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Women in Shugendo: Supporters, Leaders, or Both? Part 1

The author in front of the nyonin kekkai gate at Gobanseki. Photo by Alena Eckelmann

There is still a ban on women at Omine-san, one of Shugendo’s sacred mountains—if not its most holy site—located in the Kansai region of Japan. But why is there a ban on women and is it still justified in this day and age? And should efforts to make Shugendo more appealing to a wider audience include actions toward lifting this ban?

The sign greeting visitors at the nyonin kekkai gate. Photo by Alena Eckelmann

Walk no further, woman! 

Nyonin kekkai” is written on the wooden gate that marks the entrance the mountain path proper. This gate is a border: from here onward no women are allowed. Next to the gate is a sign with an explanation, this time also in English: 

The rule for this sacred mountain Omine-san forbids all women to continue climbing the mountain through this gate. This is based on religious traditions.

In recent years, one woman announced her displeasure and “corrected” the prohibition sign on the gate across the Okugakemichi accordingly. Two letters have been excised, making “women” into “men.” This does not change the rule but it does suggest a sentiment of objection.

The Omine mountain range seen from Dorogawa Village. Photo by Alena Eckelmann

The mountain in question 

The mountain in question is Sanjogadake (Sanjo Peak), also referred to as Omine-san (Omine Mountain). Actually, the Omine Mountains are an entire range rather than just one peak. 

The temple Ominesan-ji, one of the most sacred places for followers of Shugendo, is located there, as well as some gyoba (ascetic training sites). These gyoba are rocks and cliffs that are scaled and maneuvered by male practitioners on their annual pilgrimages to Sanjogadake, often under the watchful eyes of a sendatsu guide. 

These male practitioners then stay overnight in one of the shukubo (temple lodgings) on top of Sanjo Peak before they continue their training along the Okugakemichi trail or descend the mountain. Since the temple, the training sites, and the lodgings are located within the parameters of the nyonin kekkai, they are off-limits to women. 

Sanjogadake is one of many peaks along the Okugakemichi, a mountain ridge trail that is said to have been opened by En no Gyoja, the legendary founder of Shugendo. Over 100 kilometers long, this trail connects Yoshinoyama in the north of the Kii Peninsula with Kumano in the south.

Followers of Shugendo still walk this trail for the purpose of training, and are joined by hikers and trail-runners. It takes roughly a week to walk from one end to the other—that is if you are a man! If you are a woman, it will take you longer because you have to walk around Sanjo Peak. This means descending the mountain, making your way around the area that is off-limits, and then climbing up again to continue your walk along the Okugakemichi. 

The nyonin kekkai gates are set across trails all around this mountain. While the gates are actually wide open, and there are no guards as such, it is an invisible barrier—plus the sign tries to intimidate any women who might consider crossing the line. 

This ban is taken seriously by men. The author herself received angry looks simply for standing near the gate, as well as the comment “this far and no further!”

Foreign women stand before another nyonin kekkai gate in Dorogawa Village. Photo by Alena Eckelmann

What is kekkai

Kekkai (結 界) is a sacred boundary; the delineation of an area or a building for religious practices and exercises. Things or people that are believed to disturb the sanctity of the demarcated area are prohibited. 

Establishing a kekkai is commonplace in Shugendo, for example at the saito goma, the outdoor fire ceremony. The sacred bonfire is surrounded by a squared-off area that only Shugenja and a few other people with permission are allowed to enter. 

Nyonin kekkai (女人結界), or nyonin kinsei (女人禁制), prohibits women from crossing the sacred boundary. A prohibition of women on sacred mountains, and in other places considered sacred, was the norm in Japan until 150 years ago. The ban persists with regard to the sumo wrestling ring, which women are still prohibited from entering. 

Japan’s “Three Sacred Mountains” (Fuji-san, Tateyama, and Haku-san) could previously not be climbed by women. Neither could women traverse the Dewa Sanzan, the Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa, in present-day Yamagata Prefecture. 

Another example is the Shingon Buddhist monastery of Koyasan (present-day Wakayama Prefecture), which was also off-limits to women. On Koyasan the kekkai was enacted by the founder of the monastery, Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi (774–835) and was upheld for more than 1,000 years. 

When Kukai first consecrated the mountain, he made a kekkai that applied to both men and women. This was later turned into a nyonin kekkai, where only the women had to turn around. Kukai even banned his own mother from climbing Koyasan.

The old nyonin kekkai stone near Yoshinoyama.
Image courtesy of the author

Why women are banned here

The prohibition is simply because “it has always been like that,” some hardliners argue. They refer to a “religious tradition” that supposedly dates back 1,300 years to the days of Shugendo founder En-no-Gyoja (c. 634–701), who is said to have banned his mother from following him to the sacred peak. Kukai might have taken inspiration from this. 

However, academic research has shown that the current border markings for women were in fact established much more recently, in the 18th century. The first boundary stone along the Okugakemichi at Aonegamine, the first peak coming from Yoshinoyama, is said to have been set in 1754. 

Another argument states that a woman’s body is considered “unclean” because of menstrual bleeding, pregnancy, and childbirth. Since it is essential to avoid impurity in holy places, women are banned. This belief was also present in other spiritual traditions. However, there are countless examples of sacred places in modern Japan where menstruating and pregnant women can visit. 

