Tag Archives: mountain religion

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.

Advertisements

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.


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.


Reviving a festival

The Hashiramatsu 柱松 (literally, ‘pine trunks’) is an event in which three columns of tied bamboo or pine branches are stood upright and lit on fire.  The first to ignite determines the success (agricultural, economic, etc.) of the coming year.  Traditionally coinciding with the first day of Obon, it may have also been believed to invite down the local deities and ancestral spirits residing in the mountains.   The festival is held every three years at Togakushi and dates back to the late thirteenth century.  Well okay, that chronology is a bit misleading.

In the wake of major alterations to religious institutions by the government in the early Meiji period, the Hashiramatsu ended in the 1870s.  During this time, the three major temples on the mountain and their cloisters transformed from combinatory sites of Buddhism, Shinto and Shugendo into state-supported Shinto shrines.  Shugendo itself was proscribed from mountain sites around the country, which helps to explain the disappearance of this shugen-influenced ritual from Togakushi.

But after a thorough investigation by local scholars of extant sources related to the Hashiramatsu at Togakushi as well as other mountains (where it has continued uninterrupted), the festival has been recently revived.  Seeing the Togakushi Hashiramatsu offers a glimpse into the rich symbiosis of religious influences that were historically characteristic of practice at Togakushi and other sites around the country.  It may also suggest the future direction of the culture at Togakushi Jinja, given the community’s increasing re-engagement with its vibrant past.

(Click on photos to open gallery mode.)

The ceremony ends with the head priest seeing off the mountain deities and spirits as they return to the mountain.

Again, the event is held only once every three years, so if you get the chance, be sure to check it out in 2015!


Were there female yamabushi?

Practitioners of Shugendo have often been referred to as yamabushi 山伏, meaning those who ‘sleep in the mountains.’  Throughout Japan’s medieval and perhaps early modern periods, these hardcore ascetics engaged in a curriculum of harsh mountain austerities that included remote peregrinations, secluded meditation in caves, submersion under frigid mountain waterfalls, and a meager diet of mountain flora and vegetation.

It is typically assumed that yamabushi were only men, in part because women were forbidden from entering numinous mountains for fear of polluting the space (a practice known as nyonin kekkai 女人結界).  So I was surprised to recently read several lines from a sixteenth century Shugendo text alluding to female practitioners.  The text, Shugen mondō (Questions and answers regarding Shugen[do]), was composed by an unknown author at Togakushi-san in 1561.  The passage reads,

“The pure, true women [of Shugendo] recite chants and they attain the fruit [of awakening] just like the [male] upāsakas (i.e. lay practitioners).”  (清信女読、是得道得果道同優婆塞。)

And later,

“The good lads and good women of our school moreover, do not shave their heads.” (善男子・善女人、尚以於吾等宗不剃髪。)

This is especially surprising given references to nyonin kekkai in an earlier text composed at Togakushi.  Forbidding women from entering the Togakushi peaks presumably continued without interruption until the late nineteenth century, when the practice was abolished at most sites throughout the country (the famous Mt. Ōmine continues to be an exception).

On the other hand, women established routes around the perimeter of Togakushi and other numinous peaks.  These circuits allowed them to come close enough to worship the mountain and its resident gods.  This practice also supported a growing cottage industry throughout the early modern period.  Blind female oracles, known as miko 巫女, also have a strong place in Shugendo, though I’m not sure how far back records date.  And then there were male/female couples during the Edo period who worked in cooperation to rid evil spirits from their clients (the male shugenja would temporarily transfer the spirit from the client on to his female partner in order to manipulate and eventually banish it).

So historically, women certainly played central roles within Shugendo.  Still, I couldn’t help but be surprised to find overt inclusion and equal treatment of women in the lines above – especially given the seemingly hostile attitude towards them setting foot in numinous mountains.

Then again, the complexities of gender roles and attitudes in historical contexts are perhaps not easily bridged by modern modes of understanding of gender.  How should we situate the role of women in Shugendo, both historically and in the present context?