Mt Atago is the highest mountain in the ranges that flank Kyoto. It has been a place of Shugendo practice and worship for over 1300 years. Ever since learning that a deity that provided protection from fire was enshrined there, my heart was set on climbing the mountain. The first opportunity to ascend Mt Atago arose on the 21st of May 2017 when a friend and I hiked the 3.7 km trail to Atago Jinja at the summit. The second ascent took place on the 7th of October 2018 as part of a Shugendo pilgrimage with Wani-ontakesan. Both visits to Mt Atago, with their different seasons and different circumstances, were compelling in their own way. Both were connected to the element of fire and in October 2018 to the phenomenal power of typhoons. The energy of the mountain and the long history of veneration at Mt Atago was palpable.
Mt Atago was opened to pilgrims by En-no gyoza, the founder of Shugendo, and Taicho-zenji around 1300 years ago. Taicho was a sacred man who opened Hakusan in Ishikawa Prefecture. Kyoto has changed in many ways since Shugendo practices started on Atagosan, including how new buildings are constructed. One constant has been the ongoing risk of fire to life and property, albeit at reduced levels in modern times. The Atago Jinja, found at the summit of the mountain, is the head of 900 Atago Shrines across the country that offer protection from this erratic element.
It was only a matter of time until I made the journey to Mt Atago. Climbing the mountain twice exceeded my expectations, providing a contrast on many levels. The Shugendo pilgrimage in October 2018 was particularly enlightening, further opening my eyes to the energy, awe and wonder of Atagosan. It was a privilege to share it with members of the Wani-ontakesan community.
There have been several twists and turns in the long religious history of Mt Atago, especially after the forced separation of Shinto and Buddhism at the start of the Meiji era. It is a testament to the energy, vitality and relevance of the mountain and its Gods that it continues to attract tens of thousands of visitors each year.
The pilgrimage on October 7th 2018 was held the day before Health and Sports day, a national holiday in Japan. Many families were climbing with young children. Worshipping at the Shrine before turning the age of 3, known as Sansai-mairi, is said to grant lifetime protection from fire. In October 2017 my friends Kaori and Keiji Okashima took their daughter Aoi to Mt Atago so that she could live her life unaffected by fire.
The busiest and most crowded time of the year at Atagosan spans the evening of July 31 to the dawn of August 1 when Sennichi Mairi (One Thousand Day Worship) is held. Lanterns illuminate the way up the mountain. Tens of thousands of visitors make the pilgrimage to pray for 1000 days of protection from fire and receive a charm to put in their kitchens.
This overnight visit to Atago Jinja gives worshipers as much benefit as visiting the Shrine 1000 times. Many local people make the annual pilgrimage to give the charms to their neighbourhood. The element of fire is uppermost in the mind of most visitors to Atagosan. I bought a fire protection charm in May 2017 during my first visit to Atagosan. Added protection from fire was gained during the 2018 pilgrimage when Yasunari Okamoto, a Shugendo Master, prayed for the safety of our bushland home. On the hot, steamy evening of July 31, 2019, I finally joined the Sennichi Mairi pilgrimage and fulfilled a long-held dream.
Typhoons had been on my mind before travelling to Japan, so much so that I wrote a blog about them, found here. Little did I realise I’d see such dramatic impacts so soon. In early October 2018 you could still sense the immense energy of the typhoons on Mt Atago. Typhoon number 21 (Jebi), that pummelled Kyoto a month before, is likely to have caused the most impact. The rain leading up to the pilgrimage strengthened the aroma of the broken pine branches. The recent promotion of the health benefits of ‘forest bathing’, (J. shinrin yoku) developed as a concept in Japan during the 1980s, came to mind. Walking through the altered forests as we chanted the Hougyo Darani revealed the energy, awe and wonder of Mt Atago in a different way to my first ascent.
There are Shrines to different deities in the grounds outside of the main Atago Jinja where prayers to the Gods were conducted during the October pilgrimage. The services are led by the Shugendo Masters, and include prayers for world peace, recovery from disaster and providing help to families. Being a participant rather than an observer brought deeper meaning to the sacredness of Mt Atago. Being able to chant the Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra) helped with the connection. I find it helps clear the mind of the persistent and unwanted thoughts that can pop up so that you can stay in the present moment.
Our last stop before leaving the summit of Mt Atago was a Shrine dedicated to the Atago Tarobo, the King of the Tengus. An Oza session was conducted here where God spoke through Motoshige Okamoto. My post on the 2018 winter pilgrimage to Mt Ontake refers in greater detail to these remarkable occasions, as well as providing more information on Shugendo. It is a religion that has strong and specific links to the elements.
As we reached the bottom of the climbing route I noticed for the first time the ruins of the Cable Car that operated on Mt Atago for a short period from the late 1920s. It was used to transport people to tea-houses, ski-fields and the like. You would hardly know they existed today. Through all of the changes on and to Atagosan, the pilgrimages continue. Having experienced the energy of the mountain through different eyes I can appreciate the attraction.