What is a Yamabushi? The ancient mountain dwellers of Japan

For starters, the only way to really understand what a yamabushi is, is to become one yourself. However, I understand this isn’t exactly practical for most people, so I will give a rudimentary introduction of my understanding of the yamabushi from my perspective as a Dewa Sanzan Shrine Yamabushi. It’s also important to note that my experience is only limited to the Dewa Sanzan Shrine and Daishobo pilgrim lodge yamabushi trainings, the only primarily Shinto yamabushi trainings in Japan.

What are yamabushi?

For those who need an introduction to who I am, or want to know how to become a Yamabushi, watch this video:

With Master Nagashima, Master Hoshino, and Master Tak Kato: How I became a Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi

In short, Yamabushi are the mountain dwellers of Japan, practitioners of the ancient belief of Shugendo, the way (do) of attaining divine natural powers (gen) through ascetic practices (shu). Otherwise known as Shugenja, ‘those who practice Shugendo’, the word yamabushi comes from Yama (山) meaning mountain, and fushi or fuseru (伏せる), meaning to promulgate, or to be on all fours. This is because yamabushi are often found crawling all over the mountains during Shugyo ascetic training.

What is Shugendo?

Daishobo Pilgrim Lodge on Mt. Haguro run by Master Hoshino 

What does Shugendo entail? According to my master, Master Hoshino of Daishobo pilgrim lodge on Mt. Haguro of Dewa Sanzan, the three sacred mountains of Dewa in Yamagata Prefecture, ‘Shugendo is both the philosophy and field of study of those who put themselves in nature, use their senses to feel, then reflect on what they feel’.

Sounds simple, right? Get out into nature, sense, then reflect on what you sense. However, simple and easy are two different things. The activities we partake in come from centuries and centuries of our ancestors’ trial and error for one goal: attain learnings from nature. Since ancient times in Japan, mountains have been regarded as a sacred location that holds life’s secrets. We follow the rituals and rites that generations and generations of ancestors took part in and passed down, all in the hope that we can better tune our senses, learn from nature, and in turn become more effective human beings.

Why Do Yamabushi Train on Mountains?

Mt. Haguro during the autumn leaves

Mountains, or nature in general, is believed to be covered in knowledge incomprehensible to humans through written or spoken means, and spend time in the mountains is seen as a way to absorb this knowledge. 

In addition, Buddhist mantras are believed to be projected onto mountains, and some places on the mountains are named after specific places seen in mantras. Thereby walking on the mountains is akin to walking through these mantras and again to absorb the knowledge.

Are there Yamabushi all over Japan? How did Shugendo develop?

Massha Shrines at the summit of Mt. Haguro

Shugendo developed in the 7th century through a combination of primitive folk practices, pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Vajrayana or Esoteric Buddhism, known as Mikkyo in Japanese, Shintoism, and Taoism. The beliefs, philosophies, doctrines and ritual systems of these religions were organised into a doctrine by En no Gyoja, also known as En the Ascetic. En no Gyoja then spread Shugendo all over Japan, and most, if not all, taller mountains in Japan, including Mt. Fuji have had a history of yamabushi training there. 

The three biggest locations for Shugendo in Japan historically were Dewa Sanzan here in Yamagata, Omine and Kumano in Wakayama and Nara Prefectures to the south of Osaka, and Mt. Hiko in Fukuoka. All three areas suffered huge losses over the centuries, but are seeing a revival of sorts in recent years. More on that below. 

How many types of yamabushi are there?

How can Japanese people be Shinto and Buddhist at the same time?

So, Yamabushi sprung up all over Japan, and often they practiced Shugendo under the guise of Tendai and Shingon Buddhism, the two esoteric Buddhism sects of Japan founded by the monks Saicho and Kukai respectively, as these two sects were seen to closely follow the beliefs of Shugendo. 

On the Dewa Sanzan alone, and Mt. Haguro specifically, there are two main schools of yamabushi who essentially train side by side; the Buddhist Haguro Shugen yamabushi of Shozen’in Koganedo Temple, and Shinto the yamabushi of Dewa Sanzan Shrine. 

The Buddhist Haguro Shugen Yamabushi on Dewa Sanzan

The rice fields of Tachiyazawa on the opposite side of Mt. Haguro

The Buddhist Haguro Shugen yamabushi are the original yamabushi of Dewa Sanzan, having trained there for over 1,000 years, much longer than the Shinto yamabushi who currently run Dewa Sanzan. 

I mentioned that my experience is only as a Dewa Sanzan Shrine and Daishobo pilgrim lodge yamabushi. This means that I am a primarily Shinto yamabushi which puts me deeply in the minority. The Shinto yamabushi were formed when the Dewa Sanzan was forcibly switched to Shintoism, following the decree to abolish Buddhism, and eventually Shugendo, during the Meiji Restoration in the 1870s. 

Becoming a Certified Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi

Ready for the Akinomine Autumn’s Peak Ritual

To become a certified yamabushi, one must complete the weeklong Akinomine Autumn’s Peak ritual that happens once a year at the end of August. The Buddhist version of which begins on August 24th, and the Shinto version on the 25th. Both groups train alongside each other, staying only about 500m away from one another in a secret location on the Dewa Sanzan. 

Up until the Meiji Restoration, there was only one type of Akinomine Autumn’s Peak Ritual, the Buddhist version. However, there was an attempt to abolish the Buddhist Autumn’s Peak Ritual during the Meiji Restoration, but they still practiced in an act of defiance against the newly-christened Dewa Sanzan Shrine. During this time, the townspeople were so adamant to continue the Autumn’s Peak Ritual, and also the Fuyunomine Winter’s Peak Ritual, that Dewa Sanzan Shrine initiated their own version of both, which still continue to this day. 

