Following the Ancient Paths of the Yamabushi on Mt. Kinbo
Ever since En no Gyoja (En the Ascetic) enshrined Zao gongen there in 671, Mt. Kinbo has been a popular destination for Yamabushi ascetics, including my own first Yamabushi training, and amateur mountaineers alike. Sometimes stylised as Mt. Kimbo and mistakenly on Wikipedia as Mt. Kinpo, the 471m high peak boasts great views of Tsuruoka City, the Shonai plains, and on good days the Fuji of the north, Mt. Chokai. Accessible year-round, Mt. Kinbo is a great spot for a day hike, although be sure to bring snowshoes if you’re visiting in the winter.
Originally known as 八葉山 Hachiyoh-san, Mt. Kinbo was a Shingon Buddhism branch mountain of Mt. Haguro until the 17th century when the mountain became an independent entity as Mt. Haguro had switched to Tendai Buddhism. The mountain complex came to be known as 金峯神社 Kinbo shrine following the separation of Shintoism and Buddhism from 1868 onwards in homage to 金峯山寺 Kinpusenji Temple, the head temple of Shugendo in Yoshino, Nara Prefecture. At that time, many of the relics and statues on the mountain were shifted to Shoryuji Temple, yet Mt. Kinbo’s deep and long history is still plainly evident with the sheer number of relics, statues, Shukubo pilgrim lodges, shrines, and temples lining the ancient Shugendo Yamabushi paths to this day.
Getting to Mt. Kinbo
Mt. Kinbo is located about 20 minutes by car to the south of Tsuruoka City on the Shonai Coast of Yamagata Prefecture. Tsuruoka is accessible from Shonai Airport, about one hour flight from Tokyo, or on the Joetsu Shinkansen Bullet Train and Inaho Express via Niigata (more details here). Like most places in rural Japan, public transport is minimal at best, so you’re going to want to go by car if you can. If you have to, the bus takes about 50 minutes, but can take you all the way to Naka-no-miya the inner sanctum about half-way up the mountain.
Hiking Mt. Kinbo
From a distance, Mt. Kinbo looks like any other mountain in the winter; bald trees the only feature besides the white blanket of snow and a small spattering of evergreens. Get closer, and it’s a completely different story. Considering the history of the place, it’s not surprising that Mt. Kinbo has many buildings in the township at the base, the grandest of them being the Shoryuji Temple complex, where the mountain faith has had its base for centuries. Keep an eye out for the former Shukubo pilgrim lodges too, the tiny township used to be home to about 20 of them.
There are three main ways to get up Mt. Kinbo; hiking from Shoryuji Temple at the base, driving to the Nakanomiya Inner Sanctum that meets the path from Shoryuji Temple, or lastly climbing from the Yutagawa entrance from the west. It takes about 90 minutes one-way from Shoryuji Temple to the top, or 60 minutes from Yutagawa, if you’re not on snow that is. Today, I’m going to talk about the route from Shoryuji Temple, simply because I haven’t had the chance to go the Yutagawa route, although I hope to get there sometime soon.
Starting from Shoryuji Temple at the base, follow the adjacent concrete road up about 200m and you come to a smaller car park on the left. This is where the path into the mountain begins proper. The path takes you through a cedar forest that makes way for a small area with a few shrines and Buddhist monuments complete with a creek and waterfall for meditation. Follow the path up the hill and eventually you will come across a tree in the middle of the path that appears to have two trunks. The gap is wide enough for people to get through, and it’s said that if you can go through, your wish will come true.
Keep following the path up, and there are a few more shrines and hills to get over before the path evens out and you come across the red Zuishinmon gates beside the inner sanctum carpark. From here, look straight ahead and you can see the Shamusho, mountain office and across from there you’ll find Akainoshimizu, an underground water spring that is one of the top 100 natural springs in Japan. Besides the inner sanctum, this is probably why the road comes up this high, as even in the middle of winter people were coming to fill up large bottles with fresh spring water.
