Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Taking an austere path to enlightenment

Below is an interesting article from the Asahi Shimbun about the growing number of people who have become devoted to Shugendo. Shugendo is a religion in Japan that has been around for hundreds of years and is based on Japanese mountain worship. Shugendo has aspects of both Buddhism and Shinto. Shinto is Japan's native faith.

You may have heard of this typ of religion in relation to Mount Fuji which is considered a sacred mountain in Japan. Many mountains in Japan are considered sacred and are worshiped specifically by those that follow the Shugendo faith. One such mountain is Mount Nantai in Nikko National Park. Mount Nantai is a beautiful mountain that sits above Lake Chuzenji. The article explains how many Japanese urban dwellers have taken up the faith and comet to Nikko to escape their lives in the city and to practice their faith on the slopes of Mount Nantai.

I like this idea of mountain worship and the broader respect for nature.

Taking an austere path to enlightenment


Urban dwellers, looking for something missing from the day-to-day grind of their working lives, are literally heading to the mountains to reconnect with nature and find spiritual fulfillment.

They are devotees of Shugendo, a religion based on ancient Japanese mountain worship that incorporates aspects of Buddhism, Shinto and other faiths.

Among the followers is a 33-year-old man from Tokyo who works weekdays as a sales representative. On his days off, he heads for the mountains, donning a traditional outfit, complete with a conch-shell horn and straw sandals.

He is a yamabushi, a mountain priest trainee. His grueling training regime includes a discipline called nyubu, which involves walking steep mountain paths for a few days while visiting sacred sites and worshipping gods and Buddha. He has a religious name: Shinanobo Zuiryu.

Shinanobo belongs to a group called Nikko-Shugendo in Tochigi Prefecture.

Through strict training, Shugendo followers try to experience what Gautama Siddhartha underwent before attaining enlightenment.

Trainees are called yamabushi or shugenja and undergo various types of training.

Shinanobo first became interested in "mountain religion" while studying history in college. As he deepened his study, he ended up becoming a yamabushi at Nikko-Shugendo.

In 2001, he became a full-fledged member of Nikko-Shugendo. He now uses his days off from work to further his training 10 to 15 times a year on Mount Nantaisan in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, as well as other mountains.

Why does he devote himself to training despite his busy work schedule?

"It's my faith," he said.

His wife, Hajime, 30, said, "Whenever he is stressed out in daily life, he says, 'I want to go to the mountains.'"

Hajime is an artist, and she will soon release a work titled "My husband is a yamabushi" in a monthly comic magazine named "Honto ni Atta Waraeru Hanashi" (Funny stories that happened in real life).

Shinanobo is not the only urban resident who longs to spend his spare time undergoing religious training in mountain locations.

Iyano Jiho, 51, who heads Nikko-Shugendo, says those who come from big cities to attend the group's training sessions have a yearning for "mountains."

"For urbanites with little connection with other people and nature, Shugendo training might be offering opportunities to re-examine various involvement with human beings and nature," Iyano said.

Originally from Kanuma, Tochigi Prefecture, Iyano learned Shugendo at temples in Yamagata, Kyoto and Shiga prefectures and elsewhere.

He eventually thought of bringing new life to nyubu training in Nikko, near his hometown. He renovated mountain paths and accommodations for trainees, which had not been used for a long time. The renovation work was completed in 1985, and nyubu training resumed in Nikko.

Another yamabushi from Tokyo is a 30-year-old contract worker, whose religious name is Yamaguchi Horyu. He has been training at Nikko-Shugendo for the past eight years.

As a teenager, Yamaguchi felt strongly that he did not fit in at school. Wanting to "overcome a sense of alienation," he visited several religious organizations, but none of them inspired him.

"They were out of touch with everyday life, and lacked culture or history," Yamaguchi said.

When he was in college, he saw an ad for Nikko-Shugendo training in a magazine and attended a training session. He said to himself, "This is it."

The organization felt "down to earth," he said.

"Myself wearing a necktie and myself in yamabushi outfit are no different, in that I'm a trainee," Yamaguchi said.

Training which involves continued dialogue with gods and Buddha is challenging, he added.

"Still, for me, navigating through life in a big city may be more grueling," he added.

Yamaguchi's fellow trainee under Iyano is a 33-year-old man whose religious name is Kinuki Yuho. He has been training for seven years.

Since his childhood, he had harbored an interest in Buddhism because of his father and grandfather, who were pious.

Contemplating what to do with his life while studying to enter a university, he decided to put Buddhist ideas into practice through his work.

Kinuki got a job as a caregiver but left it after three years to study Buddhism.

While learning about the religion at a university, he met a person training in Shugendo under Iyano.

Asked to come along, Kinuki attended a session and was attracted to Nikko-Shugendo. He became a frequent visitor.

