The path to enlightenment

by John Flinn, San Francisco Chronicle, October 2, 2005

The sacred meets the scared in Japan's Kii Mountains

Dorogawa, Japan -- My guide, Mr. Samio Ohnishi, is screaming at me in Japanese. "Are you," he demands to know (as it's translated for me), "a loving and faithful husband?"

It's rather a personal question from someone I've known less than three hours. But seeing as I'm dangling head-first off the side of a very high cliff, and Ohnishi-san is holding the rope, it seems wise to give him an answer.

"Hai!" I shout back. Yes.

"Are you a loyal and filial son?"

Before I can respond -- what exactly does "filial" mean? -- he lets a little rope slip through his fingers and I plummet a few stomach-turning inches.

"Are you a kind and patient father?"

As I try to think of a way to tell him I don't have any children, Ohnishi-san jiggles the rope and drops me a little further.

"Hai!" I yell. "Hai! Hai!"

The path to enlightenment, I'm coming to understand, is not necessarily a comfortable one.

This is the way of the yamabushi, the fabled Shugendo monks who wander the undulating green mountains of the Kii Peninsula south of Kyoto. Sometimes called "mountain ninjas" -- a colorful but not terribly accurate label -- they seek mystical powers through a rigorous form of asceticism that can include subsisting on a diet of pine needles, standing under waterfalls reciting mantras through chattering teeth and, most famously, hanging by their ankles off the side of this cliff. They've been doing this since the 7th century, but the yamabushi -- the name means "those who lie down in the mountains" -- are hardly mythic figures of the past. They still roam these wooded mountains, and I was hoping very much to encounter one.

Thousands of Japanese pilgrims also come to the Kii Mountains each year to walk the ancient footpaths connecting the most important Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and sacred mountains. In recognition of this, the spiderweb of pilgrimage routes and the sites they link were granted World Heritage Site status this summer by UNESCO. It's a region with a high concentration of traditional hot-spring spas called onsens, and the Japanese have high hopes for tourism here.

The pilgrimage routes are as long as 100 miles, and I didn't have time to walk one, nor was I able to figure out the system of lodges along the way. There's not much information available in English at the moment, although I suspect this will change.

I ended up taking several day hikes in the mountains, always keeping an eye out for the yamabushi, and one overnight walk to the summit of sacred Mount Omine, which is crowned with a Shugendo temple and a scattering of shukobos, simple temple lodges for pilgrims.

All-male ascent

At 5,640 feet, Mount Omine isn't particularly tall by Japanese standards, and its lumpy shape has none of the grace or symmetry of Mount Fuji. It's sacred because it's the site where, in the 7th century, a Japanese ascetic and mystic named En-no-Gyoja founded the Shugendo religion, blending aspects of tantric Buddhism, Shintoisn, Taoism, Confucianism and Japanese shamanism. The name means "the path of training and testing."

Not everyone was thrilled to see the mountain included on the list of World Heritage Sites: Women are strictly forbidden from setting foot on it. Long after Fuji and other sacred peaks were opened to females, the monks and priests who oversee Omine continue to bar them.

No one I talked to could agree on the reason. Some said it was to remove temptation from the monks who are supposed to practice strict self-denial while ascending the peak. Others said it has to do with ancient superstitions about menstruation. Japanese feminists have fought against the ban for years, with no success. The Buddhist publication Tricycle reported that one male protester "has gone so far as to repeatedly climb Mount Omine while wearing a dress, becoming perhaps the first transvestite Buddhist pilgrim."

At the Tenkawa shrine, where pilgrims stop to pray before heading up the mountain, the head priest, Kakisaka Mikinosuke, handed me his embossed business card and sat down to talk about the ban on women. Outside his office I could hear other Shinto priests banging on drums and chanting.

"Some may call it discrimination, but in Japan there is a long tradition that some mountains are only for men and some mountains are only for women," he said. "On Okinawa, for example, there is a mountain that is only for women. And of course on Mount Omine you have female animals, and the trees are both male and female. So it's not discrimination."

On my way out, he handed me a packet of medicinal herbs traditionally carried by pilgrims, and gave me a piece of advice: "As you climb Mount Omine, it is important to have a pure spirit. That is, after all, why you climb the mountain."

