How many yamabushi are there? And other questions about yamabushi

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

I was recently asked a few questions about Yamabushi, and I thought I would write out my answers.

1. Approximately how many Yamabushi are there? Do they all live in the Dewa Sanzan area?

At a guess, about 6,000. This is a hard question to answer that depends on the definition of Yamabushi, but official statistics say there are around 5,500 people who are 'religious practitioners of Shugendo affiliated organisations' (source). However, this number doesn't include more casual Yamabushi, i.e. those who practice with us, but don't belong to a specific group or organisation. 

The second part of the question is easy to answer; no, they do not all live in the Dewa Sanzan area.

Historically, Yamabushi were on all the taller mountains in Japan, but these days they mainly practice in Kumano and Omine in Nara and Wakayama Prefectures, and here on the Dewa Sanzan. Among these there are many different kinds of Yamabushi, but one thing they all have in common is that they practice Shugendo, mainly through Tendai or Shingon Buddhist temples (I made a video about it that might be helpful). 

The Dewa Sanzan has two schools of Yamabushi, those of the Hagurosan Shugen Honshu Buddhist sect who practice from Shozen'in Koganedo Temple on Mt. Haguro, and those of Dewa Sanzan Shrine, the only officially Shinto Yamabushi in existence, of which I am. Both of these groups run a weeklong Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual annually. Shozen'in Koganedo Temple's Akinomine begins on August 25th, and Dewa Sanzan Shrine's begins on August 26th each year.

Besides the priests that work in the shrines and temples on the Dewa Sanzan, there are about 30 Shukubo pilgrim lodges (down from about 360 in the 1600s and 1700s). Pilgrim lodges must be run by Yamabushi. These Yamabushi are known as 'Yamabushi allowed to have wives', as opposed to the Yamabushi that lived on Mt. Haguro until the Meiji Restoration that were not allowed to have wives. Of these Yamabushi, including family of the Yamabushi who run the Shukubo who would also be yamabushi, there are probably about 2-300 (my guess).

Then we have Satoyama Yamabushi, Yamabushi who live elsewhere but practice on the Dewa Sanzan, mainly during the weeklong Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual, or the Miko Shugyo run from Dewa Sanzan Shrine for females (for clarity, Shozen'in Koganedo Temple's Akinomine has both sexes, Dewa Sanzan Shrine's only allows males, but has Miko Shugyo training for females). These Yamabushi come from all over the world, including The Netherlands and Brazil.


2. Can anyone who completes the Yamabushido Masters Training call themselves a Yamabushi?

Technically, yes. Officially, no. Anyone who prays to and practices in nature in the way of Shugendo can call themselves a Yamabushi (this is only my opinion). But to become an official Yamabushi certified by either Shozen'in Koganedo Temple or Dewa Sanzan Shrine you have to complete the weeklong Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual. If you do so, you also receive a Yamabushi name. In Kumano and Omine I believe they would have similar requirements for officially becoming a Yamabushi, but I'm afraid I'm not very knowledgeable about that.


3. How long/ often do Yamabushi walk/stay in the mountains?

This is entirely dependent on the Yamabushi. Most Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi at the very least would do the weeklong Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual each year. If not, they would do Master Hoshino's training, which is generally 2 or 3 days, or some other training by themselves. For me, I do the Akinomine Autumn Peak at least once a year, and Master Hoshino's training or a training run through Daishobo pilgrim lodge maybe 5 or 6 times in a year.

For the Yamabushi that live on Mt. Haguro, there is the 100-day Fuyunomine Winter Peak Ritual that finishes with the Shoreisai festival on New Year's Eve. The Fuyunomine is done by two Yamabushi each year and is the longest Yamabushi training that still exists on the Dewa Sanzan. You have to be male, and you have to be living in Toge (the region Mt. Haguro is in) to be chosen to do this, however. About 40 of the people who have done the Fuyunomine are still alive, one of them is of course Master Hoshino.

The Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual used to be much longer (from what I can recall, it was about 75 days, will have to find my sources). That has slowly whittled down to the weeklong training it is now.

Any other questions? Get in touch!

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Sakata City, Yamagata, Japan 

tim@timbunting.com

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