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Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part Five

The Katsuragi Shugen starts on Tomogashima Island with an
ascent of this cliff. Photo by Takeshi Mori

Probably Shugendo’s oldest training trail lies in the Katsuragi Mountains south of Osaka City. The legendary founder of Shugendo, En no Gyoja (En the Ascetic), has been credited with establishing a pilgrimage route across these mountains and through villages in the vicinity. 

This route covers a distance of 120 kilometers and connects the Tomogashima Islands, located off the coast of Wakayama City in the Seto Inland Sea, with the inland near En no Gyoja’s place of birth in Nara Prefecture, and ends at the Yamato River in the south of Osaka Prefecture. 

Fast forward some 1,300 years to 2020, the Shugendo tradition in the Katsuragi Mountains was certified as a “Japan Heritage” by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs. The official designation is “Katsuragi Shugen: The Birthplace of Shugendo, a Tradition Preserved and Passed Down by Mountain Folk.” 

Will this Japan Heritage status bring a fresh wind to the Katsuagi Shugen revival efforts? 

Situating Katsuragi

Where exactly Katsuragi is located can be a bit confusing. There are two mountains under this name: one called Izumi Katsuragi (858 meters) and the other Yamato Katsuragi (959 meters). They sandwich in an even higher peak, Katsuragi-dake (1,125 meters), which is an access-restricted sacred mountain now commonly referred to as Mount Kongo. 

These peaks, together with some lower peaks, run west to east and then north, forming an L-shaped mountain range that is officially called the Kongo-Izumi Katsuragi Sankei (金剛·和泉葛城山系) but is collectively referred to as the Katsuragi Mountains. For centuries, followers of Shugendo sought out these mountains and practiced on its peaks and in its forests until Shugen activities were forbidden during the Meiji Restoration at the end of the 19th century. Nowadays, these mountains are popular with hikers and nature-lovers from the big cities in the Kansai area of Japan.

The Diamond Trail, a long-distance hiking trail, follows the ridge-line of this mountain range, which straddles the borders of three prefectures: Wakayama, Osaka, and Nara. The name for this trail was not chosen randomly but hints at the spiritual significance of the area. Diamond refers to Kongo (金剛), a very hard metal or crystal that is reputed to be indestructible. In the Buddhist context it means vajra (thunderbolt) and stands for indestructible truth.

Climbing the cliff from the seashore to the top requires stamina
and sure-footedness. Photo by Takeshi Mori

Birthplace of Shugendo

En no Gyoja, considered to be the founder of Shugendo, was born at the base of the Katsuragi Mountains, now Gose City in Nara Prefecture, and he first practiced mountain asceticism in this area. Located along the ridge-line of the Katsuragi Mountains are 28 sutra mounds (kyozuka). Each is said to contain a chapter of the Lotus Sutra buried there by followers of En no Gyoja during the Heian period (794–1185) when the capital was in Heian-kyo, now Kyoto.

During the middle of the Heian period, a belief in the end of time due to the degeneration of Buddhist law (mappo) arose, at the same time as faith in the Future Buddha, Miroku Bosatsu. People copied the Lotus Sutra and buried their texts in the mountains as a kind of time capsule for future generations.

The Shugendo training that focuses on these sutra mounds and the pilgrimage trail that connects them became known as Katsuragi Shugen. Over the centuries, Katsuragi Shugen training became an essential practice among followers of Shugendo in the Kansai area, who walk from No. 1 to No. 28 of these sutra mounds, praying at each location. Tomogashima Jobon-kutsu Cave is the No.1 sutra mound and the starting point. Kame-no-se, a stone that resembles at turtle set in the Yamato River, is No. 28 and the endpoint. 

Before commencing their walk, the Shugendo practitioners then and now purify themselves in the salty water of the ocean (shiogori) on Tomogashima and after the end of the walk they purify themselves again in the water in Yamato River (Mizugori).

The endpoint of the Katsuragi Shugen is at the Yamato River. Photo by Takeshi Mori

Shugendo stakeholders

These activities were interrupted during the Meiji Restoration and for more than half a century almost no training was conducted. However, in the second half of the 20th century some Shugendo groups based in the Kansai area began to revive their annual pilgrimages to the Katsuragi Mountains.

The Katsuragi Shugen is not practiced by one single Shugendo group but by several groups. They include groups from Shogo-in Temple and Sanbo-in Temple (Daigo-ji) in Kyoto; Kumano Shugen, a Shugendo group based at Nachisan Seiganto-ji in the south of the Kii Peninsula; and Mii-dera Temple by Lake Biwa. There are also Shugendo groups based at temples along the trail, including at Shipporyu-ji on Inunaki Mountain, where the No. 8 sutra mound is located, and at Temporin-ji near the top of Mount Kongo, where the No. 21 sutra mound is found. 

Officially, the first Shugendo group to resume the pilgrimage on the Katsuragi Shugen trail was from Shogo-in Temple in Kyoto in 1955. Shugenja from Shipporyu-ji first walked in 1985, and Shugenja from Sanbo-in (Daigo-ji) in 1990. Kumano Shugen has been conducting pilgrimages in the Katsuragi Mountains for many years now. Their first pilgrimages took place in 1999, 2000, and 2001. Mii-dera resumed the pilgrimage in 2005.

The village connection 

Along the trail are many natural places of ancient nature worship, such as waterfalls and monoliths. There are also stone Buddha carvings and other stone markers, as well as small wayside shrines in the forest, and there are many temples and shrines in the villages where the trail passes. As the pilgrimage trail meandered across the mountain peaks and down to the villages in the valleys, pilgrims and their Sendatsu guides forged close bonds with villagers and groups of local residents (kou), and they prayed together. 

