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.”
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.