The Yamabushi: Holy Men of Shugendō

The Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa are known to be the oldest site for mountain worship in Japan with a history can be traced back all the way to the 8th century.

Kumano Kodo Trail, Japan. | Rachel Lovinger

Shugendō (“the way of shugen, or gen-practice”), a highly syncretic religion that involves the merging of several originally discrete traditions, is said to have originated from these mountains. Practitioners are called Shugenja or Yamabushi, literally meaning “mountain prostrate”. For more than a thousand years the Yamabushi mountain monks have followed these ancient practices and continue to pass on their wisdom to other followers to learn to train the body, mind and soul.

The Yamabushi were initially isolated individuals or clusters of mountain hermits, puritans and “holy men” who followed the path of shugendō, searching for mystical, spiritual or supernatural powers achieved through asceticism. These mountain men came to be known for their magical abilities and knowledge of the occult and were sought out as healers or mediums. Most of the Shingon sect established by Kōbō Daishi.

A yamabushi hat was worn by Buddhist ascetic hermits and warrior-monks. | Mary Harrsch

Shingon Buddhism was one of the primary sects of Esoteric Buddhism which teaches that enlightenment is achieved through isolation and contemplation of oneself, nature and mandala (esoteric images). The mountain retreat was considered to be the ideal place for isolation and contemplation by the monks.

The “holy monks” studied not only religious texts, nature and images, but a range of martial arts as well. The study of martial arts is thought to contribute in improving oneself mentally, physically and spiritually, all of which are central to Japanese culture regardless of religious sect they belong to. During the Sengoku Period, Yamabushi were heralded as important advisers including abbot Sessai Choro who advised Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Shugenja also served as spiritual guides, or sendatsu, since Japan’s medieval times when pilgrims including retired emperors and aristocrats who would pass along the Kumano Kodo to the Kumano Sanzan.

The journey to all the three mountains that first started 1,400 years ago is known as the Journey of Rebirth, and still continues today.

Yamabushi monks. | 唐山健志郎

The traditions of the Yamabushi have been a well guarded secret with opportunities to take part in their training, open only during specific times of the year for Japanese men. As time passed, and the younger generations inherited the pilgrim lodges and headed the Yamabushi community, many changes were welcomed to the Dewa Sanzan. Programs are now available for men and women visitors from all across the globe. Anyone willing to take the journey and open their mind, body and soul, can become Yamabushi and participate in the ancient  rituals.