Category Archives: mountains

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.

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.

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.


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.)


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.



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.