Mount Haguro (Photo: Japan Travel)

Blessing of the Yamabushi

Satoshi has a glimmer of his possible future

Mount Haguro (Photo: Japan Travel)
Veronica Carnevale   - 19 min read

Date: February 13, 1988
Age: 12 years old


This single question consumed Satoshi’s thoughts.

The sun started to sink below the distant mountains as the ancient bus, which departed only four to five times a day, left Tsuruoka City for the holy mountain of Yudonosan. Satoshi wrapped his coat tighter around his shoulders as the chill of mid February started to bite and looked with annoyance at his mother, Toshiko, wondering why she felt compelled to drag him halfway across the country to find spiritual support. Even though they had just started their holy road trip at the beginning of the month, Satoshi already felt bored and tired. Plus, he seriously missed TV.

Before they left, Satoshi heard his parents fighting. His father was furious about his mother’s decision to stop working for months. They thought he had been napping, but he heard everything. Their argument confirmed his suspicions about the family’s precarious financial position. So, along with his confusion about the sudden mother-son trip, he also felt guilty.

In the hour and a half it took for the bus to find every pot hole created by the freezing temperatures of the past winter, he again wondered if there was a point to this spiritual journey. He certainly did not believe in the supernatural like his mother did–gods, ghosts, demons, god-like holy men, fortune telling, the whole nine yards. However, he did believe in her love. So, despite his frustrations, he tried to remain well mannered. They were on their way to their second stop to meet one of the most devout holy men in Japan–a senior member of the mystical Yamabushi monks of Dewa Sanzan, which was a 3-mountain power spot in the middle of Yamagata prefecture.

Along the rural bus route, elderly village-bound farmers with pickles and vegetables in hand boarded at each stop. The bus filled with chatter and wise-cracking in the local dialect as old friends caught up. Some of the riders remained silent though. Satoshi assumed they must be headed to the same depressing destination as him–the Dainichibo temple. Satoshi glanced out the window at the dusk illuminated countryside. This part of Japan was certainly different from the belching factories of Kawasaki. The crisp air and expansive nature reminded him of his beloved Utashinai up north. Although he did not remember much from his time there, the memories of freshly cut grass and bright summer days with his pals brought a brief smile to his lips.

Finally, the bus arrived at the Oamikyokuzen Bus Stop. The area was already dark with the only light sources being the street lamp by the bus stop sign and the dots of light emanating from a few derelict-looking houses nearby. Satoshi shivered from the cold again and stood waiting for Toshiko as she alighted, then hefted their plump travel duffel bag onto her back.

“How far is it?” he asked his mother as she planted her feet on the dusty road.

“It will take us at least half an hour. So, try to keep up, OK?” Toshiko replied, before quickly adding, “Do your best.”

Satoshi responded with a defeated nod as he realized she was putting him on notice to not complain. The walk would be testing. With only the waning moon lighting their path, Satoshi and Toshiko began their ascent. To his dismay, the road just kept going upwards. The cold westerly winds swept across last year’s stubble in the rice paddies and went straight into the top opening of his jacket. He wished he’d had the foresight to bring a muffler.

With Toshiko trudging determinedly upward, Satoshi couldn’t help but scowl at her back. The trees lining the never-ending path seemed to mock his every step. He squinted in the darkness, taking careful steps to ensure he didn't trip. A chilling wind hissed in his ear, as if saying, “turn around.” He passively narrowed his eyes at Toshiko again. Her skinny, yet strong legs never broke stride–following one step after the other, as if fueled by spiritual energy. Her dark hair was tied up in a practical bun that bounced with her steady gait. He didn’t know where she found the energy. He was tired, and he knew she was too. Their life wasn’t easy.

Instinctively, Satoshi brought his hand up to the side of his face, but dropped it just as quickly, trying to banish the dark thoughts. It had been a little over a year since the accident, but the memories still haunted him. He didn’t know what Toshiko was hoping to gain from this spiritual pilgrimage, but he had some serious doubts. What could he do though? He was only 12. With this sobering thought, he exhaled and pushed onward.