What’s more, women, it’s sometimes asserted, could negatively influence men’s ascetic training through their feminine sensuality and sexuality. This argument does not pay attention to the fact that the opposite could also be the case. This is a reason for the monastic separation of men and women in many religious communities around the world. In fact, monks in training on Koyasan are still separated by gender. However, there are many Shugendo groups in which women practice alongside men. Kimpusen-ji, one of the Shugendo temples on Yoshinoyama, even has an all-women team to conduct the saito goma outdoor fire ritual. 

Finally, it has been argued that women are not strong enough for the strenuous mountain hike and that it is simply too dangerous for them to roam these remote mountains. Not allowing women to climb is therefore considered a protective measure. This argument hardly holds its ground in the 21st century, when women have climbed many dangerous and remote mountains, just like men. A prohibition based on this argument just feels patronizing. 

Some improvements, but no breakthrough

As part of the endeavor to modernize the country during the Meiji period, the then government lifted this ban on women on sacred mountains by edict in 1872, but at the same time prohibited Shugendo. Open practice of Shugendo on Omine-san came to a halt but some sort of training was apparently continued in secret. 

From 1945, Shugenja were free to practice again, and Ominesan-ji and temple lodgings on the mountain were repaired. Regular Shugendo pilgrimages to Sanjo Peak resumed but women refrained from going there. 

The wooden gates at the entrances to the Omine mountain paths, and the associated explanations, were erected for the first time in 1970. Was the reason for this public statement at that time the fact that women had begun to walk up to Sanjo Peak? There were reports of feminists and female hikers who were seen climbing the mountain. 

When these gates were erected, the nyonin kekkai borders were also moved further toward the sanctuary for “economic reasons,” or was it, rather, a deal to give women an inch, but let them not take a mile?

Women can now walk well beyond Aonegamine, although the old stone marker is still there. The new border was set at Gobanseki where a nyonin kekkai gate reminds women to descend the mountain following a small trail that leads toward Dorogawa Village, which is, together with Yoshinoyama, a base for nyubu (mountain entry). 

When Omine-san was nominated to become part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” in 2004, women hoped that the ban there would be lifted. During the course of the UNESCO application, a petition in favor of lifting the ban gathered more than 12,000 signatures and a symposium on the topic was held. To no avail; the prohibition remains almost 20 years later.

Women and men train together on this part of the Okugakemichi between Yoshinoyama and Gobanseki. Photo by Noboku Takayanagi 

Why change the rule?

Countless examples of holy mountains elsewhere in Japan that are open to women and men alike shows that there is another way. By welcoming women, these places have lost none of their sacredness. Both men and women do their spiritual training there, often together. 

There are mixed female/male Shugendo groups that walk the Okugakemichi trails together for days at a time, but women are still excluded from joining male practitioners on Sanjogadake and have to continue on an alternate route. 

However, the number of men who climb Sanjo Peak is steadily decreasing. In view of the rapid aging of active groups of male practitioners, combined with a relatively low interest in Shugendo among young Japanese men, can the Omine-san women’s ban lobby really afford to exclude half of the population?

Looking at this from an economic point of view, women contribute significantly to the maintenance of temples. Female visitors, whether tourists or those in search of spirituality, provide income to temples by making donations, buying amulets, or asking for the performance of rituals for themselves or loved ones. Allowing women to climb Sanjo Peak could turn into a revenue booster for the ailing temple lodgings, as well as for Ominesan-ji. 

Could there be a scenario whereby access for women is allowed at certain times only? For example, only during the Sanjogadake off-season or not on days when sacred ceremonies take place? The climbing season on Sanjo Peak is officially from 3 May–23 September. There is an opening and a closing ceremony at Ominesan-ji to mark these days. 

For example, on Ishizuchisan, another mountain held sacred by followers of Shugendo, which is located on Shikoku Island, women are prohibited from climbing only on one day per year. This is 1 July, when the mountain-climbing season begins. On this day an opening ceremony is held from which women are banned. 

Looking at the wider context, Ominesan is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 2004) and also part of Yoshino-Kumano National Park. There is a steady stream of hikers who enjoy multi-day treks along the Okugakemichi. An opening of the peak to women would benefit mixed groups of hikers. 

The current public interest in Japan to visit power spots also speaks in favor of opening up this sacred mountain. For example, Tamaki Shrine at the southern end of the Okugakemichi trail, considered to be a power spot, receives a steady stream of visitors, including followers of Shugendo, both male and female. Opening Sanjogadake, which is also a power spot, would allow female followers of Shugendo to walk the Okugakemichi without hindrance and to pray at Ominesan-ji, as well as other female visitors who undertake the long trek up this mountain. 

Parts of this article and photos were originally published by the author in German in 2020: Lindsay E. DeWitt: “Envisioning and Observing Women’s Exclusion from Sacred Mountains in Japan” in Journal of Asian Humanities at Kyushu University.

Related features from BDG

Women in Shugendo: Supporters, Leaders, or Both? Part 2
Women in Shugendo: Supporters, Leaders, or Both? Part 3

See more from The Shugendo Diaries by Alena Eckelmann

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