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.
In spring 2018, David Gogh walked the entirety of the Shikoku Pilgrimage and has compiled a beautiful video of photos and short clips synchronised with a map showing his progress around the island.
For anyone who has undertaken the journey, the images provoke a lot of nostalgic feelings. For those thinking about taking their own pilgrimage, it provides a snapshot of life as a Henro and the natural wonder of Shikoku.
Dedicated to those who also may have had the same dream.
A dream where the first week felt like a month but the following month felt like a week.
Dewa Sanzan, in Yamagata Prefecture, has been an important center for yamabushi since the beginnings of Shugendo in the eighth or ninth century, although it didn’t grow in popularity as a pilgrimage route for spiritual rebirth until the Edo Period (1603-1868). To this day, each yamabushi in good health is required to make the journey.
I am sitting on the rim of a volcano crater, munching my midday sandwich while watching a friar and a frog. El Fraile and La Rana are sculptures fashioned by nature from solidifying magma 3,000 years ago. That might sound like an aeon, but in geological time is only about yesterday afternoon. I have reached my picnic spot by crunching over naked grey lava, feeling like an ant on an elephant’s back.
Normally I am not given to praying but the occasion demands it. After bowing twice and clapping twice, I make a silent entreaty that my trek will go well. My obeisance is taking place in front of a small wooden building, rather like a summerhouse. It is a shrine in the town of Takijiri-oji, a starting point for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails.
Kaihōgyō (回峰行) (“circling the mountain”) is a 1000-day pilgrimage spread out over seven years that is practised by the monks of Enryaku-ji temple on the side of Mount Hiei, overlooking Kyoto. Read more
“What do you think of the influx of foreign visitors coming to Japan?” I was asked by a Japanese TV director. Apparently, one person she’d asked distinguished between two types of tourists: good ones and bad ones. “We’d like to encourage only the good ones to come,” this person had reportedly said.
The weeks (and sometimes months) of our lives on Shikoku, left an indelible impression on us all. But the walk is a solitary endeavour. What did we learn collectively? And how can these learnings help future Henro, the residents of Shikoku, and Henro Alumni everywhere?
In June, we conducted a survey to learn more about people’s motives and experiences as henro.