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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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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(Read the Japanese article at this link here.)
Author and Photographer: Mizue Torikoshi