記』(唐朝前半)、『止観輔行傳弘決』(8世紀)、『佛祖統紀』(1269年)など


  • 「九頭龍印」という印相:大日經文献、台密のテキスト(『行林抄』など)
  • 曼荼羅に位置している:『法華曼荼羅威儀形色法經』、『胎藏入理鈔』など
  • 雨乞い:『行林抄』1152 (仁平 2年)


地名 最初の文献 文献年間 龍の漢字 関連する行者 関連する佛
白山 『泰澄和尚伝記』 12世紀後半[2] 九頭龍王 泰澄 十一面観音  ?
大峯(水天嶺) 『大菩提山等縁起』 1152 (仁平 2年) 九頭龍王 不明
箱根 『筥根山縁起并序』 1191 (建久2年) 九頭毒龍 萬巻人 不明
阿蘇山 『彦山流記』 1213年 (建保1年) 九頭八面大龍 臥驗 十一面観音 天台 ?
戸隠山 『阿娑縛抄』 1279 (弘安2年) 九頭一尾鬼 學問修行者 聖観音 天台


  • ほとんどの縁起ではその龍が修行している行者の前に出現する。
  • 観音菩薩と関連するケースが多い。九頭龍のように数多くの頭があるので、イメージ的に想像されたのか?

(Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art, The Ohio State University )


  • 全部が山岳寺社の縁起である。
  • 12世紀後半に九頭を持ち龍が突然に登場し、流行(龍行か?)していた。
  • 九頭龍の名前はまだ既定されていない。むしろ「九頭」が名前よりも記述ではないか。

第三 縁起に現れる龍から地主神への変遷


英訳の節Asaba sho p1 2Ruki passage 2

In 849 (Kashō 嘉祥 2), a learned practitioner (gakumon shugyō sha 學問修行者) spent seven days on Iizuna-san 飯縄山.  Facing west toward a great peak, he prayed (kinen 祈念).  He threw a single-armed sceptre (dokko 獨鈷?)[3] that took flight and then fell.  He went to go see it.  [It had landed] at a great stone cavern.  At that site he chanted the Lotus Sūtra.  During this time, a foul-smelling wind was exhaled from the south.  A nine-headed, single-tailed oni (kuzu ichibi ki 九頭一尾鬼) arrived [and said,]

“Who chants the Lotus Sūtra?  Even though I had no intention of harm (mugaishin 無害心), when I came to listen to those who recited it (chōmon 聽聞) in the past, they ended up dead after my noxious vapors reached them.

“I was the former administrator.  I lived in greed and desire, carelessly using the donations of the faithful (shinse 信施).  As a result, I received this body.  This place has been destroyed and toppled down over forty times.  I rely on the virtue (kōdoku 功徳) [of listening to you chant the Lotus Sūtra] and thus should able to attain awakening.”

Gakumon replied, “An oni hides its form.”  Following these words, the oni returned to its original place.  In that place, which is named “the dragon’s tail,” [the oni] entered into seclusion and sealed shut the door of the stone cavern.

From within the ground, a great voice chanted, “Take refuge in the assembly in which [I,] the honored Shō Kanjizai 聖観自在 [Shō Kannon] eternally reside; as a great avatar, [I] provide benefits to living beings at the three sites” (南無常住界會聖観自在尊三所利生大権現聖者).

This mountain is known as the temple of “the door [behind which one] hides” (Togakushi-ji 戸隠寺), because it conceals the dragon-tailed oni.  The door of the stone cavern thus led to the establishment [of the temple].  It is also said that the from Mt. Iizuna, the [mountain’s] form resembles a door…

  • 「學問修行者」というのは、おそらく人名ではなく、ただ学問や修行する人と指摘している(鈴木正崇氏、2013年、250–251頁)。という事は、当時、開祖という概念は薄いようである。
  • 同じように(そして上記の5個の縁起のように)「九頭一尾鬼」というのも一般名称ではないか。
  • この龍的な鬼が「前の別当」というのは、戸隠山の歴史を作ったが、良いイメージではない。鬼の存在をはじめに、現在の客姿格好は以前の悪い生活の業罰である。つまりこの段階では、九頭一尾鬼=主神というのはまだ微妙ではないか。
  • 聖観音と九頭一尾鬼との関係は曖昧であり、神仏習合(本地垂迹)ははっきりしていない。

資料2:戸隠山顕光寺流記(並序)(以下『流記』と略す)、十穀僧有通編、1458年(長禄 2年)


