Obon and the reason why the Japanese love mountains

Call it coincidence, call it fate, call it what you will, being initiated into the Yamabushi fold soon after my father’s death is one of the best things that could have happened to me. It was less than a week after returning to Japan from my father’s funeral in New Zealand that the proposition was put forth to me, ‘want to become a Yamabushi? Want to change the lives of all who participate?’ The decision was a no brainer, of course I’d love to change lives. I was at a stage where my life needed changing anyway.

I’m not sure if this is the whole of Japan, but at least in the Shonai region of Yamagata Prefecture they have a rather productive method of grieving. When we pass, it is believed that our souls go through their own spiritual training in the mountains. Under the guidance of 13 Buddha, our souls spend 33 years moving from the low-lying mountains to the top of Mt. Gassan where they turn into Kami that look over us all.

By venturing to Mt. Gassan, we have the chance to come face to face with our loved ones who have passed. We have the chance to amend wrongs, and to show our appreciation for their sacrifices made on our behalf, for the good and bad times we spent with them.

I still remember being taken aback at my father’s funeral with the number of people wearing colourful clothing, bright coloured dresses, suits and ties, not the sort of thing you see at a funeral on TV. In New Zealand, this is how we show our appreciation for the lives of those we’ve lost. Not by being sad about it, which we of course are, but by celebrating the life that our loved ones led.

Every year in Japan around the middle of August (some regions also use the lunar calendar, so the middle of July) is the festival of Obon. During Obon, we visit the graves of our ancestors, and welcome them back into their family homes for another chance to be with them.

For the Yamabushi of the Dewa Sanzan, there is a huge Saitosai bonfire festival that starts at the top of Mt. Gassan. Bonfires are lit at the summit, and at the 9th and 8th stations of the mountain, that represent the souls of our loved ones who have passed returning to their homes in the region below. Each of the sparks that flies off into the sky represents someone who was once alive and well, but have since made the journey up to the top of Mt. Gassan. I’ve also heard that dragonflies represent the souls of the deceased as well, which makes sense because Mt. Gassan is covered in dragonflies.

To be given the chance to learn not only about the Yamabushi, but what it feels like to actually be one, that has been life-changing for me. On top of that, to be given the chance to grieve in a productive manner, that has also given me peace, and I hope the same for anyone else brave enough to venture to this glorious peak.

On the surface, Mt. Gassan looks like any other tall mountain, covered in snow even in the middle of summer, alpine vegetation the likes of which cannot be seen anywhere else, lush green meadows with fresh water ponds, but a closer look behind the culture of the place reveals a much more sombre affair. So the next time you visit a mountain, take the time to reflect on those you have lost, and pray for their peace.



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Sakata City, Yamagata, Japan 


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