Voyaging Towards Introspection with the Yamabushi Mountain Monks

Source: Gaijin Pot
Yamabushi Waterfall Meditation in Yamagata Japan

As soon as the water hit my head, I gasped for air in a panic. Closing my eyes tightly and taking deep breaths, my heartbeat slowed and everything else ceased to exist—there was only me and the water.

Jumping into a freezing cold waterfall isn’t really my idea of fun, but it’s what I signed up for when I decided to train as a yamabushi (mountain monk) in Yamagata Prefecture. Waterfall meditation is one of the practices they believe will guide them towards enlightenment.

Fire crackled in a cauldron-like pot and esoteric chanting from the monks filled the room as I put a small branch on the altar representing the life I was about to leave behind.

The yamabushi use their natural surroundings—forceful rivers pumping life into everything around them and mountains stretching towards the gods—to elevate themselves to a higher understanding of self. They become one with nature.

Ever since coming face to face with the self-mummified monks at five temples across Yamagata, I’ve been spellbound by the area and wanting to return.

Photo: Derek Yamashita/The Hidden Japan
Traversing into the spirit realm on Dewa Sanzan.

My second trip to this northeastern prefecture took me on a voyage filled with lots of sake, a boisterous cabaret club, and a date with fugu (highly-poisonous pufferfish). The Hidden Japan, a company working to promote tourism in Yamagata, led the way.

Spoiler alert: the fugu, which was damn delicious, didn’t kill me but I did experience a symbolic death and rebirth amongst the mountains.

The transformation into a Yamabushi mountain monk

My journey began in isolation at the rustic Miyatabo lodge tucked in the mountains of Shonai—an area made up of two small Yamagata cities, Tsuruoka and Sakata.

The lodge, where the monks stay during their …continue reading