There was a man known as Gakumon gyōja 學門行者.  The mysterious profundity of his original nature (honji 本地) and his rank among the worthies (soni 尊位) is difficult to estimate.  He had accomplished all the practices.  Embracing the bright moon, he ventured through the vast night.  Replenished by the morning sun, he gazed in all directions (meiku 迷衢).  His wisdom and practice was extremely great and his virtue and efficacy (in the magical arts) (tokugen 徳験) was superior in the world.  He established a temple (garan 伽藍) in every land.  He spread benefits (riyaku 利益) throughout the Dharma realm (hokkai 法界).  It is said that his life ended by ascending into the sky without a burial.  Thus he is regarded as the [response] body of the honored Śākyamuni and a sympathetic transformation (ōke 應化) of Kannon.

In the beginning, the gyōja said, “I want to restore [the practices of] this mountain.”  In the middle of the third month of the third year of the Kashō 嘉祥 (850) era, under the reign of Emperor Ninmei 仁明 (810–850, r. 833–850), he began by climbing [the neighboring] Iizuna-san 飯縄山.  [Iizuna] is a high marchmont that soars into the milky way (ginkan 銀漢)—its white summit contrasting the azure sky (hekiraku 碧落).  Imprisoned (katai 牢) demons and ghosts (chimi 魑魅) crisscrossed [its slopes].  There was no trace of human paths.  Inquiry into its ancient past [reveals that] it had never been scaled.  The snow was deep and there were precipitous cliffs.  Amidst the clouds, fog and thunder, he lost his way and was unable to ascend.  He retreated to the midway point (hanpuku 半腹) [of the mountain].  As an offering to the various deities and spirits, he recited scriptures and chanted dhāraṇī (ju 咒).  Tearing up [a section of] his robe (resshō 裂裳; Skt. bimbisāra), he wrapped his feet [with the cloth].  He was ready to discard his life and in his commitment to the way.  Making a stern vow, he announced, “I humbly request that the benevolent deities [of this mountain] increase my power, that the heavenly dragons roll up the mist, and the mountain demons (sanmi 山魅) guide me.  Please help me realize my goal!  If I fail to reach the summit, I will not achieve awakening (bodai 菩提).”

Having produced such a vow, he treaded across the dazzling white snow and ascended [through] sparkling (saisan 璀璨) green leaves.  Finally, exhausted and depleted of energy, he could see the summit.  Appraising [his whereabouts], he [realized that he had] suddenly entered the Milky Way (unkan 雲漢).  Foregoing a taste of this marvelous paradise, he found a divine cave.  Elated and awestricken, he found it difficult to keep his mind (shinkon 心魂) tranquil.

For a short while, he gazed about the four directions.  From the southeastern foot of the mountain, vast plains unfurled with grasses and trees (sōmoku 草木).  Looking out in the distance, he saw the golden swells and silver whitecaps (ginpa 銀波) of a great, flowing river submerged in [i.e. reflecting the] azure sky.  There was the faint wake of a crossing vessel.  To the northwest were narrow and precipitous ravines and a long and hazardous [ridge line] of mountains laced in deep snow and flowers of the five colors (gosai 五彩).  The birds cried out in cold (inkan 咽寒) throughout the day (rokuji 六時).  The green canopies of thousand year-old pines and spruce tilted toward the valleys.  Deep blue-colored [two-story] manors (konrō 紺樓), surrounded on all sides by cypress and mandarin trees (kaisō 檜楱), towered above the boulders. Gazing across [the entire vista], four mountains streams [are visible].  This divine splendor was vast.

Amidst an abundant sunset, [Gakumon] performed a divination in the western cave.  He prayed and repented, “Now sitting on a cornelian seat in this practice site, having arranged incense and flowers [as an offering to the Buddha], and performing chants, I see myself as an śrāvaka (shōmon 聲聞). ” Then he hurled a vajra sceptre (kongō sho 金剛杵) and made the following vow: “From henceforth, may Buddha’s Law (Buppō 佛法) prosper and may living beings find fortune on the ground from where light emanates.”

Then flying [through the air], the mallet swiftly crossed a distance of over one hundred chō 町.  A hunter was there.  Frightened by the light of the mallet, he quickly fled and emerged [before Gakumon].  [Gakumon] received him and prepared to tell him about the event:

“I will inform [you] with these words:  That hunting ground is now a hunting ground that defends the Dharma (gohō 護法).”