You can climb the peak and descend in a day, or you can spend the night in one of the summit shukobos -- sort of a cross between a traditional Japanese ryokan and a Nepalese teahouse. But for the full yamabushi effect, you have to subject yourself to three "tests" whose hardships, they believe, are milestones on the path to enlightenment. Hanging upside down off the side of a sheer cliff is one; the other two consist of climbing steep rock faces unroped.

It's not as strange as it might sound. The search for spirituality through arduous journeys in the wilderness is a universal human endeavor, practiced by everyone from Moses to vision-questing Native Americans to backpackers staggering under 50-pound packs on the John Muir Trail. On Mount Omine, the Japanese put their own unique spin on the practice.

Up the mountain

In the small town of Dorogawa, at the foot of the mountain, our little party -- me, two representatives from the local prefecture and Jim Sano, who was scouting the area for his adventure travel firm, Geographic Expeditions -- met Samio Ohnishi, our guide.

"Is he a yamabushi?" I asked.

Alas, no, I was told. Ohnishi-san, a small, wiry, intense man in hiking knickers and neckerchief, merely escorts walkers up and down the mountain.

As we shouldered our packs, I noticed what looked to be a graveyard next to the trailhead. I pointed to the thicket of headstones and joked, "Maybe these are the people who didn't pass the three tests."

Nobuhiro Ashihara, one of the prefecture officials, turned to me with a worried look on his face. "I don't know," he said.

It turns out it wasn't a graveyard at all, merely a collection of small monuments to people who have paid for upkeep of the temple and trail.

Ohnishi-san led us past a big sign saying "No Women Admitted" in Japanese and English, and onto the pathway, which wound steadily uphill through a forest of cedar. Halfway up the mountain, as we paused for water, I caught a glimpse of a solitary figure bounding down the trail toward us. He looked just like a yamabushi: He was dressed in white, with green pompoms on the back of his shirt. He wore the traditional footwear -- sort of a cross between sandals and socks -- and carried a conch-shell horn.

Ashihara consulted with Ohnishi-san and delivered the disappointing news: This was a trainee, not a full-fledged yamabushi.

Soon we arrived at the base of a vertical, 30-foot cliff. Climbing it would be our first "test." As we squinted up at what's called the "Crab Wall," apparently for how people scrabble their way up it, Ohnishi-san looked even more serious than usual. Ashihara translated: "He says, 'If you don't understand how to climb the rock, there is no escape.' "

Our guide ascended first and positioned himself at what looked to be the hardest part, apparently to give us a hand. In a previous lifetime I was a reasonably competent rock climber, and the ascent didn't look all that difficult. But two-thirds of the way up, the big jug-handle holds gave out and the rock grew steeper. A slip here would be serious, but I worked out a sequence of moves I was confident I could do.

But as I eased my right foot up onto a hold, Ohnishi-san, who was perched a few feet away, barked at me in Japanese and waved me back. I reached for an obvious handhold and he yelled even louder. What was I doing wrong?

Finally, with the help of Ashihara's mediation, I came to understand that Ohnishi-san wanted me to make an awkward cross-step, pivot to my right and grab a metal chain bolted to the rock. This, apparently, was the way the yamabushi did it. I did as instructed, and a moment later was standing on flat ground at the top of the cliff. Sano, who is a better climber than me -- he once led an Everest expedition -- just waved off Ohnishi-san and scampered up the rock face the way I had intended. "It was pretty easy, actually," he said.

One test down, two to go. (Hikers who don't want to submit to the tests -- and most don't -- can bypass them on the trail.)

The way to suffering

A few minutes up the trail, we came to the top of a sheer cliff called Nishi-no-nozuki. It is 200 feet high, roughly the same as the Golden Gate Bridge, and commands a forever view out over the lush and corrugated Kii Mountains. This was the site of our second test. Traditionally the yamabushi dangle head-first off the side with a pair of colleagues holding tight to their ankles. But Ohnishi-san preferred to use a thick rope. I was just about to wrap it around my shoulders when there was a commotion. Two young men in full yamabushi regalia approached us. I backed away from the edge, expecting to see one grab the other by the ankles, but they merely peered over the side and made comically exaggerated faces of fear. A moment later a Japanese television crew arrived. Ashihara consulted with them, and the news was deflating: These weren't yamabushi at all; they were Japanese comedians filming some sort of television special.