"For instance, in discussing Shugendo teachings in plain language, Iyano said, 'Don't do anything that weighs on your mind, whether it's good or bad.' I repeat these words in my mind, which makes me think," Kinuki said.

Although the words may appear abstract, for Kinuki, it is precious teaching he can apply to real life.

This month, Kinuki returns to his work as a carer.

"I do have apprehension, but I also feel like I have room to breathe somewhere within myself," he said.

"By experiencing the same hard training that trainees ahead of me underwent, such as walking on mountain paths trodden by many others, I feel as if I were spiritually connected with past trainees, as well as with current trainees, beyond time and space. I feel as if I were being encouraged by them. This kind of sense has taken root in me," Kinuki said.

Why do these city dwellers find common ground with Shugendo?

Susumu Shimazono, a professor of religion at the University of Tokyo, has this to say: "Since the 1970s, Qigong, meditation and other spiritual activities have become global trends. However, disappointment is spreading among some of the people who experienced these things. They say things like, 'They are not firmly rooted in society.'

"On the other hand, with traditional aspects as well as physical aspects, Shugendo probably appeals to such people."(IHT/Asahi: April 7,2009)


  1. The more I learn about Japan, the less I know. It took me a long time to reconcile how the Japanese can be Buddhist and Shinto at the same time, but they are. This form of worship seems to combine Shinto worship of nature and combine Buddhism into it. Sort of a reverse pattern of what developed in Japan.

  2. I like how the Japanese have combined the two religions.

  3. Thanks for the Haikyo heads up. I can't wait to check that place out.

  4. Anonymous3:06 PM

    I've always been intrigued by the Japanese Buddhism (which of course has aspects of the Shintoism too). Interesting article.

  5. Japan has many sects or schools of Buddhism. Some I believe do not mix Shinto such as Pure Land Buddhism or Jodo Shinshu (I may be wrong on this so correct me). However, most Japanese themselves follow both Buddhism and Shinto so many if not most Jodo Shinshu followers may have beliefs in both. The type of Buddhism mentioned in this article appears to be one that does mix the two religions. But it may not actually belong to one of the pure Buddhist sects or schools.

  6. Though I agree with the comments made so far about the integrative nature of the religious experience in Japan, I would argue that the practical experiences of daily religious practice the phenomenon is must more complex. Many Japanese lack a complete enough understanding of the various religious traditions at play in Japan to know even what sect their own family belongs to. Check out the following book by Reader and Tanabe, Jr., who explore this "practical religiousity".

    Reader I, George J. Tanabe J. 1998. Practically religious: worldly benefits and the common religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press

    Tornadoes28, concerning your original post, please take a look at the following posts I wrote about Ontake-san--a traditionally sacred mountain that is nearly forgotten in modern Japan.

    Ontake-san pt. 1

    Ontake-san pt. 2

  7. Thank you. I will check these out.

    I wonder what level of religious understanding people have in any country. The US is supposed to be a very religious country but I feel Americans may not be much different then Japanese in their religious understanding, especially of the various traditions here.

  8. I'll comment on the understanding of religion in the USA. I was tortured in a Catholic school. Take away all the BS they gave you when you were young and stupid (the lies and exaggerations) they did give a rather thorough religious education. It takes years and it is done in steps. From what I have observed in Japan, outside of the temples and shrines, there is no formal system of teaching Buddhism other than practice, observation and tradition. Many of the Temples have instructions and teachings that can be followed and observed. Buddhism came along in Japan much as Christianity in the West. Buddhism integrated into the same locations as the Shinto Shrines. The main difference between the Shinto Shrines and the Buddhist Temples (besides the statue of Buddha) is that the Shinto Shrines are more humble and integrated into nature. There are differences of course. In Kyoto, the Shinto Shrine representing the Imperial Family of Japan is rather extravagant.

  9. I went to a Catholic elementary school but did not learn much religion.

    Most Americans do not or never did go to religious schools and so have little understanding. I think even those that go to church, many do it with little understanding and more out of habit.

    Many people believe Japanese are not religious, that the shinto and Buddhist events and festivals don't mean much. I disagree. I think Japanese people are very spiritual. Just not in the same way Americans believe what being spiritual means.

    Just my opinion.

  10. Wow, Yamaguchi Horyu's experience is so familiar. I meditated and fasted on my own for years while looking for a sort of 'organized spirituality'. This was in Florida, USA and my options at the time were either creepy churches or faux 'Eastern' centres only interested in taking your money. Being a not-fugly female didn't bring out the best in the people I spoke to either, and I've ended up pretty disillusioned.

    I'm envious of Yamaguchi-san and this natural and very human form of dedication. Thanks for posting about it!