Since ancient times, Yamabushi training on Mt. Haguro has been based around The Ten Realms of Buddhism, with yamabushi undertaking rituals that emulate each of these realms. A very in-depth article about this can be found here. For their Akinomine Autumn’s Peak Ritual, The Shinto Shrine essentially copied the Buddhist training and put a Shinto flair on it, for example by praying to the Kami instead of the Buddha, and not visiting certain sites with deep Buddhist history (for more on this, you’ll have to join the training).

Are there full-time yamabushi? 

A typical Naorai Shojin Ryori (ascetic cuisine) meal had *after* yamabushi training

In the past (as far as I can tell, up until the Meiji Restoration), Mt. Haguro was covered in Buddhist temples, and in these temples lived full-time Buddhist monks who were also yamabushi (the two are not mutually exclusive). These yamabushi were known as Seiso Shugenja, which literally means ‘Shugenja (yamabushi) disallowed from having wives’. 

On the other hand, Mt. Haguro is home to a village of Shukubo pilgrim lodges that must be run by yamabushi, and these yamabushi were called ‘Saitai Shugenja’, literally yamabushi who are allowed to have wives’. These Saitai Shugenja still exist, such as Master Hoshino and Master Hayasaka of Daishobo and Daishinbo pilgrim lodge respectively.

In a way you could call Master Hoshino a full-time yamabushi, although that is because he is retired and now running Daishobo pilgrim lodge full-time. All yamabushi, even those running the Shukubo, either have had a full-time job in the past, or are currently retired. The Seiso Shugenja who lived in the temples of Mt. Haguro have completely disappeared. 

Satoyama Yamabushi: Those from outside the region

I’m classified as a Satoyama Yamabushi, one who is not residing on the Dewa Sanzan

Then, there are what are known as Satoyama Yamabushi, or yamabushi who are neither Seiso nor Saitai yamabushi, but are from areas outside the Dewa Sanzan. These are yamabushi who would periodically make the voyage to the Dewa Sanzan and undertake Shugyo training.

These days the majority of yamabushi are Satoyama Yamabushi, myself included, who converge from all over the world to the Dewa Sanzan annually to take part in the Akinomine Autumn’s Peak Ritual. These yamabushi must be affiliated with a Shukubo pilgrim lodge, or directly with Dewa Sanzan Shrine. In my case, I belong to Daishobo pilgrim lodge. 

Shukubo Pilgrim Lodge and other Yamabushi Trainings on Dewa Sanzan

Mt. Haguro’s Five Story Pagoda

To make matters even more confusing, some of the yamabushi who run the Shukubo offer their own forms of yamabushi training, such as Master Hoshino whose training combines elements of both the Buddhist and Shinto Akinomine Autumn’s Peak Rituals in a true Shinbutsu-Shugo (amalgamation of Shintoism and Buddhism, as it was before the Meiji Restoration in 1868) style.

It is also possible to join yamabushi training through the Ideha Cultural Memorial Museum run by Tsuruoka City. However, this group is not allowed to associate with any religion, and so chanting Buddhist, Shinto, or Shugendo prayers is out of the question. For me, this takes away the entire point of the training, even if you don’t believe in what you are chanting, but should be a good experience nonetheless. 

All these trainings follow Shugendo and therefore have the same basic principle; go out into nature, use your senses to feel, then reflect on what you feel. In that regard, a Yamabushi’s job is to take people out and show them different facets of nature, and letting nature be the teacher. This doesn’t change depending on who you are training with, what does change is who or what you pray to, and how you pray to them. 

My Experience Doing Yamabushi Training

A Jizo statue near Mt. Haguro’s Five Story Pagoda

To date I have participated in two types of training; the weeklong Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual of Dewa Sanzan Shrine, where I officially became a Yamabushi, and that of Daishobo’s Master Hoshino. Master Hoshino’s training is the only one (that I know of) to combine both Shinto and Buddhist rituals and beliefs based on Shugendo, which is a religion formed when the two religions were amalgamated. 

Master Hoshino’s training I find is also the most practical, relying more on getting out in nature than on strictly following the rituals, although of course these are an important part, without which you can’t call it Yamabushi training.

What does Yamabushi training involve?

Mt. Haguro’s Five Story Pagoda during early winter

Now, I’m not allowed to divulge too much for two reasons; one, because I have been sworn to secrecy, and two, because the training is meant to emulate a time before we are born, so we are not supposed to remember what happens during training.

However, what I can tell you is that yamabushi training involves a lot of silent walking out in nature, in our case most often on the three Dewa Sanzan peaks: Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono. Walking silently in nature itself is seen as a form of meditation, and we also visit sacred spots in nature to pray to the Kami (deities) that reside there, showing our appreciation to the Kami for everything they do, as well as performing rituals that connect us better with nature; one well-known example being waterfall meditation.

Half-sacred, half-secular: Hansei Hanzoku

Mt. Haguro during early winter

Shugendo is rare in that if you are a yamabushi, you can also be a layperson. In most other belief systems, if you are a monk, a nun, a priest what have you, then that basically defines your life. For followers of Shugendo, Hansei hanzoku, literally ‘half sacred, half secular’, means that, at least in the modern age, yamabushi have ordinary lives like you or I, they just happen to also be yamabushi. Hanseihanzoku means that yamabushi we can have an understanding of life in the mountains and the lives of those who we wish to serve, and we can better bridge the gap between the two.



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