[Gakumon] went to go visit the light of the mallet.  At the cave [where it landed], he wished to bring forth the resident deity (jinushi 地主).  As he prayed  (kinen 祈念), a voice came from the depths of the ground.  The loud voice chanted,

“Take refuge in the eternally-abiding assembly of the realm:  Shō Kanjizai 聖観自在 (Shō Kannon; Noble Avalokitêśvara) of Great Compassion and Sympathy and the origin bodies of the four sites.  The avatars of the three sites radiate light and provide comfort” (南無常住界會大慈大悲聖観自在四所本躰、三所権現放光與樂).  The voice ended by saying, “The light of Shō Kannon’s image radiates [Kannon’s] noble form from afar.  From the luminous seats of a single lotus plant with four pedestals emerge (yūshutsu 湧出) Shō Kannon, Senjū 千手 [Kannon], Shaka 釋迦 (Skt. Śākyamuni), and Jizō 地蔵 (Skt. Kṣitigarbha).”  As joyful tears streamed down, [Gakumon] lowered his head in deep devotion (katsugō 渇仰) and performed chants (hosse 法施) at the site.

That night a foul-smelling wind was exhaled from the south.  A nine-headed, single-tailed dragon (kuzu ichibi ryū 九頭一尾龍) arrived and said,

“A joyous practitioner arrived at this cave, chanting and rattling (shindoku 振讀) his staff (shakujō 錫杖).  By repenting the six root [senses] and practicing the four [types] of tranquility (shi anraku gyō 四安楽行), the poisonous vapors (dokuke 毒氣) have all been vanquished and there is no longer any obstructions (gai 害).  You immediately receive me, [so] I will give you the full account (zengo 善語).

“This mountain has been destroyed over forty times.  I have engaged in temple duties seven times.  The last administrator, Chōhan 澄範, was me.  Because I carelessly used the possessions of the Buddha (butsumotsu 佛物), I received this serpent-like body (jashin 蛇身). From many eons up until the present, I have been hindered by the karma (gōshō 業障) of these [dragon] scales (uroko 鱗).  I arose when I heard [your] staff and [chanting] Dharma voice (hōon 法音) and obtained liberation (gedatsu 解脫).  You must maintain an awakened state of mind (bodai shin 菩提心) and quickly build a great temple (garan 伽藍; Skt. saṃgha-ārāma).”


  • 一般的な「学問」を名前の「学門」と取替え、彼の伝記も創造され、修行や活動を詳しく伝える。
  • 竜的な「鬼」から「地主」の「九頭一尾龍」になる。
  • 九頭龍の話の内容は『阿娑縛抄』の話と非常に似ているが、『流記』に入っている以上の節の後に「九頭権現」や「九頭龍権現」と呼ばれる。その節では、「九頭権現」の多彩的な特徴や利益が詳しく説明される。その中で、大辨功徳天(弁財天)の垂迹になったり、佛性や世尊の智恵を持ったり、色々な現世利益を与えたり、法華経である龍女に成ったりしている。しかし気になるのは、その長い話の中では、水神としての説明は一切現れない。その一方、江戸時代に渡って雨乞い、瀬引き、出水の祈禱のような儀礼が密接に結びついていく。そしてその時代になるとともに戸隠山の九頭龍が全国に広がり、その結果、戸隠の代表的な特徴になる。




(Before its arrival to Togakushi and other sites around the Japanese archipelago, the nine-headed dragon in East Asia exists among esoteric rituals and legendary anecdotes.  In this realm, Kuzuryū is situated in the abstract, detached from place and identity.  Its title remains more descriptive than nominal.  Only when the dragon arrives and gains traction at a specific sites such as Mt. Togakushi does it evolve into concretized deity, Kuzuryū.  This residence and ‘precipitation’ of benefits at the mountain simultaneously becomes instrumental in the production of Mt. Togakushi, itself, as a respected numinous and powerful site.)


Bloss, Lowell W.  1973.  “The Buddha and the Nāga:  A Study in Buddhist Folk Religiosity.”  History of Religions 13, no. 1:  36–53.

Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (CBETA).

Cohen, Richard S.  1998.  “Nāga, Yakṣiṇī, Buddha:  Local Deities and Local Buddhism at Ajanta.”  History of Religions 37, no. 4:  360–400.

Hayashi Minao 林巳奈夫.  1993.  Tatsu no hanashi: Zuzō kara toku nazo 龍の話 : 図像から解く謎.  Tōkyō:  Chūō Kōronsha 中央公論社.

