Samurai, Shoguns and Shugendo
There is a hidden Japan that is yet to be on the main tourist map for foreign visitors. Tohoku, a region in the northeast of Honshu, the largest island in Japan, is a real hidden gem. Its landscape is defined by the stunning natural beauty of mystical mountains, volcanic lakes, hot springs and farmlands. This is where the soul of Japan lies in its traditional and religious culture and where ancient mountain worship is still very much practised.
Against this background, we embarked on an epic journey to trace the footsteps of samurai, shoguns and Shugendo, a folk religion of animism with the influence of Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. In essence, Shugendo seeks the path of enlightenment through strengthening the bond between human and nature. They believe nature is a manifestation of the gods and should be treated with respect. They are the original eco-warriors.
Three Sacred Mountains
Mountains and forests have paramount importance in Shugendo and the Dewa Sanzan, the sacred mountains of Mt Haguro (414m), Mt Gassan (1984m) and Mt Yudono (1500m) are revered as three of the most sacred mountains in the region. The followers are known as Shugenjas or Yamabushi (mountain monks) have been following the rites of worship for the last 1400 years.
These followers embark on long pilgrimages and practise austere feat of physical endurance of natural elements as an ascetic rite of passage to gain spiritual power. We had the privilege of experiencing the immersive ceremony of Shugendo first hand by tracing the footsteps of the pilgrims and visiting the three sacred mountains that represent the cycle of life starting with Mt Haguro (present/birth) followed by Mt Gassan (past/death) and lastly Mt Yudono (future/rebirth).
We arrived at Mt Haguro as dusk was setting in and after a short visit to Ideha Museum nearby to get an insight of Shugendo and Dewa Sanzan, we entered the sacred site through the torii, a wooden gateway that is found in all sacred sites in Japan. A flight of stone steps known as the Ishi-Dan led down to an enchanting forest with towering cedar trees along the ancient pilgrim route.
The 1.7km trail built in 1648 has 2,446 steps leading to the Sanjin Gosaiden shrine at the summit. There are 33 carvings etched on the steps and it is believed that if you can find all 33, your wishes will come true. 33 are sacred numbers in most religions.
As we were pressed for time, we could only follow the sacred path as far as the 600-year-old Goju-no-to, the Five-Storey Pagoda, a gazetted national treasure. In the gloom of the forest, the ornate Pagoda exuded an air of mysticism that lent to the belief that a deity of the forest lives in it. Along the way, there were shrines that house the gods that will protect humans against evil spirits that may lurk in the forest.
In The Realms Of The Gods
When we arrived at Sanjin Gosaiden, the main shrine at the summit, we were met by a Yamabushi dressed in his traditional religious garb of a loose coat of black and white checks worn over baggy white trousers. He sounded a conch shell as a welcome and to ward off bad spirit. After observing the temple procedure of cleansing our hands and rinsing our mouths at a water trough before entering a shrine, we were led to the shoden, the inner sanctum of the shrine.
There, a monk dressed in a splendid ceremonial robe with motifs of cranes performed a special ceremony by beating a drum followed by space clearing of malevolent energy around us by wafting a pole with white paper strips attached to the end and ringing bells to cleanse the air. He then knelt before the altar that housed the shrines of the three deities of the sacred mountains and chanted some mantras in a trance-like voice. We felt blessed as we bowed twice, clapped our hands twice and bowed once completing the ritual where we were “spiritually reborn”.
We stayed the night at a Shukubo, a traditional temple lodge owned by a Yamabushi and his wife who welcomed us graciously by kneeling Japanese style where they sat on the floor with their legs folded behind them. The delightful lodge was immaculately clean and the minimalist décor was tranquillity personified that we badly needed after a long journey.
We were served a delicious vegetarian meal laid out delicately in small dishes on trays. The only decadence at the meal was the sake that washed down well with the dishes of pickled and braised wild mountain vegetables, small portions of grilled fish and bowls of miso soup with silken tofu. Futons and a small low table with seat cushions were the only furniture in the bare bedroom evoking an ambience of pure relaxation. I would highly recommend staying in a Shukubo to attain a Zen state of mind. Early next morning, our landlord performed a morning blessing for us with a full ceremony and chanting to bless us and wished us safe journey to Mt Gassan and Mt Yudono.
We headed to Mt Gassan in howling wind and rain to visit a shrine. The pilgrimage trail was officially closed for the season but we braved the element by treading precariously on a path of slippery wooden walkway laid across a marshland of dwarf bamboo and grassland. After twenty minutes’ walk, we reached a small shrine presided by a giant stone rabbit, the guardian of the mountain. There were stone tablets with religious significance standing sentinel to the shrine. This mountain symbolised the path to death and it was apt that the short journey we took in the inclement weather seemed to convey the message. In the summer, pilgrims could hike to the summit where the main shrine lies and from there, they could also hike to Mt Yudono the last mountain on the holy trail.
