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


The famous bronze torii (銅 鳥 的; Kane no torii) offered to Hikosan by the daimyo of the domain of Saga in 1637, marking today the principal approach of the sanctuary. Photo by Ignas Čepelė

Hikosan, the highest mountain in the northern part of the island of Kyushu in Japan, has three distinct peaks, each dedicated to both a Buddhist deity and a kami. During the Edo period (1603-1868), Hikosan was influential enough to have his own branch of Shugendo, which practically disappeared in the second half of the 19th century.

Hikosan is located near Soeda Town, in the southeastern part of Fukuoka Prefecture, adjacent to Oita Prefecture. The mountain is sometimes mentioned along with the Yoshino-Kumano and Dewa Sanzan as one of the Nihon Daisan Shugendo – the three main Shugendo centers in Japan – attesting to its power and importance.

This month’s chapter in Shugendo diaries is based on my conversation with Ignas ÄŒepelÄ— from Lithuania, who is researching the Shugendo tradition on Hikosan for a master’s thesis at Kyushu University.

Hikosan in the fall. Photo by Ignas ÄŒepelÄ—

BDG: Can you tell us a bit about the historical context of Shugendo in Hikosan?

Ignas ÄŒepelÄ—: Although the opening of mountain practices is legendary attributed to an 8th century monk called Horen, it was not until the 10th century that the name Hikosan first appeared in written records. Hikosan reached the height of its influence and prosperity in the 14th-16th centuries, when the Hikosan faith spread throughout Kyushu.

With the return of imperial rule and the order to separate Shintoism and Buddhism at the start of the Meiji era (late 19th century), the chief priest of the Hikosan complex renounced his license as a Buddhist priest and became the head of the newly created Hikosan shrine, converted from a previously Buddhist complex.

Anti-Buddhist sentiment spread and resulted in strong religious persecution, leading to the destruction of most of the Shugendo heritage and the cessation of the Shugendo tradition on the mountain.

Yamabushi get ready to walk on the embers after Saitō goma rite in front of Hōheiden (奉 幣 殿), the main building of the Hikosan shrine. Photo by Ignas Čepelė

BDG: Have there been any recovery efforts at Hikosan?

I know : The first half of the 20th century saw limited efforts to restore the practices of Shugendo, but these did not take root. It was not until after World War II, in the 1950s, that small yamabushi groups became more active in northern Kyushu and some limited Shugendo practices resumed in Hikosan.

A milestone in Shugendo’s return to Hikosan was in 1955 saito goma (open-air fire ceremony). This saito goma was probably the first since the destruction of Shugendo on Hikosan in the early Meiji period. It gathered until then separated yamabushi groups and also drew large crowds of visitors.

However, no single authority that could unite the yamabushi groups have appeared over the years. Therefore, there is no organized Hikosan Shugendo school, with most groups still having very little interaction.

Nowadays, there are a number of different actors interested in the practices of Shugendo on Hikosan, of which at least six are yamabushi groups, Hikosan Jingu Shrine, Hikosan Monzenmachi Association (City-Temple), Soeda City Guides Association, Buzenbo Tengu-ji Temple and Takasumi Jinja Shrine.

Hikosan Jingu and the Hikosan Monzenmachi association are the most active in their efforts to restore the Shugendo culture and tradition on the mountain.

Hikosan yamabushi. Photo by Ignas ÄŒepelÄ—

BDG: Can you tell us more about these two players’ efforts to restore Shugendo to Hikossan?

I know : Hikosan Jingu’s Shugendo-related activities began about 10 years ago, when the chief priest of the shrine decided it was time to restore the legacy of Shugendo to the mountain.

Since then, her son has graduated for Shinto and Buddhist priesthoods, becoming a rare example of a yamabushi which embodies both traditions. He became the main responsible for the restoration of Shugendo at Hikosan Jingu.

Last year the gégu (exterior) shrine just above the main building of Hikosan Jingu has been renovated and fitted with an altar for the goma ritual of fire. Since then the priest has performed a goma ritual. So the gégu is the main center of Shugendo at Hikosan Shrine and the monthly goma rite is the main activity, attracting a lot of visitors.

Other activities include the great saito goma performed in front of the Hikosan Jingu main building every November since 2016 (canceled in 2020 and 2021), as well as the restoration and creation of the material culture related to Shugendo such as religious imagery.

The Monzenmachi Association is a non-religious group of people from around Hikosan who are interested in the history and Shugendo culture of the mountains. The chairman of this group is a high ranking descendant yamabushi and still lives in a bō (Pilgrim Lodge), which has changed very little since the Edo period. Even though there are more members in this group, they are the main driving force, proposing activities, planning events and doing most of the essential work.

This association of Monzenmachi offers guided tours around Hikosan, organized in collaboration with the association of guides of the city of Soeda. Other activities include local craft workshops, the experience of staying in a pilgrim lodge and taking care of bō which do not have owners.

Yamabushi experience an event organized by the Hikosan Monzenmachi Cultural Association (Hikosan Monzenmachi Dōkōkai 英 彦 山 門前 町 同好 会). Photo by Ignas Čepelė
Ritual in Tamaya jinja (玉 屋 神社), at the origin of the movement of Hikosan. Photo by Ignas Čepelė

BDG: Is there a larger context for the revival of Shugendo, such as rural revitalization, tourism promotion or conservation efforts?

I know : I don’t know if efforts to restore Shugendo can easily fit into one category.

Hikosan is the main tourist attraction in Soeda, so there are definitely some efforts to promote tourism. Soeda supports the Monzenmachi association and the Soeda city guides association. They produce brochures for tourists and have also organized studies on the history of Hikosan. This support does not appear to be extensive, however.

A member of the local revitalization group also participates in the activities of Monzenmachi, and some of the other members of the Monzenmachi association have expressed their interest in helping the people of Hikosan to maintain their traditions and revitalize the local community. However, it seems that the main reason behind efforts to restore Shugendo is people’s interest in Hikosan culture and its Shugendo history.

In fact, some of the main people behind this movement are descendants of Hikosan. yamabushi. Therefore, for them, restoring Shugendo is also a very personal matter. They feel that it is their precious heritage and the culture of their ancestors that they want to preserve and pass on to future generations.

Morning prayer in the Shōyōbō lodge 松 養 坊. Photo by Ignas Čepelė

BDG: Finally, what is your interest in Shugendo?

I know : Contemporary Shugendo is interesting because of its diffusion and decentralization. There is not a single Shugendo and for different people the same word can have very different meanings, encompassing everything from eco-spirituality, to a philosophy of life, to a way to experience traditional Japanese culture. .

I came across Shugendo while in undergrad while researching a topic for one of the articles. I decided to combine my passion for the mountains and the outdoors with my interest in Japanese religions and the role of nature in them. I have been researching Shugendo since then.

I’m interested in what Shugendo can teach us about the role of nature, especially mountains, in Japanese religious worldview, and how it has shaped the way people interact with nature.

During my research on Hikosan, I have met many different people and heard their views on Shugendo. I have taken lessons from them which now inform my own relationship with nature, mountains and religious cultures.

Goma fire rite at Tengū-ji (天宮 寺), the only Buddhist temple in existence on the mountain. Photo by Ignas Čepelė

BDG Related Features

Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of the Ancient Ascetic Tradition of the Mountains of Japan, Part 1
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of the Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition of Japan, Part 2
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of the Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition of Japan, Part 3
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of the Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition of Japan, Part Four
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of the Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition of Japan, Part Five
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of the Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition of Japan, Part Six
Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of the Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition of Japan, Part Seven

See more Shugendo diaries by Alena Eckelmann


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