Back to nature, back to yourself.
Faithful readers, are you anything like me, a hopelessly addicted social media junkie? Have you lost all sense of connection with nature and the real world around you? Upon waking, do you immediately open up the Instagram app to see how many likes your latest selfie got without ever once stopping to contemplate the miracle that is your own life? Do you feel like a manbaby (or whatever the female equivalent is) whose supposed transition into adulthood is little more than an outward charade? If so, then listen up because this is the article for you. You see, though it had long since been on my bucket list, I recently finally had the chance to train with the Yamabushi in the Dewa Sanzan mountains of Yamagata Prefecture. Suffice to say, it was the most transformative experience of my life, bar none.
Before diving into the details, allow me to first provide you with some context on the Yamabushi and their complex “religion” of Shugendo. This way, you can appreciate what’s to come. Essentially a highly syncretic amalgam of esoteric Buddhism, indigenous mountain worship, Shinto and Taoism, Shugendo has roots dating way back to the Heian period (794–1185). These days though, it resembles more a set of inherited practices and philosophies than a codified faith. Likewise, Shugendo seems to have a much larger focus on real world training versus dogma and beliefs when compared to Christian practices. Previously, participation in these ascetic undertakings was limited only to men yet recently groups have started to welcome any individual seeking to overcome the challenges of tomorrow.
Now, you may be wondering how the bloody hell such a delicate balance of potentially conflicting beliefs can so easily coexists side-by-side as they do in Shugendo. Here you need to remember that up until the Meiji government forcibly separated Buddhism and Shinto in 1868, syncretism was the norm for most of Japan. Therefore, Shugendo is just a more extreme example of this layering that borrows additional bits from other synergistic schools and philosophies. Actually, Shugendo consists of a fundamental foundation of aboriginal mountain worship that is then interpreted through the frameworks of Shinto and esoteric Buddhism. In addition to this core, purposeful pieces of other Asian doctrines are also included.
In the days of yore, Yamabushi enclaves could actually be found all over Japan with different pockets having their own unique take on the practice of Shugendo. Following the divorce of Shinto from Buddhism in 1868 though, many of these centers had to find a way to redefine themselves or face annihilation. Though no area survived the change entirely intact, perhaps there’s no better place where the traditions of old have endured than Yamagata Prefecture’s Shonai Plain. Home to the legendary Dewa Sanzan mountains, this region has a very long history of Yamabushi and Shugendo. For more than a millennium now, the Yamabushi have been conducting their harsh spiritual training within these three sacred mountains.
While Shugendo is not entirely unique to this region, one feature that makes the Dewa Sanzan stand alone from the others is the idea that an excursion into these holy mountains represents a symbolic death and subsequent rebirth. Likely, in the early mists of time, those who ventured into these hallowed hills noticed that they felt slightly different upon returning to civilization. Over time, this feeling became associated with the notion of being reborn. Thereafter, various religious schema organically emerged as a means of making practical sense of the experience. Eventually, this collection of folk beliefs became tabulated in the practice of the Yamabushi.
While the experience of rebirth can indeed be had on any of the individual peaks, the Dewa Sanzan trifecta as a whole has come to be thought of as a pilgrimage. As such, each of these three mountains is associated with a different stage in the process as can be seen below.
- Mt. Haguro
This is the smallest of the Dewa Sanzan mountains rising at a height of only 414 meters. Representing the present, people visit Mt. Haguro to overcome the troubles of the day. With a 2,446 step stone stairway and a magnificent five-story pagoda, this crag is the perfect initiation into your spiritual rite of passage. Note that during winter, Mt. Haguro is the only Dewa Sanzan mountain that remains open and therefore is home to a sepulcher that enshrines all three mountain’s deities. Known as Sanjingosaiden, this building shoulders the largest thatched roof in Japan.
- Mt. Gassan
Standing at a daunting 1,984 meters, this mountain is said to personify death and the past. Meaning literally “Mountain of the Moon,” Mt. Gassan takes its alias from the name of the Japanese lunar god, Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto. Some locals believe that after death, our souls travel throughout the lower mountains where they undertake their own training. Upon finally reaching Mt. Gassan, the souls are deified and spend eternity looking after the living. Because of this, Mt. Gassan is said to lie at the border to the afterlife.
- Mt. Yudono
Typically considered to be the most sacred of the three Dewa Sanzan mountains, Mt. Yudono is where pilgrims come face-to-face with their future selves and are reborn. Traditionally accessed via Mt. Gassan, visitors to Mt. Yudono do not customarily visit the summit itself. Instead, travelers from all around the country flock to Mt. Yudono Shrine. Halfway up the slope you’ll find an object of worship that is so consecrated that people are forbidden to speak of it. While I will not say any more, know that it is here that wayward souls are finally reborn.
