Shugendō 修験道 is a school of ascetic practice unique to Japan that centers around the mountains. So it would seem strange to find it in Shinagawa-ku of Tokyo. Yet the temple of Shinagawa-dera 品川寺 hosted several major shugen rituals, carried out by approximately thirty shugenja (practitioners of Shugendō), this past weekend. So does this mean that mountain-centered religious practices exist even in what is currently the largest metropolis in the world? Well, sort of.
The rituals at Shinagawa-dera this weekend—involving fire and boiling water—were historically performed by practitioners after long stretches of asceticism in the mountains. Through these periods of ritual seclusion, it was believed that they acquired special powers, which could then be used to benefit their followers. Under the regulations of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu at the start of the Edo period (1600-1868), these practitioners—formerly itinerant—were forced to settle down in cities, towns, and villages across the country. As they did, they brought their practices and mountain connections to their new areas of residence. By performing impressive acts like walking across beds of hot coals or splashing boiling water around themselves, they showcased their powerful skills to gathered spectators, and as guides, began taking followers to famous mountain sites associated with Shugendō.
Such is likely the case with the temple of Shinagawa-dera. The temple has long been a branch temple of Daigoji 醍醐寺 (in Kyoto), which has served as the head temple of the Tōzan 当山 branch of Shugendō since the late sixteenth century. Through this connection, Tōzan shugenja likely brought their rituals to Shinagawa-dera. In turn, they would have been able to recruit and guide pilgrims to the distant Yoshino 吉野—famous among Japan’s numinous peaks and the main site of practice for Daigoji’s shugenja. So in this sense, Edo period shugenja not only brought their mountain culture to the city but then brought city dwellers to the mountains.