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Wednesday, Sept. 1, 1999

ON THE archipela-GO

Soul searching with yamabushi of Dewa Sanzan


By MASON FLORENCE
Regional Correspondent

MOUNT HAGURO, Yamagata Pref. -- Three days trekking deep into the mountains with no money, makeup, jewelry, bath, toothbrush or razor is definitely not your average walk in the hills. Add on agreeing to endure a grueling series of self-suffering ancient rituals and sacred rites, and obey every utter command of your guides, and this is really not sounding like a relaxing way to spend the weekend.

This year, for the eighth year running, local organizers here are providing a rare opportunity for lay people and city slickers to step into the strict and sacred realm of the Dewa Sanzan mountains and join the ranks of the yamabushi, the famed mountain ascetic followers of the Shugendo sect of esoteric Buddhism. The yamabushi practice an arduous form of mountain worship highly demanding of both body and mind. Their seasonal rituals of "entering the peaks" are as renowned as they are feared, and the program advertises that you can "leave the worries of your daily life behind and discover yourself anew."

Since the sixth century, mountain ascetics have roamed the three sacred mountains collectively known as Dewa Sanzan: Haguro-san, believed to represent birth, Gassan, said to represent death, and Yudono-san, believed to represent rebirth.

Haguro-san is the training center for yamabushi. At just 414 meters, it is accessible year-round, unlike Gassan and Yudono-san, which get buried under deep snow drifts in winter. A vast shrine compound atop Haguro is reached via 2,446 stone steps, past the magnificent five-storied goju-no-to wooden pagoda and through a forest of towering old growth cedar trees. Though there are shrines at the top of all three mountains, Haguro-san acts as a base and is where the deities of all three mountains are enshrined. Annually during the last week of August, a week-long pilgrimage in the mountains culminates with the Hassaku Matsuri Aug. 31, a fire-burning ritual atop the mountain.

In its 1,400-year history Haguro-san has attracted Buddhist priests like Kobo Daishi, founder of Shingon, and Shugendo founder En-no-Gyoja. Celebrated poet Matsuo Basho spent time at Dewa Sanzan during his travels and his admiration shows through in the haiku he composed during his stay:

How cool it is A pale crescent shining Above the dark hollow Of Mount Haguro

The event is being organized through the Ideha Cultural Museum, a short walk from the entrance to Haguro-san. Though there is little in the way of English explanations in the museum, volunteer guides here can offer an English tour and provide some useful background on the displays and history of the region.

Of the thousands of devotees who annually flock to pay homage at Dewa Sanzan, few actually have a chance to take part in the exhausting routine of the yamabushi. According to Hideo Abe, director of the museum, the program offers foreign participants not only a chance to take part in something new, but a unique chance to observe Japanese behavior at its most extreme.

"Walking with the yamabushi is an excellent way to get a true glimpse of Japanese culture and customs," said Abe. "You get to observe people following strict orders from their masters, bearing pain and persevering. It is a real taste of pure Japan."

The program crams a year of suffering into a mere three days. It is serious, and about as hands-on as it gets. It is not merely a chance to experience a few minutes or hours of how the yamabushi train, but to get fully immersed in the physical training, to live, eat, sleep and take part in the spirit-cleansing rituals that challenge the body and mind.

People who have tried Zen meditative training often complain from sitting seiza for hours on end, but this is no match for walking with the yamabushi. This is far more physically demanding than Zen, and not for the weary. It is a kind of Buddhist boot camp rather than a retreat for listening to New Age music and pondering the koan riddles put forth by your master.

It's up at 4 a.m. and participants, donning white costumes, begin the walk and tradition-bound ceremonies. The yamabushi dress in checked haori coats and are armed with a staff and a conch shell used for sounding their horn. During the walk participants survive on a strict diet of vegetarian shojin-ryori, mainly mountain vegetables and no meat or fish.

Throughout the three-day walk people are "purified" by sleep deprivation, virtual fasting and cold-water ablutions, all aimed at attaining a form of spiritual cleansing. It is about pushing the limits of human endurance to breathe in the energy of nature, and see oneself clearly. The ultimate goal is self-improvement, and with more and more people seeking spiritual meaning, this soul searching by subjecting oneself to pain and suffering has been gaining popularity with many.

The program was opened to the public in 1991, and it proved to be highly popular, especially with women, who until then were strictly forbidden to walk beside the yamabushi. Male or female, however, the three-day trip presents a unique chance to purify oneself by absolution, purge the soul and mind, and hopefully come away self-enlightened.

The third and final three-day event this year will take place Sept. 10-12. The cost of joining is 20,200 yen per person, or 36,400 yen including round-trip train fare from Tokyo. For more information, or to apply, contact the Ideha Cultural Museum at (0235) 62-4727.

Those interested in staying longer, or visiting Dewa Sanzan as a regular tourist can visit over 30

shukubo (pilgrims' inns) in the Toge district near the base of Haguro-san. For information or to make reservations, contact the Haguro Town Hall Tourist Office at (0235) 62-2111.


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