After 40 exhausting minutes and several stops for Toshiko to adjust her load, Satoshi spotted lights above and to the left, beyond the empty fields. He exhaled in relief as their destination, Dainichibo temple, came into view. On another day, Satoshi may have been impressed by the main gate’s thatched roof and treasured woodwork, but today, he simply offered it a quick glance.

Dainichibo Temple's Main Hall
Dainichibo Temple's Main Hall (Photo: 東京都下のおじさん / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Satoshi and his mother bowed reverently before moving through the front gateway. Instantly, Toshiko called out to announce their arrival to whomever was looking after the dormitory. An elderly woman bent over with arthritis shuffled out to greet them.

“Oh, you’ve arrived. You must be tired. Please come in and I will fix you some tea,” she spoke in a gentle voice hoarse with age.

They followed the woman past the main hall to the guest hall, and once inside, she directed them to a small dining table. They were assailed by the musty smell of the thousands of pilgrims who had stayed in the dormitory over the past hundred years. Not a bad smell, Satoshi noted, but deep and earthy, and very different from home.

“I’m afraid you’re the only ones tonight,” the woman said as she set out tea cups for them, “It’s too early in the season.”

Satoshi was fine with solitude because it meant he could lose himself in the latest imaginary ghost story he had been creating–a macabre tale he would tell his sisters when he got home. It was about an ogre living in the mountains, who used to eat little kids, but wanted to mend his ways. The protagonist was a little boy, of course, who was risking his life to help the ogre and also at the most delicious age for ogres to eat. So did he or did he not get eaten…? Satoshi would save that part for last. Suspense was essential to a captivating story.

As Satoshi and Toshiko sat sipping their mountain bush tea, the old lady rattled around the kitchen preparing their meal. Delicious smells of slow-cooked veggies and chicken wafted into the dining area. Satoshi smelled gobo and konnyaku jelly simmering with the bird and idly wondered if ogres ate these ingredients too.

Suddenly, the door burst open, and an ancient-looking grandpa entered the room. The man’s tattered clothing and wispy, chest-long beard reminded Satoshi of a homeless person (浮浪者: “furosha”). However, he quickly changed his mind when a gust of wind followed the man into the room. The old man’s billowing robes coupled with the powerful way he carried himself gave him an ethereal air. He must be special.

At the sound of the door, the old woman hurried out of the kitchen.

“Oh, Jikai Sensei, I wasn’t expecting you for a while. I thought you were doing evening meditation,” she quipped with a slight undertone of playfulness.

“Ha!” he replied in a gruff voice, “I could smell that chicken stew of yours from up the valley and wanted to make sure there was some left for me!”

Then, Jikai winked at him. Satoshi decided that he liked this strange old man, and despite days of slowly descending into boredom, maybe this temple would be kind of fun.

As the wind rattled the leafless trees outside and snow clouds blew from the northern faces of the surrounding mountains, Satoshi shared steaming gobo-chicken stew with one of the senior Yamabushi monks on Mount Yudono.

During the meal, Satoshi kept stealing quick glances at the intriguing monk. He recalled from his mother that Yamagata had over two thousand mountains, but only three of them were permanent homes to the Yamabushi. These monks practiced physically harsh, ascetic lifestyles. Unfortunately, this way of life could not compete against the comforts and distractions of city life, TV, warm homes and wives, causing the number of novices to dwindle every year. Now there were only a few dozen full-time monks left. These devout monks lived on and around the three holiest mountains–Mount Haguro, the mountain of birth, Mount Gassan, the mountain of death, and Mount Yudono, the most sacred of them all, the mountain of rebirth. Satoshi was shocked that Jikai Sensei would choose to live a life without modern conveniences. Now that Satoshi’s family was finally able to afford a TV, he could not imagine living life without one.

