Japanese Mountain Folk The Mystical Yamabushi

    Japan can be kind of tricky to pin down when it comes to religion. Religion in Japan is pretty complicated, with people believing lots of different things, and lots of people believing in no one thing in particular. Most religious Japanese people believe in a unique blend of Shinto and Buddhism that’s a little hard to explain. And that’s not even counting the weird, oddball stuff, like the Japanese celebrating Christmas by eating fried chicken and cake.

    But there are definitely some really cool parts about Japanese religion as well. Take, for instance the mountain ascetics of Japan: the yamabushi. What, you’ve never heard of the mountain-wandering warrior monks?

    What’s a Yamabushi?

    Probably the best representation of Japanese religion are the yamabushi. Like lots of Japanese people, yamabushi take bits and pieces from different religions and beliefs and put it all together. A dash of Shinto here, a pinch of Buddhism there, and little bit of Taoism for good measure.

    This mix of religions is called Shugendou, and it’s been around for hundreds of years. The big difference between the yamabushi and your average, everyday Japanese person is just how far they take their beliefs. The yamabushi believe that to become spiritually enlightened, you have to commune with nature over a long period of time. (Read: hanging out in the mountains, not bathing much, and hangin’ with some kami.)

    Not only that, but yamabushi believe that communing with nature will give you mystical powers, and often trained in the martial arts to protect themselves in their journeys.

    So what the yamabushi have been doing for hundreds of years have been doing just that. The yamabushi traditionally do four things:

    1. Make pilgrimages to temples and shrines.
    2. Pray and study at those temples/shrines.
    3. Perform rituals.
    4. Help villagers understand religion.

    But, as you might imagine, things have changed a little in modern times.

    Modern Yamabushi

    In her book/documentary/Japanese version of Eat, Pray, Love Japanland, Karin Muller visits these mountain mystics to see what all the fuss is about.

    Apparently, things have changed since the days of yore. Being a yamabushi no longer means being some badass mountain hermit who communes with nature 24/7/365, but it’s now more of a part-time gig.

    Lots of salarymen in Japan don’t really know what to do with themselves after retirement, as they aren’t really used to being around the house. (“What do you mean we’re not going out drinking tonight?”) They try to find different ways to fill up time in their retired life.

    yamabushi blowing into conch shells
    “Let us play you the song of our people.”
    Source: Chris Gladis

    Some salarymen turn to religious pursuits in their later years, including trying their hand at becoming a yamabushi. The yamabushi that Muller follows are just that, some older dudes who become a yamabushi for a week to get out of the house, but to also find a deeper meaning in their lives.

    They might not believe that wandering around the mountains for a week will give them mystical powers like yamabushi used to, but their journey can definitely be a really important part of their lives.