Hongō Masatsugu 本郷真紹.  2001.  『白山信仰の源流』.  Kyōto:  法蔵館.

Ikegami Shōji 池上正治.  2000.  『龍の百科』.  Tōkyō:  新潮社.

Naitō Masatoshi 内藤正敏.  2009.  「戸隠山の鬼―都市の異界と山の異界」.  『江戸・都市の中の異界』.  民俗の発見 IV.  Vol. 4:  271–311.  法政大学出版局.

Ruppert, Brian O.  2002.  “Buddhist Rainmaking in Early Japan: The Dragon King and the Ritual Careers of Esoteric Monks.”  History of Religions 42, no. 2:  143–174.

SAT Daizōkyō Text Database.

Suzuki Masataka 鈴木正崇.  2013.  「中世の戸隠と修験道の展開―『顕光寺流記』を読み解く」.  『異界と常世』.  Pp. 239–330.  楽瑯書院.

Visser, M. W. de. 1969 (1913). The Dragon in China and Japan.  Wiesbaden:  Sändig.

Yoshida Kazuhiko 吉田一彦.  2012.  「宗叡の白山入山をめぐって:九世紀における神仏習合の展開(一)」.  『佛教史研究第五〇号抜刷』.

[1]フランス哲学者のアンリ・ルフェーヴル(Henri Lefebvre、1901–1991)が著した「La Production de l’espace」 (英訳:The Production of Space、1974年)からの「production」を通じて「発生」を翻訳し使用している。

[2] 著作年号は吉田一彦氏(2012年)による。


I climbed Fuji twice last Monday! Mini Fuji, that is.

As always, the official climbing season for Mt. Fuji began last week on July 1st.  And with the Fuji-san opening (山開き) so opened the mini Fujis (富士塚).

As Fuji worship expanded during the Edo period (1600-1868), Fuji confraternities (Fuji kō 富士講) popped up around the country, especially the Kanto area.  These associations – some of which still exist – would pool money together so that a few members from each community could make the pilgrimage each year.  The rest who stayed behind though could still hit the symbolic summit by climbing their locally established Fuji.  Some of these mini peaks were small hills while others were made by piling up large rocks.

Some mini Fujis are still connected to shrines and confraternities.  I visited two of them in Tokyo last week while they were celebrating the opening of the season:  Onoteruzaki Jinja in Daitoku and Fuji Jinja in Komagome.  Onoteruzaki only opens their mini Fuji on June 3o and July 1 of each year (climbing the real peak often began the night before on the 30th).  Meanwhile Fuji Jinja celebrated with three days of festivities and auspicious crafts.

Criticizing Female Exclusion in Fifteenth Century Japan

Part of my research this year has been devoted to a text entitled The Transmitted Account of Kenkō-ji of Mt. Togakushi (Togakushi-san Kenkō-ji ruki 戸隠山顕光寺流記), compiled by the monk, Jikkokusō Ujō 十穀僧有通, in 1458.

Among the many vivid aspects it provides on the religious culture at Mt. Togakushi in the mid-fifteenth century, a passage I came across on the mountain’s practice of nyonin kekkai 女人結界 (a boundary prohibiting women) especially sparked my interest.  With some help from my research advisor, Suzuki Masataka (who’s written extensively on the practice) and medieval Buddhist scholar, Iyanaga Nobumi, I came up with a translation for the following passage:

A transcription of the Kenkoji ruki.  The translated passage begins on the right, 8th line in.

A transcribed page from the Kenkoji ruki. The translated passage begins on the right, 8th line in.

“On the twenty-sixth day of the eighth month of the first year of the Kōhei 康平 era (1058), during the reign of Goreizei-in 後冷泉院, a bright light was radiating out from atop a giant tree fifty cho 町 from Honnin [now Okusha of Togakushi-san].[1]   It seemed like a mysterious and unusual living being.  The image was that of a divine true body (mishōtai 御正躰).

At that time, there was a young girl of twelve to thirteen years of age in such mental and physical agony that she passed out on the ground.  When asked why, she said, “I am the avatar of Jizō 地蔵, the greatest of the three avatars of this mountain, who stands on the left side.[2]  That area is a bordered land (kekkai chi 結界地), upon which the trace of women has been removed.  Because this defies the Buddha’s orders and ignores his original vow, the benefits of conversion are shallow and scarce.  Please erect a building in this place and have me installed.”

