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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 02 | Rooftops and a wooden womb

Wearing white funeral clothes, carrying a large hôragai (conch shell trumpet) and walking stick, Yamabushi enter the mountains to confront death. After nine days of wandering and enduring “The Autumn Peak,” they will be a step closer to merging with the essence of life, with “all things.” What exactly goes on during these mountain rituals has remained a secret for over a thousand years, but we do know that Yamabushi deny themselves food, water, sleep, and are made to endure extreme physical challenges. More details are not easy to procure: “I can not tell you what goes on,” says 81 year old Kazuo Miyata, “it is something which can only be done.” Miyata supports the Yamabushi each Autumn during their initiations and rituals in the mountains. For the rest of the year he makes an earthly wage as a builder of straw roofs, one of only two in the area. He recently finished four years of renovations on the straw roof of the Dewa-Sanzan Shrine which sits at the top of the 2446 steps of Mt. Haguro.

Yamabushi numbers had dwindled significantly during 1940’s and 1950’s, support was hard to find, and so, Miyata was asked by the current Yamabushi leaders father to help, owing in part to his adept practical skills as a straw roof builder. To support the Yamabushi effectively he has intimate knowledge “with every part of the Yamabushi rituals.” Perhaps the most important job a Yamabushi can have is carrying a wooden box known as an ‘Oi’ through the mountains as the Yamabushi go through their rituals. The trials in the mountains are so severe that some practitioners have died, on the pathway to spiritual rebirth.

Before beginning their initiations and rituals in the mountains the Yamabushi— as a means of transcending their human bodies— have a funeral where their own souls are placed inside the ‘Oi.’ These souls are then brought to Kogane-do- to be placed before the male guardian Izenagi and his female partner Izenami. These two gods in turn give new life to the souls and transform the souls into growing fetuses. Each year the ‘Oi’ or  wooden womb is carried on a selected Yamabushi’s back, and inside, the safe souls travel in parallel with the Yamabushi and their Shinja (followers); all passing symbolically through the 10 spiritual levels known as the Jikkai. The journey begins with Hibachi Saho, a literal invocation of hell-like conditions where supporters similar to Miyata burn hot chili’s to create a heavy smoke causing eyes to tears, contorted faces and bodies doubled over- as the participants try to finish their incantations. 

With all rituals in Shugendo, the line between the real and the symbolic is a thin one and the symbols which are of highest value are not those learnt in books but those which “can be done.” 

< PAPERSKY no.34(2010) >

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