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【Papersky Archives】

Yamabushi / Yamagata Mountain Ascetics

Those figures retreating into the fogged mountains of Dewa-Sanzan are the Yamabushi. For over a thousand years these secretive, ritualistic, ascetics have cultivateed powers within the sacred zones of the mountains; enduring harsh initiations to seek a perfect union with nature.


Story 01 | Merging with the endless unseen

Mountains have bewitched the human mind for centuries. They are the first towers, the first totems and the first monuments. Early humans bowed to them, out of fear and respect because mountains were the clearest embodiment of natures inexorable vitality for many indigenous peoples. In Japan mountain worship was practiced as early as the 7th Century, and also practiced by the Hijiri  monks of the 9th Century. This is one of the main sources where Shugendo—a syncretic belief system founded by the monk En-No-Gyo-ja—draws its knowledge from.

Shugendo is a way, not a faith; it combines Shinto, Buddhism and Animist beliefs with arcane magic and harsh mountain rituals. At one time almost 90% of Japan’s northern villages were inhabited by Shugendo priests or Yamabushi-the name given to those who practice Shugendo. Today the remnants of those practitioners reside both near the three mountains of Dewa-Sanzan (Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono). as well as throughout Japan. One of the modern leaders is Kokai Shimatsu, the highest Yamabushi of the Haguro School. 

“I have been practicing as a Yamabushi since I was 15,” speaking with hand movements which trace abstract shapes in the air. 

“I was born into this life, my blood decided it for me,” and as a leader of one of Japan’s truly unique belief systems Shimatsu bears much responsibility for ensuring the survival of the Shugendo way, a way which was almost stamped out 150 years ago. As a result of the Meiji Restoration Shinto- was declared Japan’s official belief system and Buddhist practices were banned, including Shugendo. A handful of Yamabushi kept the practice alive by retreating into the mountains of Dewa-Sanzan and only in 1946 was a new constitution drawn up allowing the practice to continue. Reborn again, today the Yamabushi are enjoying renewed interest from researchers and people of responsibility, office workers, bosses, and even doctors who are all finding value in the initiations of Shugendo. 

Shimatsu himself trains every year “in the mountains, in each season. Each experience is different, but the hardest part is the battle against my will.” The goal of these long and arduous mountain rituals—involving marathon journeys, days of fasting, sleep deprivation and incantations without end—is literal rebirth; to merge psychically and physically with the universe.  However these sort of one line explanations- too easy to rely on- cheat the true knowledge gained from wandering in the mountains. This is where rebirth occurs, not from a theoretical idea about transformation, but from the experience of physical rebirth- the kind of transformations which are happening all around us, often unseen. 

< PAPERSKY no.34(2010) >

text & photography | Cameron Allan McKean Coordination | Lucas B.B.