Mountain Monks is a short film by Fritz Schumann about a group of Japanese monks called the Yamabushi who regularly walk barefoot through rivers, meditating under waterfalls and spending the nights on mountaintops. They walk into the forest to die and be born again.
Their teachings of Shugendō 修験道 were first established 1400 years ago and peaked in popularity during the 17th century, when Yamabushi visited around 90 percent of all villages in northern Japan. The monks were said to have magical powers and served as advisors to samurai and warlords.
In the late 19th century, when Japan opened itself to the west and moved from a feudal state towards industrialization, their religion was forbidden. Only the monks of Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan practiced the tradition in secret. Their isolation near the three holy mountains of Dewa helped them to save their customs.
Calling these pilgrims “o-henro-san,” or those who walk the path, the locals support their safe journeys by offering meals and places to rest. The custom, called “osettai,” is rooted deeply in their daily lives. In recent years, it is impressing visitors from overseas.
This summer, Olivia Kivel from the United States began volunteering at a local inn near Ryozenji Temple in Naruto City, Tokushima Prefecture. The inn is one of several so-called “henro-yado.” Kivel went there in hopes of learning about the osettai culture.
About an hour’s drive south of Tokushima train station in the village of Aratano is Temple no. 22 of the Shikoku pilgrimage route, Byōdō-ji – the temple of equality. If you stop at the main gate, the Daishi hall (Daishidō) is in front of you on your left, the temple office and other buildings are on your right, and the main hall (hondō) is located at the top of many stairs in front of you.
Have you ever seen a pair of gigantic waraji (草鞋: straw sandals) leaning against the main gate of a Buddhist temple? Some are more than two meters tall! Who made them and why are they are there? According to some temple priests, it seems that local people, either children or adults, wove and donated them to the temple to protect the temple, to ward off evil spirits, to bring happiness, and so that people will have healthy legs and feet.
It is almost impossible to talk about the Shikoku pilgrimage without mentioning the name of Kūkai (空海:774-835), or his posthumous name Kōbō Daishi, the renowned Buddhist priest who founded Shingon Buddhism in Japan during the 9th century. His name permeates Japanese history and there are countless stories based on legend and fact about his life and accomplishments. We know that he was born in 774 near the present-day Temple 75, Zentsū-ji (善通寺) in Kagawa prefecture and was given the name of Mao, but details about his childhood are few and perhaps unreliable.
Naruto, in the northeastern part of Tokushima prefecture, was formed in 1947 by uniting Muya town, Okazaki port, and some surrounding islands. Today, Naruto has a population of about 60,000. Most visitors to Naruto come to see the amazing whirlpools in the Naruto Strait, either up close from a boat or from a boardwalk called Uzu no Michi that was constructed under the bridge that connects Shikoku and Awaji Island.
Temple 6, Anraku-ji (安楽寺), is approximately 16.5 kilometres from Temple 1, Ryōzen-ji (霊山寺), and is where many people stay for their first night when embarking on the Shikoku pilgrimage. In fact, 100 foreigners from about twenty countries spent a night here in 2013 and 2014. The temple has eighty rooms, which can accommodate up to 350 people, and the price for one night’s stay including dinner and breakfast is 7200yen.
Those who commence their pilgrimage at Temple 1, Ryōzen-ji (霊山寺) will most likely finish at the eighty-eighth temple, Ōkubo-ji (大窪寺). In that case, one can ask the staff in the temple office for a certification of completion (kechigan shomeisho: 結願証明書) [2000 yen fee]. However, some people do not stop here, but go back to Ryōzen-ji to complete the circuit and/or visit Mt. Kōya in Wakayama to report to Kōbō Daishi that they have successfully completed the journey.
Surprisingly there is no visitors centre near Temple 1, Ryōzen-ji, the most common starting point of the Shikoku pilgrimage. In fact, the closest thing to a museum dedicated to the pilgrimage can be found between Temple 87, Nagao-ji and Temple 88, Okubo-ji in Kagawa prefecture.
Imagine if people from the past left no clue as to how they lived. How would we able to piece together such aspects of their life as their eating habits, their customs, and their belief systems? How would we be able to understand the joys and struggles they went through? How would we learn from them? When you visit a temple along the Shikoku pilgrimage route what do you look at? Do you try to find traces of people who have visited there in the past and when you find them are you curious to find out when, why, or how this was left there by those people?