Shugendo & The Yamabushi
The Japanese religion dedicated to mountain training
Shugendo and the Yamabushi monks who practice it are a fascinating part of Japanese culture and history. Originating from Shintoism and Buddhism, it is best described as the pursuit of enlightenment by immersing oneself in the mountains and the natural world. Most people who enjoy hiking and nature can relate to this pursuit even without being religious. The growth of Shugendo led to many hiking trails and beautiful mountain temples being developed all throughout Japan, the most famous of these is the Kumano Kodo trail located south of Kyoto and Osaka.
One particular area that has gained more interest in recent years is the Dewa Sanzan in Yamagata prefecture, about 4 hours north of Tokyo. The area has grown in popularity by offering multi-day experience programs with English speaking guides for foreign visitors. These immersive and well designed programs let anyone experience the unique benefits of Yamabushi training, and were even featured on Chris Broad's popular YouTube channel, you can view the full episode here. I sat down with one of the few non-Japanese Yamabushi monks, Tim Bunting, to talk about his journey and the Dewa Sanzan programs.
Shugendo originated in the 7th century, over 1300 years ago, and grew from the increasing popularity of Buddhism that was brought over from Korea in the 6th century. It's essentially a combination of Shintoism (Japan's main spiritual system), Buddhism, and mountain worship. It's the main reason for the numerous shrines and temples that are scattered all over the mountains in Japan, along with various hiking trails. Shudendo literally means "the path of training and testing".
Some Interesting History
During the Heian Period, from 794 to 1185, in became popular for the nobles living in Kyoto to visit the Kumano Sanzen, three major shrines on the Kumano Kodo hiking trail.
Shintoism and Buddhism often overlapped in Japan, many people practised both the spiritual Shinto beliefs and the more religious Buddhist beliefs. However, the Meiji government wasn't a fan of this combination and introduced laws to ensure the separation of Shintoism and Buddhism. These laws included a ruling that Shugendo was unacceptable, and it was officially forbidden in 1872.
Most hikers in Japan are familiar with Mt. Tsurugi in the Northern Alps, it's famous for its jagged peaks with large sections of ropes and chains. During the Meiji period, it was considered Japan's last unclimbed mountain, due to its technical terrain. Then, in 1907, Yoshitaro Shibasaki successfully climbed Mt. Tsurugi, but much to his surprise, the peak was already holding a metal sword which meant someone had climbed it before. A later investigation found that the sword dated back more than 1000 years, to the early Heian period.
The largest torii in Japan, on the Kumano Kodo trail.
Our interview with Tim, The Kiwi Yamabushi
So what brought you to Japan?
I'm originally from Wellington in New Zealand and I was always interested in living in Japan ever since I started studying Japanese in high-school. Then after University I was accepted into the Japanese Exchange Program as an assistant language teacher (ALT).
How did you first hear about the Yamabushi?
I first learned about the Yamabushi when I met Takeharu, the founder of Yamabushido.jp. He was interested in introducing Shugendo culture to English speakers and needed help with translation and guiding. I was already interested in sharing the amazing Shonai region and this was where it all started. I was fascinated by the philosophy and soon found myself studying and practicing to become a Yamabushi.
Can anyone become a Yamabushi?
Master Hoshino is a very humble and open minded person, he welcomes anyone and everyone into his teachings so there is no discrimination if someone wants to become a Yamabushi with the Dewa Sanzan.
So what do your experience programs look like?
We have 4 programs, the main one is called the masters training which is lead by master Hoshino and goes for 4 days, it's also the most popular. The first day is spent in a Zen temple with minimal talking, and then 3 days are spent in the mountains doing Yamabushi training with no talking allowed. We also have a 2-day basic program, which is a shorter version of the masters program.
No talking is a powerful part of the programs, but also quite challenging, so we developed 1-day and 3-day programs so people can ask questions and learn more about the history and culture.
So with the Basic and Masters programs, is there any period during the day where you're allowed to talk?
There's no talking at all. It's an interesting part of the experience, after spending all this time with someone you end up knowing them on an intimate level without ever having a conversation.
So what does the Masters program look like, what would people experience?
So, the first day you're at a Zen temple. The purpose of the first day is to build a foundation of Buddhist Zen philosophy and how it relates to life. Zen Buddhism is similar to the Yamabushi philosophy of Uketamo, but expressed differently.
Then, on days 2-4, you're on the mountains doing Yamabushi training with us. It's quite secretive so I can't give many details, but I can give you an idea. We spend a lot of time walking on the mountains in traditional clothing and visiting Haisho, which are places where you pray, and are often beautiful shrines or temples. We're also practicing many rituals such as waterfall meditation.
How does the Dewa Sanzan compare to the more well-known places for Yamabushi, such as the Kumano Kodo trail and the Nachi Grand Shrine?
The Kumano Kodo trail is very beautiful and has some amazing shrines and temples, but it's also very busy and more commercially developed than the Dewa Sanzan, so the tourism can be a bit overwhelming and distracting. The Dewa Sanzan is also the only area that practices Uketamo and is the home of Master Hoshino, who is quite famous for his teachings and the books he has published.
Speaking of comparisons, Mt. Omine is considered the most sacred mountain in the Shugendo religion. However, it caused controversy when it obtained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004 because it also maintains a 1200 year old ban on women.
Yeah I disagree with that completely haha. So, other mountains were also like that, including the Dewa Sanzan, but they all started changing in the late 1800's. Master Hoshino is also very open minded. About 30 years ago he started running Yamabushi training through a pilgrim's lodge for teaching and practicing Shugendo. In the beginning they were mostly male participants, but now the majority are female. Master Hoshino says that Yamabushi training is a way for women to restore their wilderness in a modern, masculine world.
The head temple for Shugendo, Kinpusenji, is in Yoshino in Nara prefecture. Do Yamabushi in the Dewa Sanzan have a desire to go there or do you feel a little bit disconnected from that?
Haha, I've never actually talked about that. I think there is a bit of a disconnect but I don't think it's on purpose. There's not much cross communication or collaboration between the Shugendo sects in Japan. I wish there was more collaboration, I would love to reach out to different practitioners.
Cool man, thanks for chatting with us today, super interesting learning about the Dewa Sanzan and your programs. I'll let you know if any of the readers leave questions for you in the comments section below.
Sure no worries, always love sharing info about the Yamabushi here in Yamagata.