Category Archives: pilgrimage

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.

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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.


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).