In addition to beliefs about death and rebirth, one other unique element of Yamagata’s Yamabushi culture is the concept of Uketamo. Loosely translated into English as “I accept with an open heart,” this phrase is emblematic of the region’s welcoming attitude. When one utters Uketamo, he or she is asserting a willingness to drop any and all expectations and typical notions of thinking. By declaring Uketamo, one is able to exist in the present without concern of what might happen next. This connection with the here and now allows one to enjoy the experience of the present moment without fretting about what may happen thereafter. What’s more, Uketamo also plays a critical role in all Yamabushi training as it is the only phrase participants are allowed to express.
In addition to its importance during Yamabushi training, the notion of Uketamo can also be said to be emblematic of the region’s disposition towards acceptance. Harsh winters with heavy snowfall? Uketamo! Syncretic religious beliefs from all across Asia? Uketamo! A mix of samurai culture, mountain asceticism, and mariners mingling in the tight confines of the Shonai Plain? Uketamo! Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a more unifying philosophy for this most amazing region of Japan. When I heard the implications of Uketamo explained to me this way, it just clicked.
Getting to Yamagata & the Shonai Plain
Still with me? Good! Now that we’ve covered the history of the Dewa Sanzan, let’s pause for a second to handle some key logistics. While the Shonai Plain and its mountains certainly rank among my all-time favorite destinations, the journey there is a bit rough. Located on the far western side of Yamagata Prefecture, this sliver of land is quite secluded from the rest of Japan. In fact, throughout history, the Shonai Plain would frequently lose access with the rest of Japan due to its severe winters. If you visit during the colder months, expect to witness actual corridors of snow (or so I hear). Still, given autumn’s tranquil atmosphere, I can only imagine the serene surroundings in the dead of winter.
Seeing how remote the Shonai Plain and the Dewa Sanzan mountains are, it’s no surprise that the trek up there is harder than others. Put simply, you’re likely going to want to fly. While you can technically make your way via Niigata Prefecture, the entire trip by train can take upwards of six hours. If you have time to kill, the view is certainly to die for and will allow you to make use of your JR Rail pass (be sure to research roots with Hyperdia or a similar service if you do opt for the train). For the rest of us schleps who are on a tight schedule though, the one hour flight from Haneda is much more appealing.
The accessibility issues continue after you actually reach the Shonai Plain. Given its distant location and sweeping alpine conditions, public transportation is sorely lacking here. At best, you’ll have to make use of the complicated bus system but this can feel a bit overwhelming for travelers who do not read Japanese fluently. Here, I’ll simply refer you to my friend, Tim Bunting, over at the DewaSanzan.com. Tim is a certified Yamabushi himself and has gone to great lengths to create a guide for getting around. As informative as his guide is though, it would simply behoove you to go and rent yourself a car. This way, you are not beholden to the sparse bus departures.
If you are truly interested in visiting this breathtaking and historic slice of Japan, I highly, highly recommend that you sign up for Yamabushi training. While you technically can explore the Shonai Plain and the Dewa Sanzan peaks on your own, you lose out on experiencing the very soul of the region. Though I am a bit hesitant to make the analogy, I guess you could say it would be like visiting Disneyland without all of the characters. While it’s wonderful and all, some core essence is just missing. To really understand this area and scratch that authenticity itch, bite the bullet and book a training session. Trust me when I say it will be one of the best things you ever do.
Think that the Yamabushi training might be a little bit much for you? Fret not, I’ll cover some alternatives in a later section for readers who seek an authentic experience but aren’t up for the full fledged program.
Your Turn to Experience Yamabushi Training
Enough about the Dewa Sanzan and its enlightened historical background. Let’s talk about the Yamabushi training itself. Long time readers may have noticed this pattern but I typically try to avoid introducing corporate entities and instead stick to only featuring evergreen content. My reasoning is quite simple; I’ve had way too many awesome offerings featured on this blog just go out of business on short notice. Of these, perhaps none is more tragic than the recent loss of this amazing game center in Kawasaki. Given how many times I’ve been burned now, I have a personal aversion to featuring businesses on the blog. That said though, I am going to break with my own protocol and suggest you check out Megurun’s flagship offering, Yamabushido.
While it’s true that participation in the Yamabushi’s rich heritage has become more open as of late, actually doing so generally requires advanced mastery of Japanese. Sensing a need for self-awareness and self-development, Megurun has adopted the mission of helping people utilize the tools of the Yamabushi to achieve these ends. Sticklers for authenticity like myself, Megurun’s staff are of the mindset that participation in these ancient practices of the Yamabushi can aid in addressing the utter lack of rites of passage in our modern society. By venturing into nature, you’ll have the opportunity to disengage from real world concerns and reconnect with your authentic self.