Mt. Kinbo’s inner sanctum is quite a sight to behold. Known as Kinbo Shrine’s Heiden, where gifts to the gods are offered, this National Important Cultural Property is decorated with hundreds of lanterns on the outside, and a beautifully designed roof built to combat the heavy snow of winter that is reminiscent of Japanese Zen temples, and even has a Chinese-style gable over the entrance. There is an inscription on one of the beams that says the building was remodelled by Mogami Yoshiaki (often mistaken as Yoshimitsu), suggesting that the structure is older than 400 years.
After paying your respects to the gods, it’s time for a bit of adventure. Just behind the inner sanctum, the path splits into two. The left path will take you on a short walk to a nearby waterfall, the right path to the top. It’s worth checking out the waterfall if you have the time, although it is not that big. I usually pray to this waterfall too, and it is often used for waterfall meditation by Yamabushi (make sure you check with the shrine first before doing this). Ours were the only footprints past this point when we went in the middle of winter.
Keep following the mountain up to the right and you’ll pass a sign that says 山伏古道 Yamabushi Kodo, or the ancient path of the Yamabushi. There are a few shrines on the way up, and this is where the snow really starts to get deep for those climbing in winter. Soon, you’ll come across an ancient road that runs across your path. This path takes you to the Yorogamine peak, Mt. Hokari, and Mt. Maya. Here, keep going straight and you’ll come across one of the two main lookouts over the Shonai plains. In summer, this part of the path makes good use of the roots of the cedars that form a sort of staircase for hikers on the mountain. Once you reach the second lookout, you’re almost at the top. Keep a lookout for a cedar forest, this is your point of reference. In this forest, you’ll find a few shrine buildings, and of course the main shrine of Mt. Kinbo. In summer, this part of the path makes good use of the roots of the cedars that form a sort of staircase for hikers on the mountain.
The main shrine is quite a humbling sight. It’s hard to imagine how it would have been built, most likely using wood from the nearby forests. Either way, the view up there isn’t very good, but if you head down the mountain a little and to your left, you can find a great lookout. At this point, we were quite tired and cold, and our feet were soaked as our shoes weren’t as waterproof as we’d been led to believe. Which is to say, we didn’t spend much time up there. After prayers to the gods and a bit of lunch, we started to head down the mountain. This time, however, in contrast to slow climb on the way up, we basically sprinted down. It took us about half an hour to get back to the inner sanctum, a climb that took us at least one hour to get up. After a quick stop for some of the fresh water, we continued down the mountain briskly. As expected, climbing down to the bottom was much easier and we did it in less than half the time it took us to climb up.
In retrospect, our midwinter climb of Mt. Kinbo was a little bit reckless. There is a good reason why the mountain shouldn’t be climbed from November until the official mountain opening ritual in late February. We climbed Mt. Kinbo in early February when the snow is at its heaviest, and all we had were spats, waterproof leg coverings, for our boots. I had waterproof trousers on, but my friend didn’t and his jeans were drenched up to his hips. Snow up to your hips is generally reason enough not to climb a mountain, and if it weren’t warm enough to rain, we probably would have had a much harder time getting through the deep snow. If you are going to be climbing Mt. Kinbo in winter, I’d definitely recommend busting out the snowshoes. But who said climbing mountains was easy?
In the nearby township of Yutagawa, you will find one of my favourite Ryokan (Traditional Japanese Inn) in the region, Tsukasaya. Tsukasaya is run by the young Shoji family, and provides excellent cuisine foraged straight from the surrounding area (including Moso bamboo from Mt. Kinbo in the Spring). Takehiko Shoji, the husband, is a fellow Yamabushi and even a professional Sake sommelier, so he will definitely be able to find you something great to drink. Kanae Shoji, the wife, is fluent in English and has extensive experience serving Japanese and non-Japanese guests alike. In addition, the Ryokan has recently gone through renovations to be like brand new.
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