Yamabushi are mountain warriors that are said to have supernatural powers trained in martial arts and survivor skills—here’s one traveler’s tale of training with the samurai.
The philosophy of Yamabushi involves reconnecting with yourself by letting go of human character and immersing in nature through meditative hiking. In today’s modern society where being a samurai means combating career, societal, and family pressures, many Japanese business men and women have found the practice to be effective in dealing with stress, and now international citizens can experience the same through a program offered by Megurun Inc. On my journey of self-discovery with Master Hoshino, a 13th generation Yamabushi, I was graciously allowed to photograph the program.
Zen Meditation at Zenpoji Temple
We start the training by spending a day with a monk at a Buddhist Zen Temple in Tsuruoka, Japan, where we learn the basics of Zazen mediation: proper posture for sitting on the floor for long periods of time, chanting the Lotus Sutra, maintaining an empty mind, and eating in silence.
Meditation Through Calligraphy
Calligraphy master, Reikon Honma teaches us Japanese calligraphy, which is essentially another lesson in meditation. By focusing on painting Kanji characters, one needs to be still, silent, and in the moment. No small talk is allowed during this time.
Buddhist Prayer Ceremony
The monks, in dark robes, are led by a head priest clothed in red and white who holds a ceremony to wish us good luck on our journeys. Loud drumming, fast chants, and flipping of scriptural pages make it seem all too surreal.
On the second day, we drive to Daishobo pilgrimage lodge at the base of Mount Gassan, where Master Hoshino lives. People from all over Japan come in large groups for weekend retreats to pay homage to the three sacred mountains of Dewa, and stay in communal-style rooms. The ladies share one large hallway upstairs and the men sleep in the common living/ dining spaces. This area had over 300 such lodges during its peak, most of them funded by pilgrim donors. With better job opportunities, the younger generation has moved to the city or taken on paid work.
Dressing Up in Shiroshōzoku
For the rest of the training, I must disconnect from my current persona, including my clothes and belongings. I will not be able to bathe, brush, talk, check my emails, or engage in any of my daily activities.
My guides show me how to dress in Shiroshōzoku garments, layers of all-white clothing made of thick cotton fabric. White symbolizes death, and from this point on, I need to act I’m no longer human, which means having no desire to maintain hygiene or an appetite for food.
Ascending Mount Haguro
Once the master blows into a shell horn, we gather our walking sticks and start climbing from the pilgrimage lodge to the steep slopes of Mount Haguro. We make our way through lush cedar forests, maintaining balance on slippery 2,446 stone steps, only stopping to bow and chant before the shrines we encounter on the path.
After four hours, my legs are sore, my wrap-around pants sticking to my legs, and my lower back hurting from the constant climb. At the end of the day, we chant, meditate, and nearly suffocate in an incense ritual. This is no coincidence as it solidifies one’s persona of death encourages us to pray for rebirth and enlightenment.
Pushing Limits at Mount Gassan
The next morning, we are awakened with shell horns at 4 am, and after a breakfast of miso soup and steamed rice, we set out to conquer Mount Gassan while a looming typhoon sheds gusty winds and cold showers. A seven-hour hike includes ascending large boulders, climbing ladders, exposure to strong winds in open grasslands, and walking through snow covered mountains in wet canvas shoes.
While I question my strength to overcome this challenge, other participants start feeling lightheaded. Analyzing health and weather hazards, the master asks us to turn around.
Rebirth at the Waterfall
In the afternoon, we let go of the past and pray for new potential after rebirth by chanting under an icy cold waterfall at Mt. Yudono.
Test of a Mountain Warrior
On the third day, I can barely get out of my mattress on the floor, yet alone hike another mountain. Master Hoshino sees that I am struggling to keep up. He asks me to abandon the soaked canvas shoes and wear my regular hiking shoes, and tells me that I am strong enough to complete the trek. When my calves tighten, he stops the group to give me a massage and speaks to me in Japanese (though we are not allowed to talk during the program).
The last ritual we need to do is jump over a fire to symbolize rebirth. Master demonstrates how he leaps into a blazing bonfire and I follow with trembling legs. Then, we chant, receive a graduation paddle, and celebrate our victory with a scrumptious lunch and a shower, two things sorely missed all week.