“People ask me the meaning of Shugendō, and I answer that it is the philosophy of putting yourself in nature and thinking about what you feel. First feel. Then think. There are things you can’t learn without putting yourself in a situation. That is why I don’t explain it. I hardly talk during Shugyo training. You don’t learn from yamabushi. Nature is the teacher. A yamabushi’s role is simply to connect people and nature.”— Master Fumihiro Hoshino, “Life as you feel: The Way of Yamabushi”
For first-time travelers to Japan, every moment is a welcome assault on your senses. It’s still possible to seek out iconic images such as geisha ducking down narrow backstreets, burly sumo wrestlers ambling down city sidewalks or Mt. Fuji towering over the Kanto Plain. Yet mundane occurrences such as the masses packing into rush hour trains or doing a choreographed dance across crowded crosswalks is equally exciting.
Those who go deeper into Japan realize there are many layers to this wondrous country, so much so even long-time residents, who can become numb, or even worse, jaded to the subtle beauty and ancient traditions, are regularly surprised by new discoveries.
Travelers today are constantly on the lookout for authentic experiences and Japan is jewel in this regard. Those who search beyond well-trodden tourist trails often naturally discover the true nature of Japanese hospitality and forge deeper relationships with locals they meet and the country as well.
Head out of the cities and you’ll soon find yourself wandering in Japan’s sacred mountains. Shugendō mountain priests, called yamabushi, are an important part of Japan’s history. The traditional role of these warrior priests was to help guide disciples up steep mountain paths on a journey of self-discipline and self-awareness. For the first time in 1,300 years, yamabushi are inviting international visitors to join them on this path of self discovery. Daishōbō, a Shugendō lodge, which until recently was reserved only for Shugendō initiates, has launched a new mountain training program this summer called “Yamabushido,” aimed at non-Japanese travelers in Japan.
The location for the training is Dewa Sanzan, the three sacred mountains (Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono) clustered together in the ancient province of Dewa (modern-day Yamagata Prefecture). Mt. Haguro has 2,446 beautiful stone steps lined by towering old cedar trees and signifies “the present.” Mt. Gassan symbolizes “the past” and is the mountain for the souls of the dead, it is also the highest (1,984 m) of the Dewa Sanzan. Mt. Yudono is “the future” and is known since ancient times as the place of rebirth.
“We found many people have tried meditation and other mindfulness practices in their lives, but we also realized yamabushi practices offer something different, something more powerful, and something which—although it has been practiced for more than 1,300 years — has never been more relevant,” says Takeharu Kato, who started Megurun, a company in Tsuruoka City focused on promoting renewable energy, sustainable living and revitalizing the region.
“Yamabushi training is the simple philosophy of placing yourself in nature and feeling, not thinking, in order to rejuvenate and return to your true self. Yamabushi training is quick, practical, and effective, and provides a powerful context in which to resolve any challenges, questions, or decisions that need to be made,” Kato adds. While the practices are centuries old, they have never seemed more relevant than in this current age where people are becoming busier and busier and are looking for the chance to refresh and clear their mind and body. The Yamabushido programs are guided by local yamabushi priest Master Fumihiro Hoshino. The 70-year-old Master Hoshino is the 13th generation in a direct line to walk this sacred path. He lives in Daishōbō dedicating his life to living as a yamabushi and introducing the mystical power to others.
There are two Yamabushido programs available that teach the philosophy and the values of yamabushi as well as mountain training, aiming to empower participants with tools they can use after returning to their normal lives. Yamabushido Basic Training Program is a three-day experience under the direction of a certified yamabushi guide and takes place at Mt. Haguro, Mt. Yukon and Mt. Kinbō. The program starts on Mondays from June to October.
Yamabushido Extended Training Program is a full five-day experience under the direction of Master Hoshino and takes place on Mt. Haguro, Mt Gassan and Mt. Yudono.