Tue, Apr 21, 2020
Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs
Four years ago, I came across the opportunity to live in Japan’s least populous prefecture: Tottori. If you are like me, you will first look for it on a map. I was assigned to a little town called Misasa, inside the mountains of the Chugoku Region, famous for its natural hot springs. However, not only is it nature-rich, Misasa is also hiding a bigger secret; a cultural property designated in 1934: Mt. Mitoku.
Mt. Mitoku is a holy mountain for Shugendo followers. Shugendo is a syncretic religion, an ancient spiritual Japanese tradition where the human-nature relation is fundamental. It first appeared in Japan in the Heian period. One of the focuses of the training is mountain worship.
To understand how this mountain became holy 1300 years ago, let me tell you the legend of the lotus petals. A long time ago, one of the most famous ascetic monks in Shugendo, called En no Gyoja, released three petals of a lotus flower into the air. He prayed for them to fly to places related to gods and Buddhas. One flew down to Mt. Mitoku, making it a holy place for Shudengo practice.
But this is not the end of this fascinating legend! After becoming a holy place, eleven wooden temples were built. But the most famous symbol of Mt. Mitoku is the wooden temple Nageiredo, which plays an important role in the second part of the legend. After one petal flew down onto Mt. Mitoku, En no Gyoja used the power of Buddhism to throw Nageiredo on to the side of a sheer cliff. This is why the wooden temple is named Nageiredo, meaning “thrown in temple.”
In reality, many mysteries still remain. Researchers do not know how Nageiredo was built on the side of a cliff, above a chasm, 900 meters from the ground, right in the middle of the mountain.
In the past, Mt. Mitoku (“the mountain of three virtues” in English) used to be written differently, called “Mount of Beauty and Virtue.” It was known to be a beautiful, nature-rich mountain, where people could purify their bodies and spirits. Today, the belief still remains, as it is said that climbing the ascetic trek of Mt. Mitoku purifies the “six roots of perceptions.” In Buddhism, this refers to the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. Let me explain by taking you with me to the Way of Ascetics.
The path of Mt. Mitoku remains the same as it was a thousand years ago, as its nature is protected. Pilgrims have to be in harmony with nature to reach Nageiredo. That is why there are natural ladders on the way, that are in fact tree roots. There are also temples built on rocks; for example, the Monjudo, a temple designated as an important cultural asset, situated on the edge of a valley. As a part of the purification process, pilgrims should skirt around the temple’s narrow walkway, enjoying a breathtaking view along the way.
I was surprised that I did not see Nageiredo until the end of the course. The point of this training is not to climb until the famous temple, but rather the pilgrimage itself, to purify the six roots: the nose, by smelling the fragrance of flowers and nature on Mt. Mitoku; the body, by feeling the fatigue from using our strength for pilgrimage; and the spirit, by discovering Nageiredo.
The spiritual journey can continue after returning from the tough pilgrimage. To keep purifying the eyes and ears, Shugendo followers would visit the other historic temples, like the main hall, or Sanbutsuji. There they would read their sutras to appease their hearts. My recommendation to purify the tongue is to try the Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, shojin ryori, inside one of the biggest temples of Mt. Mitoku, the Rinko-in.
Lastly, it is said that Shugendo followers would come to Misasa’s hot springs, situated at the bottom of the mountain, known for having one of the world’s highest levels of radon. Thanks to this property, these hot springs have been healing people’s bodies for hundreds of years. Moreover, it is another way for pilgrims to purify their bodies and spirits before or after a pilgrimage. So, how about experiencing this spiritual journey next time you visit Tottori ?
(Photos courtesy of the township of Misasa)
(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)
Marie is from France. She has been the Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) in Misasa, Tottori Pref., since 2016. She graduated from Strasbourg University with a masters degree in multilingual and multimedia communication. She spends her time hosting international exchange activities for locals and promoting regional tourism.
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