Mt Atago, Kyoto: exploring the energy of a sacred mountain

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.

 

The view over Kyoto and the Hozu River (Hozugawa) from Mt Atago is spectacular.  The mountain is located to the northwest of the city, the direction where thunder and lighting clouds often develop. Kyoto was designed using the principles of Fu Sui (Feng Shui) where the visual and symbolic relationship between the city and the mountains is an important (and ongoing) concept. 

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.

The view from my accommodation in Kyoto looks to the northwest, with Mt Atago evident on the horizon. Combined with my interest in fire as a sacred element, there is little wonder that I have been drawn to the mountain.

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.

At 924 m, Mt Atago is the highest mountain in the ranges that help define Kyoto. A selection of the many sacred sites found on the mountain are shown on this quirky map. You could spend many days exploring and learning about the mountain and its history. Kuuya Falls are an important part of the Shugendo connection with Mt Atago. I would like to visit there one day.

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 torii at the start of the climbing route at Kiyotaki indicates that the whole mountain is sacred. It is a place to pray and be respectful.

Fire prevention signs are found at the start of the trail to Atagosan, starting just in front of the torii entrance.  They continue along the path to the summit. This large sign illustrates some of the major landmarks of Kyoto, ancient and modern. My blog ‘Being careful of fire‘ shares my impressions about fire in the ancient capital, past and present.

One of the distinctive fire prevention signs along the route to the summit of Atagosan.

Along the main path to Atago Jinja there are 40 signs at around 100 metre intervals that assist in keeping track of the progress. The total distance to the summit of Atagosan from Kiyotaki is 3.7 km. It helps to take occasional breaks along the way to rest and rehydrate.  On the pilgrimage I learnt that the short rest stops are called ‘sho kyu shi‘. That is a useful phrase to remember.

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.

Kaori and Aoi Okashima joined the Wani-ontakesan pilgrimage to Mt Atago in October 2017. Many children, taken to the mountain to gain protection from fire, are carried at least some of the way. Full credit should be given to their parents for doing so, it shows great devotion.

The path to Atago Jinja was relatively busy on October 7th. It is important to be aware of and courteous to other climbers. The hiker leading the group heading up the trail had a special backpack to carry their young child.

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.

The pilgrimage to Atagosan in October 2018 bought another element to the uppermost of our minds. The element of wind. In the month prior to the pilgrimage two Super Typhoons had passed through the area. The high velocity winds tore large trees up by the roots and snapped others at the base. It will take some time for the path to the summit and Atago Jinja to be cleared. 

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 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’, 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.

In contrast to the pilgrimage on October 7th this year, the paths in May 2017 were clear of broken trees and debris. Only leaves from the previous autumn carpeted to floor. The difference was striking.

Another contrast was the seasonal differences between the two visits to the mountain. The higher altitude of Mt Atago means that the seasons are offset compared to the plains of Kyoto. It was an unexpected pleasure to see Sakura blossoms in mid-May during my 2017 hike. In Kyoto they usually peak in early April. In 2018 the autumn leaves were yet to turn colour in early October. Their vibrant hues will change the feel and energy of Atagosan again in a few weeks time.

Atago Jinja includes a number of places of worship. The main Shrine houses five sacred beings including Atago Gongen, who provides protection from fire. On October 7th we prayed at several shrines and participated in a Shinto Ceremony in the main Shrine, something I was only able to watch during my 2017 visit.

Some of the intricate and beautiful carvings within Atago Jinja are shown here, photographed in May 2017. Fortunately there appeared to be minimal damage to the Shrine buildings from the typhoons. There are a number of images of boars around the Shrine. The animals were ridden by Shogun Jizo, the Buddhist avatar of Atago during the medieval period. As a consequence, the Year of the Boar (next held in 2019) and Day of the Boar are important at Atago Jinja.

One of the priests at Atago Jinja approached Wani-ontakesan as we were leaving the main Shrine and asked if they could take a photo for their Twitter account. I’m pleased that they did. Source: Atago Jinja Twitter account.

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.

Twin Torii are found at each end of the path leading to Shrine dedicated to Atago Tarabo, the King of Japanese Tengu. The amount of debris from the canopy of surrounding conifers was significant. When I spoke to Doukan Okamoto, one of the Shugendo Masters, about the damage to the forest he spoke about the cycle of life and how both people and plants are born and die. Death and rebirth are fundamental tenets of the Shugendo faith. The elements play a crucial role in the process.

Going downhill can sometimes be as challenging as going up, especially on uneven surfaces. This image shows more of the impact of Typhoon 21 on forest structure. The plantation trees seemed to snap while the larger natural Japanese Cypress were uprooted. Sometimes the hole the trees left behind was massive. A sign of tremendous energy. We were fortunate with the weather on October 7th as there had been squally conditions the previous day.

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.

Beautiful afternoon light at the base of Mt Atago after the Shugendo pilgrimage, October 2018.

2 thoughts on “Mt Atago, Kyoto: exploring the energy of a sacred mountain

  1. It’s great to read about your experience of being on the pilgrimage to Mt. Atago. The photos round out your excellent description and your thoughts, feelings and observations. It was also good to have the comparison between the two pilgrimages, especially in light of the recent typhoons. I was intrigued by your comment about really being able to sense the energy stirred up after the typhoons, I can imagine this would be true, it must have been extra special to actually experience it.

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    • It was like a giant had been through the forest and ripped out very large trees here and there. The energy required to topple them would be immense. I could still sense it, and tried to imagine the sounds and sights when it was happening. Perhaps it is unimaginable if you haven’t experienced extreme winds like that directly. It certainly added a different dimension to the pilgrimage.

      Liked by 1 person

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