Shugendo now – a winter pilgrimage on Mt Ontake, Japan

Mt Ontake is a sacred mountain 100 km northeast of Nagoya on the border of Nagano and Gifu Prefectures. At 3067 m it is the second highest volcano in Japan, after Mt Fuji. Pilgrimages to worship Mt Ontake and seek spiritual enlightenment have been made for centuries and continue today. On 23-24 January 2018 I joined a winter pilgrimage on Ontakesan with the Wani-ontakesan community, led by three Shugendo masters. Undertaking ascetic practices on the mountain in extreme conditions reinforced that we are part of nature and the universe. Sharing this experience with others and hearing the word of Gods and ancestors through a medium – a hallmark of Mt Ontake worship – was profound and empowering. The rituals and prayers associated with the pilgrimage were a sign of deep respect and reverence for Mt Ontake and its Gods, and the ancestors memorialised on its volcanic slopes. This transformative experience deepened my understanding and appreciation of the elements in Japan and Japanese culture. It is a pleasure to share my impressions of the two days spent with this remarkable community of faith.

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Earthquakes and national (Japanese) character

Lafcadio Hearn changed the way the west viewed Japan when he lived there between 1890 and 1904. Over that period he wrote several books and articles in English, most famously his 1894 publication ‘Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan‘ which is still in print. Less well known is an editorial he also published in 1894 (for the Kobe Chronicle) titled ‘Earthquakes and national character‘. Hearn, like me, had an interest in the relationship between people and nature. And like me, he pondered the connection between the frequent natural ‘disasters’ in Japan and the character and culture of people who live in such a changing and unpredictable environment. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, floods, fires, snowstorms and typhoons are all expressions of the elements at their most forceful and energetic. For me they ‘set the scene’ for my exploration of elemental Japan.

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The power of the five elements

On October 29th, 2016 I made a pilgrimage of sorts from Kyoto to Sohonzan Zentsu-ji Temple on Shikoku. Through serendipity I had discovered that this Temple was where Kukai (posthumously named Kobo Daishi), the founder of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism in Japan, was born and grew up. The five elements of earth, fire, water, wind and void are an essential part of the teachings and practices of Shingon buddhism. As Zentsu-ji Temple has been identified as one of the top three temples associated with Kobo Daishi (the others being the Koyosan complex and Toji Temple, both on Honshu, both of which I have visited) I decided that catching three trains each way was worth the effort.  It was an effort very well rewarded.

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Being careful of fire

One of the most ubiquitous elements I have noticed as I walk around the streets of Kyoto is fire. It is expressed in many forms. There are ways and means to avoid, dampen and fight fire if it breaks out. The use of fire in purification rituals and festivals is also a feature. One of the more well known is the spectacular display in August when five large kanji on the hills of Kyoto are set ablaze. From the red fire buckets and extinguishers in the streets, to the ‘Fire’ brand of coffee sold by Kirin, reference to the powerful force of fire is seemingly everywhere in Japan’s ancient capital.

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Of Kukai and mountains

Japan is a land of mountains, the most iconic, recognised and depicted being Mt Fuji. Formed from volcanoes and tectonic activity, the mountains are clothed in forest. They influence the weather and form catchments that provide water for life on the plains. Plains where most Japanese live and rice, the basis of the traditional diet, is grown. Earth, fire, water, wind, wood – the mountains are a significant feature of elemental Japan. It is no wonder that they are considered sacred and are a focus of spiritual activity.

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