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Haguro San and the Yamabushi

The sign for Haguro-san. Japanese road signs often have English subtitles

Next we headed south and inland to Yuza and Matsuyama Tachikawa to Haguro San, a mountain topped by a Shinto shrine, which pilgrims climb, sometimes led by a Yamabushi of the Shugen Shudan, or Shugendo sect in checked pantaloons and blowing a conch-shell. It is a sacred mountain with thousands of stone steps (2447) leading steeply 1.7 km up from a waterfall shrouded valley, with the five-storey pagoda Goju-no-tö claimed to have been built in the Gojei Era (938-941) but more likely in the Öan Era (1369) to a misty tree clad summit, with a string of high-Shinto shrines and an extraordinary children's graveyard clad in all manner of clothing , eyeglasses and barbie dolls.

This sect, which combines Shinto, Taoism and Buddhism, has been recognized as distinct ever since Shinto was officially separated from Buddhism in the 19th century, an action associated with the rise of imperial Japan and Shinto as the official religion of the emperor, whose family strangely traces its origins to Amaterasu the Goddess of the Sun. According to the sign at the foot of the mountain, Haguro-san is the site where the shugendo sect first had its home.

As Wikipedia puts it, Shugendō (修験道) is a highly syncretic Buddhic religion or sect and mystical-spiritual tradition which originated in pre-Feudal Japan, in which enlightenment is equated with attaining oneness with the kami (神), or natural spirits. This perception of experiential "awakening" is obtained through the understanding of the relationship between Man and Nature, centered on an ascetic, mountain-dwelling practice. The focus or goal of Shugendō is the development of spiritual experience and power. Having backgrounds in mountain worship, Shugendō incorporated beliefs or philosophies from Old Shinto as well as folk animism, and further developed as Taoism and esoteric Buddhism arrived in Japan.

The Shinto and Buddhist shrine of Dewa-sanzan (Three Mountains of Dewa 出羽三山 - Hagurosan and the higher Gassan and Yudono) was established in 593 by Prince Hachiko son of the Emperor Sushun, sailing from Nara to Yaotome beach at Tsuroka and climbing the mountain in the company of eight local girls and a sacred three legged crane. In Heian era 794-1192 the shrine became the home of Shugendo, uniting Shinto and Buddhism, reaching its height in 1200s. In the Meiji Era 1868 Shinto was separated from Buddhism and the shrine officially became Shinto until after the Second World War, when the shrines of Dewa-sanzan were freed from government control and were no longer bound to the order of Shintoism.

Shinto is a pantheistic native religion in which all things are deemed to possess spirit or consciousness, especially natural phenomena, such as trees, water falls, hills, islands and sacred spaces of any kind. Shinto combines creatively with Buddhism in the Japanese psyche to invoke a polarity in which Shinto is the religion of life celebrated at weddings and Buddhism is the religion of mortality lamented at funerals.

Unlike Shinto, which is consistent with the warrior samurai stance, Buddhism exhorts moral behavior and renunciation of worldly attachments. Personally, apart from the association with imperial militarism, I like Shinto a lot and see it as part of a groundswell of indigenous spirituality far more genuine than an absolute form of religion, from apocalyptic Islam and Christianity which are hollow shells of delusion, even to Buddhism which is tainted also with absolutes. The test of religion to me is the mark it leaves on nature, and in this respect both Zen Buddhism and Shinto rank very highly, and Islam, (and with it the apocalyptic aspects of Judeo-Christian fundamentalism), as a scorched earth desert religion of submission very lowly.

Shugendo pilgrims descending the mountain

The main shrine of Dewa sanzan

The gateway at the top of the two thousand steps

Heading down from the top

Shrines and refreshing water en route

Entrance to the sprawling Saikan or temple lodging

Hallway in the Saikan

Reception hall

Shinto priestess in traditional dress

The shrine by the children's graveyard

Childrens graveyard

Mausoleums with many sandals and a monster or two

Views from the summit

The entrance at the foot of the mountain

Heading down into the valley

The waterfall shrine

A sacred Japanese cedar or cryptomeria.

The five-storey pagoda

The entrance and shrines at the foot of the mountain

Ideha Bunka Kidenkan museum and pilgrim lodgings shukubo

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