Our visit to Mt Yudono was an epic experience where we were sworn to secrecy by the priest about the ceremony of “rebirth” that we underwent to symbolise being spiritually reborn to start a new journey in life. It is forbidden to divulge the secret of the ritual but suffice to say that the experience is something I will always remember. Mt Yudono was spectacular with autumn colours when we were there and the sheer beauty of the red and gold foliage-clad mountain magnified the spirituality of the place.
The One-Eyed Dragon
On a park on Aoba Hill overlooking Sendai city, the largest city in Tohoku, the statue of a samurai on a horseback commanded all that he surveyed. Clad in a black armour and a helmet crowned with a golden crescent moon, Lord Date Masamune (1567 – 1636) cut a fearsome figure (Date is pronounced as “Datey”). He is celebrated in Japan as one of the most famous Daimyo or feudal lords of the 16th century in the early Edo period (1603 -1868) and hailed as the founder of Sendai. His castle once stood there, is now a ruin with just the remains of the foundation. As a child, he was ravaged by smallpox and lost his right eye, earning him the moniker of a “Dokuganryu”, the one-eyed dragon, due to his many victories in battle. His first foray in frontline battle was when he was only 14 years old alongside his warrior father Date Terumune, against their rivals the Souma family. Date was a brilliant military strategist and expanded his rule by building alliances through marriages of his children and relatives with neighbouring clans. His enemies feared him as a formidable warrior who took no prisoners in battle where he would slaughter all the inhabitants of the places he conquered.
Despite his fearsome reputation Date was a learned and cultured man who was a visionary and a diplomat. He encouraged foreigners to visit his domain in Ohshu, now the present day Tohoku, and was eager to learn foreign technology and ideas from them while most rulers were wary of foreigners at that time. He was receptive to traders and Christian missionaries at a period when the ruling government of the Tokugawa Shogunate were taking steps to ban Christianity. In a bold move, he funded an expeditionary voyage known as the Keicho Envoy Mission and appointed Luis Sotelo a Spanish missionary as his senior envoy and his trusted retainer Hasekura Tsunenaga as deputy envoy. With a retinue of 180 people, they set off on a trade and diplomatic mission to Rome to establish a relationship with Pope Paulus V; an audience with King Felipe III of Spain and visits to the Philippines and Mexico, which were under Spanish rule at the time. They sailed in a ship called San Juan Bautista using European shipbuilding technology. The Sendai Museum is a treasure trove of information about Date, the Keicho Envoy Mission and other historical facts about Sendai.
Before leaving Sendai, we paid respect to Date at his resting place, the Zuihoden mausoleum in a peaceful cedar forest on a hill. The magnificent tomb is built in the ornate architectural style of the Momoyama period (1573-1603) in Date’s signature colour of black accented by bright colours predominantly of gold with intricate woodwork. It was burnt down during World War II in 1945 and a replica of the original building was built in 1979. Senior members of the Date family are also entombed here. His mausoleum is flanked on both sides by 20 memorial headstones of his faithful vassals and subordinates who followed the samurai tradition of committing suicide known as junshi when their master died as an act of loyalty. Today Date is immortalised in films, anime and video games and his name is a byword for bravery and “badass” character.
The Last Samurai
The last leg of our journey took us to Aizu-wakamatsu or Aizu for short, a historic castle town is known as the “land of the last samurai” in the Fukushima Prefecture. It was the military and political centre of the region and renowned for its many celebrated samurai commanders who were Aizu Lords. It was the location of a civil war between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the new Meiji government in the Boshin War in 1868, a power struggle between feudal and modern Japan. Although the Aizu clan fought bravely including holding on in a siege at Tsuruga Castle, they were no match for the new weaponry of guns and cannons of the Meiji government. Aizu became the scene of the last battle of the samurai. Many lives were lost and the government banished the samurai from the area. Tsuruga Castle was burnt down but reconstructed in 1965 and houses a great museum charting the history of the samurai culture and the Boshin War.
Aizu is also on the pilgrimage trail of the famous 33 Kannon Buddha temples in the region. Kannon, known as Kuan Yin or Goddess of Mercy to the Chinese, was known to have 33 manifestations. We visited a few temples in the area notably Juichimen Senju Kannon Temple, Sazaedo Temple and Sakudari Kannon Temple among others and most were modest wooden structures, some set in an isolated location in the forest. Pilgrims would attempt to complete the circuit of the 33 temples in their devotion.
Along the way, we visited Ouchi-juku, a cultural museum in the town of Shimogo on the ancient trade route in the Edo period where merchants and feudal lords would pass this way to rest. It is a street of replicas of old traditional villages with thatched roof and bustling shops selling food, drinks and souvenirs. We had lunch in a quaint Takato Soba restaurant where cold soba noodles were eaten with a stick of leek with a kink at the end to scoop the noodles instead of chopsticks. We had a hilarious time battling with the leek and eventually resorted to using chopsticks.
The enchanting mystical beauty of Tohoku reminds me of the words of the famous 17th century haiku poet Matsuo Basho, “Travel is life. Life is travel.” I had the most enlightening travel life experience in Tohoku. In his famous poem “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, Basho waxed lyrical about travelling in the north of Japan including a visit to Tohoku. I salute him on that sentiment. It is an unforgettable journey.
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