Satoshi was relieved that Jikai did not seem to have any ill feelings towards him and his mother. Normally, supplicants would start their pilgrimage at Haguro and take several days to negotiate the steep and often wet trails before ending up exhausted but “reborn” at Mount Yudono. Toshiko, however, felt an urgency to her mission, and had convinced the temple to let her meet Jikai Sensei directly. Given the pause of paying customers in February, the temple accepted Toshiko’s request. This lapse in procedure further added to Satoshi’s feelings of being out of place.

Jikai explained that he was a Shugendo monk, Shugendo meaning the “way of testing and training,” and like others in his calling, he believed in a mixture of Buddhism, Shinto, and animism. Shugendo was an ancient practice, and one of the temples on Mount Haguro dated back as far as 1372. This fact perked Satoshi’s interest. Perhaps he could weave some historical facts into his ogre story.

After a deep and much needed sleep, Satoshi and his mother were awoken by the rhythmic chanting of monks both in the temple and up on the mountain in the forest. The deep throated voices echoed around the plateau where the temple was built, signaling the sacred nature of the place.

Satoshi and his mother both washed up and had a quick breakfast. His mother told him that he would be spending time with Jikai today to learn how to meditate and open himself to nature’s healing energies. He was a little nervous to be with a stranger, but also intrigued.

After hastily slipping on his worn sneakers without undoing the laces, Satoshi rushed outside to meet the monk and then trudged behind him along a pebbled path that led to the rear of the temple. Shafts of light filtered through the canopy of trees, decorating their path with shadowed leaves and illuminating floating dust like sparkles. Satoshi inhaled the mountain air, which was permeated by the pungent fragrance of (“sugi”) pollen, a welcoming smell that was absent in Kawasaki. Again, he had to admit that it wasn’t too bad here after all. As if hearing his thoughts, Satoshi thought he heard Jikai chuckle softly to himself.

After clearing a thicket of small trees and rounding the temple building, they reached their destination.

The monk stepped up to the entrance, removed his shoes, and slipped in behind a small vermillion colored wooden barrier, beckoning Satoshi to do the same. In the dark room, Satoshi could make out the red robes of a monk sitting against the far wall, supported by some kind of clothes rack. He eyed the eerily still figure, impressed by the monk’s self control. He inched closer. In fact, Satoshi noticed the robed man didn’t even appear to be breathing. He took one step closer, gasped and then stumbled back, embarrassingly tripping over his own feet and falling flat on his behind. He realized in shock that the “rack” was actually the mummified skeleton of a monk from long ago!

Jikai Sensei smiled at the boy and said, “What do you see?”

Satoshi blurted, “A ghost!”

Dewa Sanzan Mummy
Dewa Sanzan Mummy (Photo: Mary-chan / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Jikai laughed before replying, “Well, a ghost would indeed be scary, but no, this mummy is the remains of a man who attained enlightenment. The bones and body are nothing but his “clothes” from that existence, and now he is somewhere else. I wanted to introduce you to him. He is our rather famous mummy (‘sokushinbutsu’), Shinnyokai Shōnin. Although he is dead, he is rather helpful. In fact, there are plenty of people who want to see a real mummy and their contributions help pay our bills. Those of us who have not attained enlightenment must still attend to these earthly obligations,” he said with a chuckle before continuing, “More importantly, the mummy acts as a bridge, a mental door if you will, that helps visitors think about things that really matter, such as their place in the universe.”

Satoshi listened, trying to take all the information in. However, his brain was having a hard time moving past the fact that he was beside a real mummy.

The monk continued. “What Shinnyokai sensei teaches us, along with his fellow mummies, is that we have nothing to fear from death, it is simply another stage, and if we don’t fear death, then why should we fear life? We should journey into the future knowing that we are all here for a purpose, whether to achieve success materially, dedicate our energies to others, consume or hurt and thus teach others lessons inadvertently, or even overcome space/time and enter the next realm without dying in the first. It is your choice, Satoshi. Shinnyokai chose to celebrate his enlightenment by passing over while still alive. That is a worthy feat, although not interesting for me personally.” Jikai chortled at his own modesty and honesty.

“The mummy is now a revered treasure and proof to the living that humankind is capable of great feats of physical endurance, including willing oneself to death,” Jikai ended with a warm smile.

