Author Archives: calebscarter

About calebscarter

I specialize in Japanese religions within the broader context of Buddhism and East Asian cultures. Within these fields, I focus especially on Shugendō, a mountain-based tradition in Japan developed largely from esoteric, Zen and Pure Land Buddhism with additional influences from Chinese religions and local spirit worship (later identified as Shintō). I approach these subjects from an interdisciplinary perspective that draws on literary, economic, political, social and intellectual history. I received my Masters (2008) and PhD (2014), both in Buddhist Studies from UCLA, with a BA (2000) in Philosophy from Colorado College. I currently teach full-time for the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. Outside of research and teaching, I play a three-stringed instrument from Okinawa called the sanshin and spend time with my family at nearby playgrounds and campgrounds. I also love the outdoors, especially climbing in the mountains—an orientation that has in many ways shaped my current intellectual path.

Field notes from Mt. Akadake

March 30, 2013 3:03pmAkadake base camp

I’m currently hiking the approach into Akadake of the Yatsugatake range in Nagano, stopped for a few minutes rest.  The trail is a mix of ice, snow and slush.  With steel plated boots I edge into the soft ice, trudging my way up the valley.

Just came across an assembly of dedicative steles and minituare shrines associated with the Akamine Shrine, the Immovable Luminous King Fudō myōō and a confraternity called Shinmyō kō 眞明講.

7:22pm

My three climbing mates and I arrived into base camp around 5:00, set up camp, made a snow kitchen, cooked up dinner, and drank hot whiskey.  Now I’m bundled up my sleeping bag in the tent.  It’s freezing outside.Bunzaburou ridge

After years of grad school, kids and the daily hustle, I can’t remember the last time I was out alpine climbing.  In the interim, I’d forgotten what it feels like.  But my body remembers.  Subtle adjustments to higher altitude, sore hips and shoulders from the weight of the pack, icy winds grazing my face, snow pellets slipping into the exposed space between long underwear and boot.  Sensations not encountered in the ordinary day to day.  It feels good to be reacquiring  them now.

March 30, 2:04pm

Back at the car.  A phenomenal day.  Casual 7:30 am departure from our tents.  Equipped with axes and crampons, we headed up a series of snow encrusted ridges, arriving at the summit of Akadake at 9:30am.Approaching the Akadake pass  A tiny shrine on top with the characters Midō 弥堂 – “mi” being a likely a reference to Mt. Sumeru, the axis mundi peak in Indian cosmology.

The descent skirted a corniced ridge line.  Gusty winds threatening to sweep me off my feet howled constantly.  At a small Jizō bodhisattva statue, we dropped down into craggy flanks until reaching tree line and eventually our tents.  Snow showered us as we made our way back to the car.

As an individual of the modern age, I would never claim access to the mindset of those who tread these mountains long ago, erecting shrines and consecrating icons along treacherous paths, practicing austerities, bracing themselves against menacing spirits and praying to benevolent ones.  Awareness of geology and meteorology, training in modern mountaineering techniques, and use of sophisticated equipment gives me a highly distinctive experience.

Akadake summit

Akadake summit

But forgetting all of that and simply feeling the sheer awesomeness of the winter mountains today helped me imagine for an instant the numinous, and at times terrifying, cosmic realm that those who dared venture into the mountains once experienced.


The ume may be blossoming in Tokyo right now, but it was still snowing in Nagano yesterday.

For those relishing the spring weather this weekend but saying farewell to the ski season, here are some bittersweet photos from a recent Togakushi trip.  Given its proximity to Japan’s inland sea, the area gets dumped on by massive amounts of snow each winter.

Locals call the snow mahō no konayuki (which translates into something like “witchcraft powder”) for two reasons:  the snow that falls on the range comes as light, fresh powder (optimal for winter sports);  and the high quality of the snow is often attributed to Kuzuryū.

Kuzuryū (literally, nine-headed dragon) is the resident deity of the Mt. Togakushi.  As a dragon, it has been long worshiped for its control of water – ranging from rainfall for crops to flood prevention.  Thus, it comes as no surprise that Kuzuryū is now prayed to for a solid base of powder on the ski slopes each year.  For just as the community’s economy was long dependent on agriculture, now it relies on revenue from visiting skiers and snow boarders.