Farming villages at the base of the Katsuragi Mountains relied on water from mountain streams for their paddy fields. The Shugendo practitioners petitioned various deities on behalf of the villagers and prayed for rain. In return, the villagers built pilgrim lodges and hosted those who undertook pilgrimages in the mountains.

The trail leads from the villages into the mountains and back to the villages. Photo by Takeshi Mori

Revival of the trail

These lodges are now long gone and the former course of the pilgrimage trail was partly forgotten. In fact, it had never been a single trail on the ridge-line of the mountains, but a trail with many branches that connected to the villages at the base. Over the years, the leaders of Shugendo groups, together with villagers, local historians, and members of conservation initiatives have tried to trace the trail based on landmarks, stone markers, and historical maps. Yet even the exact location of some of the sutra mounds could only be guessed.

The signage along the trail is still poor at best and non-existent at worst, and the uninitiated pilgrim would have a hard time navigating the Katsuragi Shugen without a guide. The Japan Heritage status will hopefully bring funding from the Japanese government and from regional governments so that conservation and preservation efforts can be continued. This should attract more pilgrims, and also tourists, to the trail and thereby contribute to much-needed regional revitalization in this part of rural Japan.

Even now pilgrims will encounter villagers. Photo by Takeshi Mori

Revival of rituals

At Kada Beach, where pilgrims would depart to reach the Tomogashima Islands, the Kishu-Kada Saito-Oo-gomaku, an outdoor fire ceremony, was traditionally held facing the ocean. This tradition was discontinued during the Meiji Restoration and was revived only recently, in 2015, in an initiative by a local conservation group in cooperation with the Kada Tourism Association. The Katsuragi-odori Dance originated in the Edo Period (1603–1867) in five villages in the vicinity of the Hachidairyuo Shrine on top of Mount Izumi Katsuragi. It is a rainmaking ritual dedicated to the Eight Great Dragon Kings (Hachidairyuo). This ritual, which was also lost during the Meiji Restoration, was reconstructed by a local volunteer group in 1955 and has been performed every year since. 

Shogo-in Temple has also been reviving the Katsuragi Kanjo ritual, which was traditionally administered at the Nakatsugawa-gyoja-do Temple. Kanjo is an esoteric Buddhist ceremony that involves sprinkling water on the heads of devotees, conferring a certain kind of status. This ritual was revived and enacted again in 1968, again in 1984, and once more in 2002, and a fourth is being planned.

Japan heritage booster

Japan Heritage status recognizes “narratives of the culture and tradition of Japan through regional historic appeal or unique characteristics,” according to the Agency for Cultural Affairs. Its declared objective is a regional revitalization by way of “maintaining, utilizing, and strategically promoting cultural properties that together form these narratives.” 

In 2020, when Katsuragi Shugen was designated as a Japan Heritage site, 91 cultural properties were included in the heritage designation. They include the Tomogashima Jobon-kutsu Cave, Mount Kongo, Taima-dera Temple, Temporin-ji, Katsuragi-hitokotonushi-jinja Shrine, Takao-ji, Nakatsugawa-gyoja-do Temple, as well as the Kishu-Kada Saito-Oo-gomaku Ceremony and the Katsuragi-odori Dance. This heritage designation is considered a major milestone in the revival process of Katsuragi Shugen.

Public dialogue

In spring of 2021, a symposium was held in the three prefectures that are related to the Katsuragi Shugen. The symposium took place on three weekends in February and March and was well attended by the public. Various high-profile stakeholders were invited to serve as panelists and give presentations about their respective involvements. This included representatives from Shugendo temples and from regional institutes and universities. 

The symposium was meant to be a kick-off event, but the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered public promotions and forestalled any tourist activities. Even annual pilgrimages conducted by Shugendo temples have mostly been canceled this year. 

I was fortunate to have been able to attend a Katsuragi Shugen walk in July 2021. This one-day event was attended by more than 30 participants, compared with 10 under normal circumstances. The majority of newcomers, who came from different cities in the Kansai area, had become interested in Katsuragi Shugen as a result of their symposium attendance.

Characteristic of Katsuragi Shugen

I talked with Junya Hanai, who is a Shugendo practitioner and a Sendatsu guide of Kumano Shugen. He has trained with Kumano Shugen for more than 20 years and has walked the Katsuragi Shugen trail many times by himself and also guided followers of Kumano Shugen and members of the public along this trail. He stated:

The characteristic of Katsuragi Shugen is that the training does not only include walking in the mountains but there is also a returning of what you have gained in the mountains to the villagers. This “returning” included rainmaking (Amagoi) and illness healing (Byokiheiyu) in the past.

On the Omine Okugakemichi [another Shugendo training trail] we walk along the mountain peaks and we do not meet any villagers. This is a training to face ourselves in nature. In contrast, at Katsuragi Shugen we go from the villages to the other side of the mountains. There are some encounters with villagers and Shugenja pass the power [genriki] that they gained in the mountains on to these villagers. 

We put our hands together in front of the religious objects of the villagers, like Jizo Bosatsu, and the villagers will also gently put their hands together for our worship. At Katsuragi Shugen we can still now experience such a scene. This has been a characteristic of Katsuragi Shugen.

Pilgrims pray at small shrines in the forest. Photo by Takeshi Mori

Part six of this column will be an in-depth interview with Hanai about his experiences over the years walking and guiding at the Katsuragi Shugen trail.

Related features from BDG

Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part One
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part Two
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part Three
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part Four
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part Six
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition, Part Seven

See more from The Shugendo Diaries by Alena Eckelmann

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