Satoshi didn’t know how to respond to the monk’s eloquent speech, so he simply nodded.

After investigating the mummy for a moment longer, they moved back near the entrance of the room for a private prayer session and sat in front of a small altar. Jikai gave Satoshi a Buddhist prayer book used in this particular temple and was surprised when the boy quickly scanned it once and then started reciting the stanzas, imperfectly but close enough. A photographic memory? Jikai wondered. He had heard of such things. Jikai smiled at Satoshi’s willingness to learn and then joined in the chant.

After a few minutes, their chanting rhythm became more fluid, and Jikai started to feel the familiar buzz in his ears and pressure on the upper side of his face as he entered “the zone”. Rather than ruminating on the floating and face-pushing sensations, he followed his consciousness like a second person into an intense meditation. The boy continued chanting alone.

Satoshi’s throat was starting to get dry from the nonstop chanting. How long were they going to chant? He stuttered when a sudden thought occurred to him. Is this how the mummy gained enlightenment? Satoshi faltered again. Like Jikai, he did not want to pass over to the next life while still alive. Should he stop? During Satoshi’s internal crisis, he did not realize that Jikai had stopped chanting.

Suddenly, a voice spoke.

“Boy, you have a special role to play.”

Satoshi stopped chanting immediately and turned to the older monk, wide-eyed and confused. He was sure someone had just spoken, but only he and Jikai were in the room. The voice had been deep and clear, much different than the playful and old voice of Jikai. He looked into the older monk’s glazed, distant eyes and realized that the voice was from the other side and must be speaking through Jikai. He had learned about this phenomenon during his past temple visits, but never witnessed it firsthand.

Satoshi listened obediently when the voice spoke again. This whole thing was kind of cool.

“One day, if you expand your mind fully, you will have the chance to change the world. Your work will touch billions, and you will help reduce the suffering of many. I do not understand the texts you have shown me from your future, but they are the holy writings of a new age. Have faith. Believe. Strive. Succeed!”

With that, Jikai lost the connection, returned to his conscious self, and breathed deeply.

Smiling, he turned to Satoshi and said quite nonchalantly, “Well, that was fun. Not so often that I actually have to speak when those on the other side want to communicate. But I think we got what we came for. Remember what you heard, and during your darkest moments and times of self doubt, remember that there is a power greater than what we can see and feel. With that belief you can manifest anything.”

Mount Haguro - Yamagata Prefecture, Japan - One of the three sacred mountains of Dewa Province
Mount Haguro - Yamagata Prefecture, Japan - One of the three sacred mountains of Dewa Province (Photo: Alon Adika /

With that, the ritual was over. Jikai stood up, and walked away, leaving Satoshi open-mouthed and once again, trying to process the events. He snapped back to reality, and hurried after Jikai, wobbling a bit from the pins and needles left from kneeling. They returned outside into the bright sunlight for a delightful stroll back to the dormitory.

When they arrived, Toshiko was waiting for them. She thanked the monk, who gave Satoshi one more quick smile before retiring to his room for a power nap. Then, Toshiko and Satoshi enjoyed a sayonara cup of hot forest leaf tea with the old lady caretaker.

After finishing the last bitter-sweet sip, they left the shrine and returned to Oamishimomura village at the bottom of the hill, to catch the bus back to Tsuruoka. During the trip down the mountain and as they boarded the bus, Satoshi’s mind buzzed with possibilities and new futures. Maybe his mother’s belief in the supernatural wasn’t so stupid after all? It was really cool how the old man spoke for a ghost, and that ghost wanted to speak to him, Satoshi! Man, what a great story that would make for his sisters on a dark night. But no, they were busy with their boyfriends, and everyone else he knew would think he was making it up. As the bus bounced along the country road and the evening sky colored the sweeping scenery, he decided to keep this experience private–his own piece of incredibleness.

Veronica Carnevale

Veronica Carnevale @veronica.carnevale

Fulfilling my traveler's soul!