Now, when it comes to Yamabushi training, Megurun’s Yamabushido propose two unique training programs:
- The Basic Program
This shorter, two-day course is designed for people who want to experience Yamabushi training without taking the full plunge. The training sessions are less physically demanding while still maintaining many of the authentic key elements. Given the challenges of getting up to the Shonai Plain, this is the course that I’d recommend if you’re tight on time. Note that the Basic Training Program will take place only on Mt. Haguro and maybe another nearby mountain.
- Master’s Training
While the Basic Training Program has been heavily curtailed to better accommodate busy schedules, the Master’s Training is real McCoy. This four-day quest will see you traverse all three of the Dewa Sanzan mountains in a symbolic journey of death and rebirth. As such, it is far more demanding physically than the two-day Basic Training. That said, I’m of the mind that participation in a program like this can have similar effects to an ayahuasca retreat with a shaman.
In the interest of transparency, note that I have only been able to complete the shorter of the two Yamabushi training courses. Regardless, this training was by far the most transformative experience of my life. If a mere two days of spending time in nature with the Yamabushi can do that, I can only imagine the potential of their extended offering.
Speaking of the training, while I don’t want to spoil it all for you, I do want to wet your appetite a bit by briefly mentioning some of the components. For starters, know that you are going to be doing a lot of hiking. What’s more, save for the occasional uttering of Uketamo, you’ll not be allowed to speak for the entirety of the training session. While this might seem overly draconian, know that soon after beginning the day, your mind will fall into a quasi meditative state. Frankly stated, I don’t think I’ve ever been more at peace in my entire life than when I was climbing Mt. Haguro with the Yamabushi.
In addition to climbing mountains in complete silence, you’ll also have the opportunity to participate in waterfall mediation sessions, recite prayers for world peace and the tragic victims of natural disasters, practice zazen, walk in total darkness, and leap over a raging flame. Moreover, throughout the entire experience, you’ll be garbed in the robes of the dead. Known in Japanese as shiroshouzoku, this all-white uniform is reminiscent of traditional burial garb and symbolizes the death and rebirth that you’ll experience within the training. Don’t have a shiroshouzoku on hand? Fret not. You’ll be provided a clean set when signing up for any of the Yamabushido programs.
As for accomodations, know that you’ll be staying at the eminently important Daishobo pilgrim lodge. This spot was, until recently, was reserved entirely for Yamabushi initiates. Thanks to the fact that many of the Megurun staff train out of this facility, Daishobo’s doors have been opened to anyone who signs up for a Yamabushido program. Compared to five-star resorts, Daishobo can feel spartan but know that this establishment is a center for Yamabushi training rather than a hotel offering various amenities. That said though, Daishobo is renowned in the area for its top-notch traditional Shojin Ryori. While your meals will be rather sparse during training, the celebratory Naorai lunch at the conclusion will be one you remember for years to come.
Note that Daishobo is run by a 13th generation Yamabushi known as Master Hoshino. Often compared to everyone’s favorite little green Jedi Master from Star Wars, Master Hoshino is something of a living legend. Having taken up the calling of introducing the mystical powers of Yamabushi training to those all over the globe, Master Hoshino’s approach is deeply rooted in tradition while maintaining a relevance for the modern world. His hand can be felt throughout all of the Yamabushido programs (sadly, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a chance to meet him in person though).
Misc. Things to Consider Before Training
Thinking of signing up for Yamabushi training? Good on you! I am certain that you will not regret your decision. In fact, I am adamant that it will be one of the best experiences of your lifetime. Our modern culture sorely lacks these critical rites of passage so I think you’ll be surprised just how transformational the ordeal will be. In my opinion, participating in Yamabushi training easily satisfies everything burned out executives are seeking when they embark on week-long retreats. As such, I have agreed to work voluntarily alongside Megurun to help get their Yamabushido programs on the radar of those who desperately need them.
Alas, as life-changing as Yamabushi training can be, it is not for everyone. What you’re signing up for is not some dumbed down experience that has been designed specifically for tourists. No, this is the real deal. By opting to take one of the Yamabushido programs, you are choosing to accept and embrace the challenges presented to you. As this is an authentic undertaking, major alterations to the program to allow for dietary or mobility modifications are simply not possible. Please consider the following before joining:
This should not need to be stated but participation in a Yamabushido program will entail a great deal of climbing. In fact, you shouldn’t be surprised if you end up traversing over 10 kilometers of alpine terrain per day. Mountain trekking is a core component of the training and therefore you need to be physically sound if you’re going to take part. Please have an honest conversation with yourself before taking the plunge.
