Earlier this month, the Association for the Study of Japanese Mountain Religion (日本山岳修験学会) held its thirty-third annual conference at the base of Mt. Ōmine 大峰. One of Japan’s most important numinous peaks, Ōmine stands between the historic Shugendō sites of Yoshino (to the north) and Kumano (to the south). As such, Ōmine constitutes the nexus of two geographically-imposed mandalas (the Diamond and the Womb) that stretch across the Kii Peninsula. Below lies the hamlet of Dorogawa 洞川, which has served a supporting role for Ōmine kō 講 (pilgrimage confraternities) for centuries. While Dorogawa continues this tradition, it has also transformed itself into an onsen getaway in recent decades.
While the conference is held at a different mountain site each year, this year’s conference was especially exciting, given the location, history and ongoing prominence of Ōmine. The first day commenced with shugenja blowing horagai (large conch shell instruments) and followed with talks on the history of Ōmine by luminaries in the field, Miyake Hitoshi and Suzuki Shoei. After a full day of presentations ranging all topics Shugendō on Day 2, guests were to treated to kagura, taiko drumming and martial arts by local performers at the evening banquet. On Day 3, participants joined one of two itineraries: an ascent up the numinous peak of Sanjogatake 山上ヶ岳 or a tour of temples and shrines—many of which have been historically patronized by women—along the base of the mountain.
But among the events, talks, and discussions that took place over the three-day conference, it was perhaps what remained absent from open discussion that was most intriguing. Namely, that a significant number of conference participants were forbidden from joining the ascent up Sanjogatake. Like numinous mountains around the country, Sanjogatake has long been off-limits to women (a practice known as nyonin kekkai 女人結界 or nyonin kinsei 女人禁制). Unlike other peaks though, the surrounding community has upheld the exclusionary practice down to the present.
One would think this issue might arise at a conference devoted to better understanding the nature of Shugendō—especially when it is taking place at the last holdout for nyonin kekkai. One can speculate on the reasons for this silence, though Dorogawa’s role as host to the conference was likely a significant factor. Such a touchy subject, which has placed the community on the defense many times in recent years, would be considered awkward and improper to address as guests. This, in tandem with the cultural inclination toward harmony over contention, took it off the table as an issue for open discussion.
In the end, I participated in the Sanjogatake climb, though not without mixed feelings. Here are some pics from the day (click on thumbnails to switch to slideshow mode).