Modern-day Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

There used to be Yamabushi who lived on Mt. Haguro, and they spent their whole lives there. When the Dewa Sanzan forcibly switched to all Shintoism during the Meiji Period (1868 onwards), when Buddhism and eventually Shugendo were banned, these Yamabushi effectively disappeared. They were all forced to switch to Shintoism, or return to secular life. Can you imagine that? You've spent your whole life living in a mountain monastery, and then they force you to switch religions, or stop being religious altogether. Anyway, there were upwards of 30 temples on Mt. Haguro before then, but all but three were destroyed (Kezoin become Saikan, and Shozen'in Koganedo and Kotakuji survived as Buddhists, and technically Jakkoji became Dewa Sanzan shrine).

In contrast to the Yamabushi that lived on the mountain, there were Yamabushi who lived at the base of Mt. Haguro in the Shukubogai, the pilgrim lodge village. To run a Shukubo pilgrim lodge you have to be a Yamabushi, and to keep their businesses running through the same family, these Yamabushi were allowed to have wives. The name for these Yamabushi is literally 'the Yamabushi allowed to have wives'. In the Edo period, the Dewa Sanzan had more than 2 million visitors annually, and to accommodate them, there were 360 Shukubo pilgrim lodges. Shukubo are like hotels purpose built for pilgrimages. Up until about the 1930s or 40s (I'm guessing here), it was possible to run a Shukubo as a full-time job. Shukubo all have a Shinden, or an altar for ceremonies, and they all provide Shojin Ryori (the ascetic cuisine of the Dewa Sanzan), and things like amulets and other items used on pilgrimages. However, Shukubo must be run by the same family, they have to get blessings from the Shrine (in the past it would have been the temple), and demographics have meant that over time the popularity of the Dewa Sanzan has fallen dramatically. So much so that these days the number has dwindled down to 28 remaining Shukubo.

Lastly, we have the Satoyama Yamabushi. That's what I am. A Satoyama Yamabushi is someone who doesn't live on Mt. Haguro or on the Dewa Sanzan, but does train there at least once a year, specifically during the weeklong Akinomine Autumn Peak ritual from the 26th of August. The Yamabushi that run the Shukubo, and we Satoyama Yamabushi, all have normal lives outside of our Yamabushi lives. We just happen to also be Yamabushi and do training every once in a while. In what is known as Hansei Hanzoku, half-sacred, half-secular, we believe that having a normal life is the best way to connect nature and the lives of ordinary everyday people.

So, besides those who run Shukubo and have retired, or technically those who run the shrines and temples, there are no full-time Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi, or at least Yamabushi who can make a comfortable living just from doing Yamabushi things 🙂

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Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

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Sakata City, Yamagata, Japan 

tim@timbunting.com

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