As a whole, Japan is pretty bad when it comes to catering to people with food allergies. Given that all of the Yamabushido programs are run out of a traditional pilgrim lodge, the content of your meals cannot be changed. If you have allergies but still want to participate, notify Megurun’s staff in advance and also consider bringing your own nourishment.
I alluded to this before but Shugendo, the creed upon which Yamabushi training is based, is largely non-religious. Though you’ll recite chants taken from Shinto and Buddhism as a part of the training, here you’re essentially paying homage to nature itself and not a single deity. Still, if following along with these litanies is against your faith, it’s probably best that you refrain from taking part in Yamabushi training.
Admittedly, this is the one task that I struggled with the most. If you’re not aware, understand that seiza (lit. “proper sitting”) is the traditional manner of sitting in Japan. To assume the position, fold your legs underneath your thighs while resting your buttocks on your heels. If you’re a comically inflexible brute like me, chances are that you won’t be able to perform this physical feat. Unfortunately though, sitting in seiza is a significant feature of the training so I suggest working your way up to sitting properly before taking part.
If the above points don’t dissuade you from wanting to give Yamabushi training a shot, consider reaching out to the helpful staff at Megurun to discuss upcoming schedules. Given the limited availability of programs, it would be wise to schedule your arrangements as early as possible.
Attractions Nearby the Shonai Plain
If you’re not up for participating in the full-fledged Yamabushi training, worry not. The Shonai plain and the Dewa Sanzan feature a variety of options. While many of the venues are actually corollaries of Yamabushi culture, you could do a lot worse than these attractions when it comes to hidden gems. Below, you’ll find a list of experiential offerings by Megurun. While you can explore most of these venues on your own, the language barrier ensures that you’ll miss out on key contextual tidbits of information. As such, I’m of the mind that your travels will be much more fulfilling if you opt to investigate with a well-versed bilingual by your side who knows the backstory.
- The Hidden Path of Zen at Yamadera
No article featuring Yamagata Prefecture would be complete without mentioning Yamadera. After all, the mountaintop temple is one of the area’s most iconic attractions. That said, there are numerous hidden secrets that most visitors to Yamadera are oblivious to. On this tour, your guide will take you along ancient paths that were once used as training grounds in the days of yesteryear. You’ll have the chance to see breathtaking natural caves and unspoiled viewpoints. Thereafter, you’ll have the chance to rid your mind of worry with a meditation session. If you want to consider a visit to Yamadera, this is the way to do it!
- Trek with the Yamabushi
Think of this as training lite for lay-people. Those who opt for this program will get a chance to partake in a pilgrimage to the top of Mt. Haguro. At the summit, you’ll participate in an official ritual at Sanjingosaiden before moving on to sample authentic Shojin Ryori cuisine at Sakain. While by no means as rigorous as the Yamabushido training programs, this offering is great for travelers who want to get a taste of the ascetic culture. Note that this trek up Mt. Haguro is especially pleasant during winter.
- Mountain Foraging at Dewaya Inn
Surrounded by mountains and the sea, this area of Japan overflows with a shocking variety of food. In fact, it is the only area in Japan to receive the title of UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. What’s more, this culinary heritage owes much of its roots to the Yamabushi who had to make due with what they could scour in the mountains. During this tour, you’ll journey to the remote village of Nishikawa. Here, at a homestead called Dewaya, you’ll learn how residents of the the mountains foraged for food staples. Thereafter, you’ll accompany a third generation master and chef as you venture into the mountains on the hunt for ingredients for a feast.
- Zen at Zenpo-ji
This temple has a unique affinity with the local region. Unlike many other sanctums promoting the practice of Zen, this facility has been uniquely influenced by the nature worship of the nearby Dewa Sanzan peaks. Here, under the guidance of the monks, you’ll have a chance to find a sense of stillness. After meditating, and trying your hand at calligraphy, you’ll have the opportunity to participate in a meal time ritual before enjoying some savory Shojin Ryori cuisine.
- Mummies of the North
Okay, this option technically isn’t a Megurun offering but I simply cannot write about the Shonai Plain and the Dewa Sanzan without mentioning these testaments to human tenacity. Frankly stated, Yamagata Prefecture is home to a small collection of mummies. Considered to be living Buddhas, these former monks starved themselves down to naught but skin and bones. Thereafter, the monks gradually consumed a lacquer made from the sap of urushi so that their organs would be preserved after death. As their endings approached, these stoic men would be placed in an underground tomb to await the inevitable.
In closing, allow me to say that I’ve ventured to many areas of Japan during my travels. Of all the places that I’ve traversed, I don’t believe any domain comes close to this section of Yamagata Prefecture when it comes to untapped potential and authenticity. If you’re even the least bit intrigued, I cannot more highly recommend that you add the Shonai Plain and the Dewa Sanzan to your next trip’s itinerary.