(Click photos to go to gallery mode.)


Takaosan

Last month, I posted pictures of the autumn foliage  at Mount Togakushi, which rises to 1904m (6246).  For the lower Mount Takao though, the maples were peaking this past week.  Only an hour west of Shinjuku on the train, I decided to head for the hills.

Not only were the colors beautiful, but the religious landscape of Mount Takao is fascinating as well.  Dotted with statues and shrines devoted to an assortment of buddhas, bodhisattvas, gongen and fabled priests, Takoasan’s vibrant mix of practices and beliefs (mostly Shingon Buddhist and Shugendō) is on full display as one hikes up the peak.  Here are some images from the mountain.

Access:  Mount Takao can be easily reached from Tokyo (Shinjuku) via the regional train system.  Click here for details on transportation and hikes.  The station, Takaosanguchi, places one about ten minutes’ walk from the entrance to the peak.  There are lots of cool shops and eateries on the way to the base.

There are lots of trails, so choosing can be a little difficult.  My suggestion: take numbers 1 or 2 in order to pass by all the temples and shrines on the way up.  These courses more or less follow the traditional route up the mountain.   For something off the beaten path that skips the crowds, opt for the Inarisan 稲荷山 course or number 6 (though its oddly closed to downhill traffic for certain seasons) on the way down.  There’s also a cable car for  slackers who want a ride halfway up ; )

Either way, for those in Tokyo looking for a bit of natural respite, Takao’s a must.


Kumano ofuda

Here’s one more that I missed from the last post.

熊野(日本第一)

熊野(日本第一)

Kumano is “Number One in Japan,” reads this ofuda 御札. The crows composing the characters for Kumano 熊野 (right side vertical) are a symbol of the region after Jimmu (Japan’s legendary first emperor) was guided there by a three-legged crow.

The agility of this extra-legged crow has made it more recently, a symbol of Japan’s World Cup soccer team, who pray to Kumano’s Hongu shrine for victory.

This is the Hongu Shrine ofuda.  This Wikipedia link shows the ofuda for all three Kumano shrines.


Edo period ofuda

I stumbled upon a trove of Edo period ofuda 御札, or protective talisman, while searching through archives at the Nagano Prefectural Historical Museum last week.  While some may have been purchased at a temple or shrine, others were likely distributed by oshi (pilgrimage guides) to their patrons, who may have lived far from the site.

Ofuda were generally hung inside the household in order to provide protection from burglary, natural disasters, and so forth.  They were mass-printed on woodblock and often bore the stamp of the associated temple or shrine.  The images and character styles themselves are quite beautiful.


Autumn foliage at Togakushi

Happy Autumn!  Here’s a bit of foliage from Mt. Togakushi this past week.


Mountain asceticism in Tokyo?

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.


The 2012 Japanese Mountain Religion Conference at Mt. Omine

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).


Changing Epistemologies: From Historical to Modern Views of Togakushi’s Natural Environment

This post takes a look at geological and historical understandings of Togakushi’s natural environment and then considers the shift from one epistemology to another.

Geological:

The Togakushi mountains are located north-northwest of Nagano City.  Consisting mainly of igneous rock, they began forming between 40 million and 27 million years ago through submarine volcanic activity.  Gradually, magma protruded upward as layers of mud and sand settled and hardened.  Shifts in the earth’s crust eventually pushed the entire region above sea level and through subsequent uplift and erosion, the peaks of Togakushi (1904m) and the neighboring Amakazari (1963m) took form.

The surrounding peaks of Iizuna (1917m), Kurohime (2053m) and Myoko (2454m) emerged later (approximately 17 million years ago) through violent eruptions. Shaped as typical cone volcanoes, their cores consist of an igneous rock known as porphyrite, with layers of sandstone and sediment extending outward.

Below the range, high plains are dotted with hot springs–evidence of magma rolling just below the surface.  While the sea now lies just northwest of the region, shells and the fossilized bones of crabs, seal and whale dating back to the early formation of the peaks can still been found.