As it turned out, I didn't meet a genuine yamabushi until near the end of my trip, and he wasn't hiking up a mountain trail; he was presiding over the Seigantoji Temple, by far the most fetching of all those we visited. It's perched on a rocky bluff next to the 440-foot-high Nachi waterfall, the tallest in Japan. Japanese tourists arrive there daily by the busload.

Ryoei Takagi is the temple's second in command, but four times a year he trades his Shugendo priest's robes for the traditional clothing of the yamabushi to undertake the weeklong, 120-mile journey from Nachi to Mount Omine. According to "The Catalpa Bow," a study of shamanistic practices in Japan by Carmen Blacker, the traditional yamabushi pilgrimage was longer: a 75-day death march enforced with "a brutal discipline, including semi-starvation. ... If anyone fell ill on the way, he was left to die or crawl home as best he could."

Takagi laughed when I told him about this. Apparently they aren't quite as strict these days. "In older times, they ate a kind of wood they found along the path, but today we cook rice."

Still, it's no walk in the park. "It's part of our ascetic practice to have suffering," he said. "You think you cannot go on, but you keep going on. When there is suffering it turns into not suffering. If the way is too easy, it can lead to suffering."

I asked him about the second test on Mount Omine, and he explained that the two yamabushi who hold tight to his ankles as he goes over the side symbolize his mother and father. "I think," he said, "I become a very good son."

The final test

But this came later. Back up on Mount Omine, I still had to face the second test. I took a deep breath and looped the rope over my shoulders as our guide, Ohnishi-san, sat down and braced himself. When I saw that he intended to hold the rope in his bare hands, I backed away from the edge again. I outweighed him by at least 50 pounds.

"If he drops you, he is required to jump off the cliff," said Ashihara. This wasn't as comforting as it apparently was intended to be. I felt better when Sano sat down behind the guide and wrapped the end of the rope around his hips in a traditional mountaineering belay.

I put my hands together in a gesture of prayer and raised them over my head. This is how the yamabushi did it in a painting I saw, and, besides, it would help keep the rope from slipping off my shoulders.

I've never bungee-jumped, but now I think I know how it must feel to stand on the brink searching for your courage. I crawled on my belly out to the very edge, and then, as Ohnishi-san kept a tight hold on the rope, I slid head-first over the side. Blood immediately cascaded to my head, and I felt woozy. I didn't have to worry about looking down, because in this position my nose was rubbing against the cold limestone.

Ohnishi-san barked out his questions and let me drop a little -- all part of the traditional yamabushi ritual -- and then, with a strength I could scarcely believe, hauled me back up.

Sano took his turn, and then, still feeling a little dizzy, I asked about the third test -- another bit of rock climbing said to be harder than the first. It was on the other side of the mountain, and getting there required a bit of a detour.

"How many people do that one?" asked Sano.

Ashihara consulted with Ohnishi-san.

"Only two a year."

"Only two people a year do the third test?" Sano said.

Ashihara conferred again with Ohnishi-san.

"I'm sorry. He misunderstood. He means that only two people a year fall off it."

Sano and I looked at each other and blanched. By mutual agreement, we never again brought up the subject of the third test.
If you go

Getting there

Traveling independently in the Kii Mountains is challenging, though far from impossible. Little English is spoken here. "Hiking in Japan" (Lonely Planet) provides a good description of the Mount Omine hike, as well as general logistics for the area.

Some upcoming tours:

World Expeditions, 15-day "Backroads of Japan" tour takes in some temples and shrines in the Kii Mountains; includes four-day walk on a pilgrimage trail. Next departure, Oct. 16. $3,890.

Cate Kodo Juno, 18-day tour with Australian Buddhist priest visits temples and shrines of Kii Mountains and other parts of Japan. Next departure, April 2006. $5,900 Australian (about $4,436 US)

Himalayan Kingdoms, British adventure travel company's five-day "Imperial Pilgrimage Route" tour; eight days of hiking with focus on Kii Mountains. Next departure, Oct. 23. 2,995 British pounds ($5,404), although that includes airfare from Britain. Discounts available for travelers providing their own transportation to Japan.

Geographic Expeditions, 11-day "Inner Japan" trip includes walking in the Kii Mountains. Next departures, April 18 and Oct. 6, 2006. $6,585.

Where to stay

Japan National Tourist Organization, Download file for a list of private accommodations.

For more information

Japan National Tourist Organization, (415) 292-5686,

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