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Yamabushi Mountain Pilgrimage

Photographer: Everett Kennedy Brown


Japanese mountain asceticism, called shugendo, was once prevalent throughout Japan. The practitioners, called yamabushi, meaning 'one who lies in the mountain' practice a variety of austerities and religious rituals that are a mixture of Buddhism and Shinto.


According to Fumihiro Hoshino, a leader in the contemporary revival of shugendo culture, the number of practitioners once reached a peak of 180,000 during the Edo Period (1603-1868). It fell into rapid decline in the 1870s when the Japanese government outlawed the ascetic practices during a period of religious reformation.


Though the number of shugendo priests and practitioners slowly increased after WWII, its followers were often secretive due to its strange and antiquated image among the general public. In 1993, during the 1,400th anniversary of the opening of Dewa Sanzan, a major shugendo mountain shrine in Yamagata prefecture, it was decreed that women could begin to participate in shugendo practices, for the first recorded time in the 1,400 year old history.


The shugendo tradition is now undergoing a revival, as a growing number of educated urban people are seeking spiritual development through contact with nature. The interest in shugendo is also part a larger social trend in Japan of renewed interest in traditional cultural.


In this group of images is seen a four day shugendo pilgrimage held in the Dewasanzan mountain range in Japan's northern prefecture of Yamagata. Photographs are not normally allowed during the pilgrimage and tight restrictions were made on when and where images could be made.During the pilgrimage the participants underwent a variety of austerities, including long mountains hikes day and night, sleep deprivation, fasting, praying under cold waterfalls and in dark rooms filled with the smoke of burning red peppers.


At the sacred mountain shrines practitioners not only prayed for purification, but for the lost souls of Nepal's 2015 earthquake. "What distinguishes contemporary shugendo from its older style is that practitioners are undergoing spiritual development not only for personal reasons, but to release suffering around the world," according to shugendo practitioner and psychological therapist Reiko Nakanishi.