Mountain Monks: A Vivid Short Documentary on the Monks Who Practice an Ancient, Once-Forbidden Religion in Japan

If you need to get some seri­ous think­ing done, go to the moun­tains. That notion holds across a wide range of cul­tures, but it has a par­tic­u­lar force in Japan, where solo hik­ing, some­times great­ly extend­ed solo hik­ing, has long been a pop­u­lar treat­ment for a wide vari­ety of trou­bles both per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al. But no group has tak­en it to quite the extreme as have the Yam­abushi, ascetic moun­tain her­mits who have prac­ticed Shugendō, a hybridiza­tion of ver­sions of eso­teric Bud­dhism, Tao­ism, and Shin­to that goes back to the eighth cen­tu­ry. What sort of lifestyle, one won­ders, would such seri­ous reli­gious ded­i­ca­tion in such a harsh, remote loca­tion pro­duce?

Visu­al jour­nal­ist Fritz Schu­mann, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his doc­u­men­taries on a 1300-year-old Japan­ese hotel and a near­ly extinct Japan­ese print­ing tech­nique, gives us a sense of that in his new short Moun­tain Monks. “Walk­ing bare­foot through rivers, med­i­tat­ing under water­falls and spend­ing the nights on moun­tain­tops — that is the way of the Yam­abushi,” he writes.

“They walk into the for­est to die and be born again.” Their Shugendō teach­ings “peaked in pop­u­lar­i­ty dur­ing the 17th cen­tu­ry, when Yam­abushi vis­it­ed around 90 per­cent of all vil­lages in north­ern Japan,” and when its monks “were said to have mag­i­cal pow­ers and served as advi­sors to samu­rai and war­lords.” But then, “in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, when Japan opened itself to the west and moved from a feu­dal state towards indus­tri­al­iza­tion, their reli­gion was for­bid­den.”

Though the pro­scrip­tion on Yam­abushi has long since been lift­ed, as a reli­gion it no longer pos­sess­es quite the fol­low­ing it once did. A group of monks has kept its flame alive in secret in iso­la­tion, up in north­ern Japan’s Yam­a­ga­ta pre­fec­ture, and now any­one can sign up for pri­vate cours­es through the offi­cial Yam­abushi­do web site, even for­eign­ers. The sim­ple rig­ors of their dai­ly life may sound appeal­ing indeed to those fed up with whichev­er mod­ern, tech­nol­o­gy-sat­u­rat­ed soci­ety they’ve come from, and Schu­man­n’s film may well con­vince a fair few to look into the expe­ri­ence them­selves. Not to say that he sug­ar-coats it: “The idea,” declares one Yam­abushi mem­ber right at the begin­ning, “is to expe­ri­ence the tor­tures of hell.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hōshi: A Short Doc­u­men­tary on the 1300-Year-Old Hotel Run by the Same Japan­ese Fam­i­ly for 46 Gen­er­a­tions

The Art of Col­lo­type: See a Near Extinct Print­ing Tech­nique, as Lov­ing­ly Prac­ticed by a Japan­ese Mas­ter Crafts­man

Japan­ese Priest Tries to Revive Bud­dhism by Bring­ing Tech­no Music into the Tem­ple: Attend a Psy­che­del­ic 23-Minute Ser­vice

A Hyp­not­ic Look at How Japan­ese Samu­rai Swords Are Made

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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