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.

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.