. . .

The description above of course, reflects a geological understanding of the region.  This body of knowledge has been vital in informing policies related to water management,  natural disaster response, commercial development and so forth.  Before this scientific approach was applied to the Togakushi region however, a preexisting body of knowledge that was also shaped from the mountains guided understandings of the region. Because rice production has long been central to people’s lives, this earlier epistemology concerned agriculture.

Historical:

Water flowing down from the Togakushi mountains has always been key to the productivity of the agricultural basin below.  The immense snow pack that accumulates over the winter in these high peaks melts off in the spring, feeding the area’s streams, rivers, and aquifers.

One stream source in fact, emerges beside the craggy abode of Kuzuryū 九頭龍, the nine-headed dragon who allegedly appeared when the first ascetic reached the range long ago. Indicative of beliefs across Asia, the dragon at Togakushi has long been understood to control the supply of water—from both the clouds and the mountains.  Kuzuryū was likewise appealed to for crop water as well as prevention of water-related disasters (flooding, landslides, etc.).

Just as important to agriculture is the sun’s energy.  Incidentally, recent scholarship reveals a strong connection between solar worship and the historical layout of the temples and pathways. In his recent book, Gentō no Togakushi (Togakushi’s Winter, 2011), Miyazawa Kazuho argues that some of the oldest religious sites on the mountain align precisely with the direction of the sun’s rays on the summer and winter solstices. The early morning rays of the winter solstice for example, penetrate directly through the torii at Okusha 奥社.  Archeological studies have found similar connections at other numinous mountains throughout the country. Moreover, the winter solstice has long been a date in Japan for rituals intended to store up energy to overcome the increasingly cold days of winter.

These are some of the concepts that guided understandings of Mt. Togakushi prior to the modern period.  It goes without saying that modern science in general has greatly improved living conditions since then. What is less discernible though is the extent to which these sciences have displaced preexisting epistemologies like the ones mentioned above. In discussing some of the pioneering geologists in Japan during the 1870s, Stefan Tanaka remarks,

“The geological research of men like Milne and Naumann was instrumental in demystifying this amalgamation of the human, natural, and spiritual worlds by bringing in the abstract arena of science… The accounts of Milne’s and Naumann’s expeditions clearly juxtapose the ideas of the locales as superstitious in comparison to their science. In other words, geology turns inherited forms of knowledge into textual forms; practices to ward off disaster became superstitions, a time-concept that relegated ghosts and wonder to a ‘scriptural tomb.'” (New Times in Modern Japan, 2004, 61).

As Tanaka concludes, scientific study brought not only innovation but also value-laden judgments to an entire structure of practices and concepts.  Geologic surveys, which were commissioned by the new Meiji government, might additionally be seen as a form of cultural subjugation by the rapidly expanding imperial state over regional populations. And at the same time that belief in the local gods was being swiftly displaced by the “abstract arena of science,” a new powerful deity was being deployed throughout the country. This one, heavily propagandized by the Meiji state, was the emperor himself, as both father to the nation and a living god descended from Amaterasu.

Whether this national project of replacing local beliefs with a centralized belief structure was ever fully realized is of course, a matter of debate.  Looking at modern day Togakushi, one can still see priests offering rice to Kuzuryū every morning, alongside a steady supply of coins from visitors visiting the dragon’s shrine.  Even the nearby ski lift makes its annual requests for a healthy snow pack.


Shugendo and Reiki

I was recently asked by a Reiki specialist to write something on Shugendo for his blog.  After looking into hagiographical elements of the founder of Reiki, Usui Mikao 臼井甕男 (1865–1926), I wrote up this short essay on similarities between the two:

Echoes in the Mountains:  Locating Usui’s Experience in the History of Japanese Mountain Asceticism

It was fun to find that, like many of the “new religions” in Japan’s last few centuries, Reiki (while not considered a religion) takes much from the rich history of mountain asceticism in Japan.

Image

[A gongen shrine on Mt. Kurama 鞍馬山, where Usui is said to have received his Reiki energy.]