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[Hidden Wonders of Japan] Tenkawa Village in Nara: The Sacred Location of ‘Shugendo’

A steep mountain with deep ravines surrounded by green trees gives birth to a river of life and a faith of gratitude that has resisted the test of time.

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Children in the Shugendo Festival, Dorogawa, Tenkawa Village, Nara Prefecture.

Tenkawa Village in Nara Prefecture is the home of the Omine Mountain range. Called the roof of the Kinki west central Honshu region, it is the source of clear stream water, cold weather and little arable land. But the village is also host to occasions that bring people together. 

Mt Sanjo (or as it’s most commonly known, Mt. Omine) sits at the foundation of ancient mountain worship, Shugendo, in Japan. The syncretic religion combines elements of Shinto and Buddhism with Taoism, primitive animist beliefs, and shamanistic practices, which are played out on some of Japan’s most sacred mountains.    

Tenkawa Village prides itself on a long history of mountain monks and the people who have supported their training. It is also a Unesco World Heritage Site.

祭りの日、温泉郷を練り歩く山伏たちを、旅館の広い縁側に座った宿泊客らが見守った=8月3日、奈良県天川村
On the day of the festival, guests sit on the porch of an inn to watch the Yamabushi Shugendo parading through the hotspring village on August 3, Tenkawa, Nara Prefecture.

祭りを締めくくる「御礼護摩」では修験者らの護摩木が燃やされた
At the end of the festival, a stick on which prayers are written, called the Orei Goma, is ritually burned by Shugendo practitioners 

Celebrating the Mystic En no Gyoja

On August 3, the author visited the village of Dorogawa hotspring at the entrance to the Omine mountain range. Although it was midsummer, the high altitude delivered cool air in the shade. Walking along the road at dusk, the sound of someone blowing conch shells could be heard.

The Gyoja Pilgrim Festival honors En no Gyoja, also known as En no Ozuno, an ascetic mystic who is believed to have opened the path to Mt Omine in the Asuka period, around the 7th century. For the first time in three years, spectators in 2022 could watch the “Oni Odori” (Ogre dance Parade), which recreates how the mystic was welcomed back to Omine from his exile in Izu.

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Softly lit lanterns highlighted the Yamabushi parade as it passed through the hotspring town. The sound of blowing conch shells – also called trumpet shells – was followed by lively music. 

Inns along the street opened their wide porches to hotel guests and villagers who fanned themselves. Time went by slowly.

Living the Traditions

Yoshiharu Hanatani, the 17th head of the 500-year-old inn called Hanaya Tokubei, recalled, “This scenery hasn’t changed since my childhood days. Nowadays, there are quite a few general tourists, but it has always accepted groups of ascetic practitioners we call ko.”  

He explained that the practice of opening up the wide porches of each inn is a remnant of that time. Yamabushi are said to have sat side by side on the porch and taken off their jikatabi outdoor footwear.

行列の安全を願って一斉に法螺貝を吹く山伏ら
Yamabushi practitioners blow conch shells in unison while praying for the safety of the procession.
祭りの最後には花火が打ち上げられ、温泉街を彩った(比較明合成)
Fireworks were set off at the end of the festival, adding color to the hotspring town.
山伏の常備薬だったとされる「陀羅尼助丸」の発祥地とされる洞川には、取り扱い店が多く並ぶ
Dorogawa is believed to be the birthplace of Daranisuke Maru, a medicine used by mountain monks which is also available for sale in many stores.

“Shugendo is mountain worship,” said Etsuo Okada, the chief priest at Ryusenji Temple in Dorogawa Village.   

Ascetics purify themselves from the freshwater springs emerging from the grounds of the temple. 

“Water, which is essential to our lives, has been nurtured in the mountains over a long period of time. We are allowed to use this water. That’s why we want to express our gratitude to the mountain. And that is what Shugendo is about,” explained Okada.

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A mountain and a village of faith. The village appeals to the Shugendo practitioners as “the country of heaven, the country of trees, and the country of rivers.”

A steep mountain with deep ravines surrounded by green trees gives birth to a river of life and a faith of gratitude. And in all these years, this relation seems to have resisted the test of time.

祭りの最後には花火が打ち上げられた
Fireworks at the end of the festival.
大峰山からの清流・山上川は夏場の観光スポットでもある
Sanjo River, a clear stream from Mt Omine is also a tourist spot in the summer.
護摩木を持って祈祷する山伏
Yamabushi praying with the gomagi, the wood for burning when a holy fire is lit.

A quarter of the village is in the Yoshino-Kumano National Park. Dorogawa Springs have been selected as one of the 100 best waters by the Japan’s Environment Agency.

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What is your hidden wonder of Japan? Upload your picture here.

(Read the Japanese article at this link here.) 

Author and Photographer: Mizue Torikoshi

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