修験道 Shugendo—mountain asceticism

The Oomine mountains of Nara prefecture, east of here, are sacred places of worship to the practitioners of Shugendo. These people undertake feats of physical endurance in the mountains (including very long treks through the mountain ranges of Mie, Nara and Wakayama prefectures), in order to become close to the mountain gods.

As a lover of high places myself, it is not so hard to understand their chosen form of devotion. However a practical problem for me and Yuko is that some of the sacred mountains are off-limits to women. This rule is called 女人結界 Nyonin Kekkai. For a while, we thought that one of these banned peaks, Oomine-Sanjo, was the highest mountain in the region, and I was quite annoyed that we would not be able to visit it (or at least, Yuko would not – I could go alone if I wished).

However I was relieved to discover that there had been some confusion about the names of the peaks in the area, and that the actual highest peak, 八経ヶ岳 Mt Hakkyou (1915 m), is accessible to women.

We drove up and up a narrow, winding roadway following a river valley for tens of kilometres into the heart of the mountains, until we came to a parking area at the western end of the Gyojakaeri tunnel (it means the “Pilgrim’s Return”), which was the starting point for the climb.

As this was already over 1100 m above sea level, the ascent to the summit of Hakkyo would be around 800 metres.

While Yuko filled in a form to put in a box, stating our planned route, I went to the tunnel entrance to try to find a geocache.

This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site called “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range“.

The first section of the walk was the most difficult (and even more so on the way down!) Over 1 km distance we gained 500 metres in height, in fairly rough, jungle-like terrain. Progress was slow and exhausting. That first kilometre took more than one hour, and we began to realise that we may not be able to get to the summit and back before dark. We certainly did not want to have to make our way down in the dark; it would be extremely difficult and dangerous.

Compared to the humans, the dogs had no difficulty with the ascent (they have the advantage of permanent 4-wheel drive).

There was a constant sound of birdsong and some wonderful flora, including this amazing plant:

Although this appears to be a “fungus that looks like a flower”, it is in fact a “flower that looks like a fungus”: Monotropa uniflora, the “Indian Pipe”. It is a vascular flowering plant that completely lacks chlorophyll, does not photosynthesise, and is parasitic on Russula fungus (which in turn is parasitic on the tree among whose roots it grows).

After the initial steep climb, we emerged onto the ridge, joining the main pilgrimage route. There were many religious artifacts and signs of devotion along this route.

First we came to 弁天の森 Benten no mori—the forest of the god Benten, at a height of 1600 metres. This is one of several locations where people have left wooden notes. I don’t know the significance; perhaps they are requests for favours from the god.

Here is a bronze statue of a monk at shoubou no shuku.

Eventually we reached the summit of 弥山 Mt Misen. This is only a short distance (750 metres away) from Mt Hakkyo, and only slightly lower (1895 metres as opposed to 1915 m). This would have to do for today, because we were running out of daylight and the weather was turning bad.

This is the highest point that Miffy has achieved, so far. Yuko and Shiro and I have all been higher, in the Alps.

At the very summit of the mountain is a shrine. By this time it was becoming very misty and there were flashes of lightning and loud rolls of thunder booming up the valley, so we decided to get off the mountain and return to the car as quickly as possible.

The final 1 kilometre of steep descent was very difficult, and took over one hour and a quarter, at times progressing at only 10 metres per minute. It was quite a relief to arrive back at the car.

Note on the word of the day:

The three characters 修験道 mean “study – test – way”.

The 道 dou of 修験道 shugendou is the character for road, or way (Japanese pronunciation: michi). This is very familiar to English speakers from martial arts like judo, aikido, and kendo. In Chinese it is pronounced “Tao” or “Dao”, as in Taoism.

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