Shared from the 9/30/2023 The Rafu Shimpo eEdition

A Journey of Unspoken Grace

Discovering inner enlightenment on a silent trek through the sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan.


Photos courtesy Yamabushi of Dewa Sanzan

Breathtaking views from Mt. Gassan during shugyo training in Japan’s Tohoku region in August.


Below, meditation at the Sacred Waterfalls.


Pilgrims and leaders gather at the gateway to Mt. Yudono;


A yamabushi uses a conch shell to call out to the mountain gods;


Ascending the 2,446 steps of Mt. Haguro;


Our shojin ryori, vegetarian meal;


Participants received personalized ofuda or amulet from Master Hoshino on the final day of training.

“Surrender yourself to nature, and the rest will take care of itself.”

–Master Hoshino, 13th-generation Yamabushi

Trekking across dense cedar forests. Standing beneath icy-cold waterfalls in order to seek enlightenment and rebirth. Daily meditation and prayers. All completed in total silence except for the occasional blaring of giant conch shells.

In the vast mountainous region of Tohoku, the yamabushi or mountain ascetics believe the three sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan represent the spirituality of the present (Mt. Haguro), the past (Mt. Gassan), and the future (Mt. Yudono). The ascetic monks practice shugendo, a blend of Shinto and Buddhism, a religion steeped in self-denial, mental discipline, and physical training.

I recently participated in shugyo (deep-mind-body training) under the direction of Master Hoshino, a 13thgeneration yamabushi. Not much was explained to us prior to the actual training other than we would be immersed in nature. There were nine participants, hailing from Denmark, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S. Dressed in white kimono-like outfits called shirosozoku, we prayed, meditated, climbed mountains, and stood under sacred waterfalls.

We were not allowed to speak, bathe, or brush our teeth for four days. No digital devices, watches, or journaling were allowed. In other words, we were disconnected from the earthly world. The only word allowed was “uketamo – I humbly accept.” Whether we were directed to climb a mountain or asked to carry a tray of food to the dining table, it was “uketamo.” We collectively shouted “uketamo” several times a day.

Due to the pandemic, I waited three years to participate in Master Hoshino’s shugyo training. Master Hoshino led the daily chants, prayers, and meditation sessions. An amazing athlete at 76, he led the daily fastpaced mountain climbs and could out-climb any of us. He was an observant and perceptive man. There was a certain gentleness behind his stern demeanor. If the gods of Dewa Sanzan were human, they would surely look like Master Hoshino.

One of the first lessons learned was the concept of mindful eating and vegetarianism. We had to close our eyes and chew 20 times. By slowing down the eating process, the natural flavors of the food exploded in our mouths. Far from being bland, our meals focused on umami-rich foods – the savory taste of seasonal vegetables, tofu, miso soup, and white rice. We were also expected to eat everything served; wasting precious food was not an option.

The core of our daily ritual was the chanting of the melodic Heart Sutra, a chant about the fullness of emptiness. Heart Sutra was followed by prayers to maintain the relationship of nature to the kami (or gods), and prayers to worship the mountain gods of Haguro, Gassan, and Yudono. Most importantly, we prayed for the victims of natural disasters, for world peace, and for the well-being of our families.

The yamabushi stressed the importance of praying for the ancestors of the 20,000 persons who lost their lives in the Great Tohoku Tsunami of 2011. Why? Because these people can no longer pray for the souls of their ancestors. It was heartbreaking to learn there are still 2,500 people missing from this tragic event.

The highlight of the shugyo training for me was the sacred waterfall meditation on Mt. Yudono. These waterfalls were hidden from the main trail. We slid down a narrow, treacherous, muddy slope, descended a metal ladder, and then walked barefoot through a river, over sharp rocks, and slippery boulders. As we neared the waterfalls, I was overcome by the sheer power of water crashing into the river pool.

Standing directly beneath the falls, I was blinded by the torrents of frigid water thundering down upon me. I could hardly breathe. The sound was deafening. We prayed to the mountain gods. The forces of nature placed me in a state of euphoria.

On the following day, the brisk four-hour trek to the summit of Mt. Gassan, led by Master Hoshino, proved to be a daunting experience. Though I am not a strong hiker, I can climb hills at my own pace, however slowly. Had I known how steep and treacherous this climb would be, I honestly would not have signed up for the training. Ignorance is bliss.

The unforgiving trail through rock-strewn boulders was steep, and subject to gusty winds. I had barely made it to the halfway mark, when I realized the rest of the group had already reached the summit and were getting ready to come down. At this point, I remembered the yamabushi’s words: “Remember to think in the moment and nothing else, and you will be fine.”

With this in mind, I began my solo descent. I have never experienced any trail this rugged or intimidating. I was petrified I would either twist my ankle or fall on my face at any moment. My quads were burning. My legs were numb. My back was killing me. I was running low on water and salt tablets. I had not eaten since breakfast. The sweltering sun was unbearable, but I had no other option – I was on my own. I kept repeating to myself what Master Hoshino had taught us, “Surrender yourself to nature, and the rest will take care of itself.”

I soon found myself in a trancelike state. I sensed the overwhelming presence of nature. I do not know exactly what it was, but it kept me from quitting. It kept my legs moving downward one step at a time despite my aches and pains. I soon forgot about my thirst and hunger. My mind became very clear. It seemed as if I was being guided down the mountain, but by whom? Could it have been the mountain gods? I’ll never know.

After what seemed forever, I made it down to the gateway where the yamabushi was waiting for me. I was relieved to have arrived in one piece. I was so grateful to see him. He did a short chant at a small shrine and prayed for the health and safety of my family and me.

I shared with the yamabushi my disappointment in not reaching the Gassan summit. He quickly replied, “The whole point of shugyo training is not about reaching the mountain top. It’s what you learn about yourself along the endless path of self-awareness. I think you probably learned more about yourself on your solo trek down than you would have had had you climbed to the summit. Think about it and reflect on it.”

And so I did exactly that; I reflected. Shugyo with the yamabushi was the most grueling yet most transformative experience of my life: spiritually, physically, and mentally. It was not an easy feat for me. It was my mental toughness that ultimately carried me down Gassan and made me realize how strong I actually was. Gassan was the ultimate teacher. I now know that I can tackle anything that life throws at me.

I am Sansei, a third-generation Japanese American. My relationship with Japan has always been strong because my grandparents and ancestors were born in Japan on the island of Shikoku. The shugyo only cemented this bond even further. From the very moment I left Dewa Sanzan, I knew I had to go back.

I want to climb the 2,446 steps of Mt. Haguro, and maybe tackle Gassan again. I want to go back and experience the quiet beauty of these sacred mountains again. I want to immerse myself in nature. I believe the spirituality of this region is uniquely different from anywhere else in the world.

None of us could have survived the training without the four resilient and powerful yamabushi – Tak, Tim, Kohei, and Yusuke – who worked arduously on all the logistics, weather forecasting, and non-verbal instructions on when to bow, when not to bow, and when to clap. They instructed us on the art of wearing the shirosozoku, while always reminding us to “Uketamo.” I have such great respect for these amazing monks. I appreciate their patience, their compassion, and most of all their valuable teachings.

Master Hoshino ended the training by telling us that much of the core values of being Japanese disappeared with the introduction of Western influences after World War II. He was pleased and touched to see so many international participants who were interested in learning about these traditional values. He thanked us profusely for our participation.

Thank YOU, Master Hoshino. It was an honor to meet you.

See this article in the e-Edition Here