Shinto Mountain Ascetics
Shinto mountain ascetics: read about the rituals and practices of Japan's Shinto mountain ascetics.
Japanese Culture: Shinto Mountain Ascetics 修験道
The commonly visible side of Shinto (神道) or Kami-no-Michi (Japan's indigenous religion, the way of the gods) is the ubiquitous torii.
The torii is the elegant double-barred entrance 'gate' with tall side pillars and up-sweeping tips to the crossbars. The word itself literally means "bird perch" due to its shape.
It is through this gate that one passes for purification and to enter the precinct of a Shinto shrine.
Such torii come in plain wood or concrete or may appear somewhat gaudily painted in vermilion; they can be found in enormous proportions as at the entrance to the magnificent Meiji Shrine and its gardens in Tokyo, or in miniature in front of local shrines in neighbourhoods throughout the country from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
Torii can be found from offshore rocky islets to urban centres and even in Buddhist temples and on high mountain peaks in Japan.
Animism of Shinto
It is the animism of Shinto that is wrapped up in its ubiquity of sacred spots. As in Hinduism, which has a plethora of gods and incarnations numbering more than 300 million, polytheistic Shintoism also has myriad deities and sacred locations in uncountable numbers - anywhere and everywhere it seems.
To the western mind eager to tie down, name and limit concepts, the Kami of Shinto are hard to describe or define because, though frequently described as 'gods', they are much more than that.
Kami are the supernatural forces permeating the world, and include the sacred realm beyond the lives of humans, as such the kami include mythological figures and creatures, gods and demons, spirits and ancestors, and those spirits include those of living things ranging from mountains to rivers and rocks.
Shinto itself is more than just a ritual bound worshiping of the natural world, for it provides the mythological underpinning of the fundamental connection between the nature of Japan and its people.
Shinto also provides a creation myth that explains the origins of the Japanese imperial line, tracing their ancestry back to the grandson of Amaterasu-omikami, goddess of the sun and the universe, and tracing their descendents forwards down the line of the people of Japan.
Seemingly impervious to heat and cold, a priest stirs sacred water in readiness for ritual purification.
For many of us, the local shrine, the practicing ground of modern Shintoism, may be something of a tourist attraction. It may be the focal point for seasonal festivals that seem more fun than religious, but at certain times a visit is close to a necessity: to welcome in the new year, to bless the wedding, the new car, the new baby, or even the new dog.
As venues for wedding photography they feature highly, along with classical gardens, and many a stroll around a shrine precinct or garden may be interrupted by the sight of a gorgeously clad bride in her wedding kimono and her groom in sombre, sedate colours.
Very much more rarely, white robed priests are in evidence. Not the typical shrine workers, but Shinto ascetics.
Thin cotton robes provide little insulation against the biting chill of a snowy February day, as this ascetic chants before a monument.
Fire-walking is not typically associated with Japan, yet here a priest walks across a bed of burning charcoal.
Shinto & Mountains
The relationship between Shinto and the mountains is a crucial one. The mountains were believed to be the domain of the kami, the gods, and for this reason they were considered sacred and taboo.
The fact that they and their forested flanks preserved and protected the water supply on which Japan's essentially agriculture-based population depended, may also have helped raise them to their particular status.
Only pilgrims and ascetics ventured into the sacred mountains, and hunters into the lower forests, but change came about in the late 1800's. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the Reverend Walter Weston, a visiting missionary introduced alpinism to Japan, and the restrictions on entering the mountains were relaxed (though it was many more years before women, who were considered unclean because of their monthly menstrual bleeding, were allowed into the mountains).
Mountain ascetics were the go-betweens, the link between the kami of the sacred peaks, and the populace living in the shadows of those mountainous ranges, and, in some places, it seems they still are! Mountain worship too is a living tradition, with many pilgrims hiking to the 3,776 m summit of Mt Fuji, Japan's iconic and sacred mountain, each year, and, yes, there is a shrine at the top!
On a cold February day, with snow lying deeply all around and with the temperature barely able to reach up to zero Celsius, to go out clad in thin white cotton robes seems absurd, yet there are those who seem impervious to the cold, or they are able to generate sufficient internal warmth to counter it.
Bundles of bamboo leaves form the tops to switches (O-nusa) to be used in ritual purification.
Small gifts are showered on the visitors at the shrine as the ceremonies are concluded.
While locals stand around in multi-layered winter clothes and insulated boots the ascetics stand in thin cotton kimono and straw sandals.
They stand almost barefoot and chant sutras before engraved standing stone tablets while the audience shiver. A great pot of water boils over an open fire, they plunge their hands into it unperturbed and sprinkle consecrated boiling water with sacred o-nusa wands tipped with huge sprays of bamboo leaves.
In another corner of the shrine grounds an area almost as large as a sumo ring has been prepared. For hours, wood has been burning here, the glowing coals have been raked back and forth distributing charcoal and heat evenly. Eventually the priests bless the fire, slip out of their straw sandals and walk back and forth across the hot coals.
It seems that they are as impervious to the burning heat as they are to the biting cold. Donning their sandals once more, and appearing as unflappable as ever, they mount the stage and cast mikan (oranges), mochi (pounded rice cakes), and amulets to the assembled crowds.
A shinto priest makes blessings with a staff topped with paper strips.
Related Japan Articles
Surrounding a bed of hot charcoal the audience is in awe as the priests prepare to walk barefoot across the coals.