Many had their doubts.  They insisted that if this was really the divine oracle [of Jizō], then have [the bright light] moved into the sleeve of someone among the priests and laity.  Then, it flew down into the sleeve of a śramaṇa among them who had great faith.  He worshiped it, [making it] the site of the honored form of the bodhisattva Jizō.  Not moving for days, he built a shrine with an attached hermitage.  It became a hut in which to pursue the Dharma.

The place where the divine true body [of Jizō] flew down is called Fushigami 伏拝. The temple was first named Fukuokain 福岡院 and later became known as Hōkōin 寶光院 [now Hōkōsha of Togakushi].”

The alleged tall tree of Fushigami, where a bright light radiated from and a young girl was possessed by the bodhisattva Jizō (though this tree was probably planted later - Edo period?).

The alleged tree at Fushigami where a bright light radiated from above and a young girl below fell under the possession of the bodhisattva Jizō (though this tree was probably planted later – Edo period?).

Nyonin kekkai became widespread among sacred mountains in the medieval period so it’s no surprise that the practice was adopted at Togakushi-san as well.  What is fascinating here is the apparent critique of it at Togakushi in the comment–voiced by Jizō–that it defies the Buddha’s vow (it’s said that Sakyamuni welcomed both men and women into the sangha).  As a result, conversion to Buddhism at the mountain provides limited benefit.

Is this Jikkokusō Ujō’s own opinion inserted into the text or does it reflect a wider spread sentiment?  Whatever the case, its uncommon to see a critique of the practice coming from within a religious community in premodern Japan.  Max Moerman (Localizing Paradise, 2005) discusses other examples, but this one seems particularly pronounced.

Fushigami (literally, to “lie down and worship”), an allusion to the Kumano site of Fushigami, is marked to this day on the old path (古道) between Togakushi’s Hōkōsha and Chūsha shrines.  Given the geography of the mountain, this would mean that Hōkōin accepted women while the temple complexes of Chūin (now Chūsha) and Okuin (now Okusha) remained off-limits at this time.

The boundary was later moved in 1795, as evident from an engraved stone marker still standing in between Chūsha and Okusha.  (Here’s a Japanese map of the shrines of Togakushi.)  The practice was abolished in the Meiji period.

It’s anyone’s guess as to why the boundary was moved between the medieval and early modern periods.  The erection of the stone nevertheless, suggests that the rule may have not been strictly enforced up until then.  Why after all, reestablish a rule if no one is breaking it?

[1] One chō equals approximately 109 meters.

[2] This orientation is likely referring to the triad of buddhas/bodhisattvas at Togakushi.

Is Mt. Fuji overrated?

Alright, so Fuji is a bit of a slog.  As the saying goes in Japan, “You’re a fool not to climb it once; you’re a fool to climb it twice.” (一度も登らぬ馬鹿、二度登る馬鹿).

It lacks the exposed ridge lines and cliff faces that attract alpine climbers.  Beautiful ravines and waterfalls typical of other great peaks are few and far between.  Even its iconic cone shape disappears from view once you’re on it.  Instead, seemingly endless fields of boulders and scree fan out from its center in all directions, eventually merging with forest floor beneath.

And its a really, really long way to the top.  Most people nowadays begin from one of its fifth stations (mountains routes in Japan are generally segmented in tenths from base to summit).  Even this head start though leaves roughly 1300 to 2400 vertical meters (4300 – 7900 ft) above, overcome by switchback after switchback after switchback…

That said, the experience of scaling one of its faces brings you into immediate connection a terrain that you likely only experienced beforehand through its branded ubiquity on billboards, TV ads, and commercial print and of course, national symbolism.  Once you’re climbing, these projections vanish amidst its vast scale and scope.  People above resemble a line of ants for most of the route, while the trail start gradually becomes a tiny speck below.

As Japan’s tallest peak, Fuji ascends to 3776 m (12,389 ft).  That would make it comparatively lower than many of the high ranges around the world.  But while many of those peaks (the fourteeners of Colorado, for example) begin at high elevations, Fuji spans from sea level to summit – making altitude sickness common among hikers.  And despite the predictability of much of the route, an immense crater inverts its top, resulting in multiple summits rising along a jagged, circular rim.  These aspects – alongside its rich cultural and religious history – ultimately make the peak a must climb (once, that is).

The pics below are taken from the Fujinomiya 富士宮 trail off-season (late May) – unadvised unless you have advanced mountaineering skills.  Here’s a good site for planning during the regular season.

Click to expand.

Reference:  Earhart, H. Byron. 2011. Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press.