Day hike from Tokyo: Be a Yamabushi

[Visited on June 4th, 2022]

Today we will visit a small peak; Mt. Bukka at the base of the Tanzawa mountain range in Kanagawa. But this time, the story about the visitors of the mountain is more interesting than the mountain itself.

Have you ever heard of the Yamabushi (山伏)? It literally means “the one who bows at the mountains”, but you will most commonly find it translated as a “travelling monk”. Their harsh and ascetic lifestyle upon the lonely mountains only heightened the rumours that they possessed supernatural strength. The yamabushi are followers of a syncretic religion that combines Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism among others. It became popular in the Heian period, until it was outlawed by the Meiji government, which brought forward the modernization of Japan. Its practice was allowed again post-war, where freedom of religion was established.

A lonely village shrine
‘Don’t dump TVs illegally’

The religion of Shugendo (修験道), which is more of a spiritual way of life, rather than common performative religions, was developed in the pre-feudal Japan. The goal is to reach enlightenment through harsh practice, by immersing oneself into nature. Living a more-than-modest life on the mountains can bring the practitioner closer to the spirits of the kami. Therefore, the yamabushi put themselves under intense strain, pain and hunger to reach the point when their spiritual powers would awaken. The mountains of Tanzawa were an important route for yamabushi, to the point where records of the visitors were kept in a temple close to Mt. Kyogatake in the Kiyokawa area.

The path begins along the mountain road
But quickly becomes narrow and rocky

The founder of Shugendo is an exiled wizard, called En no Gyoja (役行者) or En on Ozuno. Gyoja is a more formal alternative to yamabushi. So that guy, En, had some friction with the members of the royal court in Nara, resulting into him being exiled on the island of Izu Oshima in eastern Japan. He was so powerful that kept two demons around to do his bidding and could heal all kinds of ailments. At some point, his reputation was restored and started walking around the mountains of Japan. He is claimed to be the first person who visited every single peak in the country. At the year 703 AD, he visited Mt. Oyama and the waterfalls in Shiokawa, in nearby Aikawa. There are claims that En no Gyoja spent 49 days on top of Mt. Bukka to meditate and pray. However, En no Gyoja’s base remained in Mt. Yoshino in Nara. It is said that the god appeared to him, and he carved its form on a wood block from a mountain sakura tree. Afterwards, he ordered his disciples to plant cherry trees, which make the landscape on Mt. Yoshino as magnificent as it is now. He might as well be the founder of the fascination with cherry trees as well. If you want to train in order to become a Yamabushi like En in the modern day, better try your luck at the Dewa Sanzan mountains in Yamagata prefecture.

The path towards the top is narrow and covered with vegetation
A view of the Tanzawa mountain range to the south
Jizo figures at the top of Mt. Bukka

Apart from En, Zen masters also came to meditate on the mountain. Actually, that’s the origin of its name because Bukka (仏果) means Nirvana. A famous Zen master (bukka zenji, 仏果禅師) of the Muromachi period was meditating on the mountain, when a stone fell on his head and killed him. Whether he reached Nirvana or not is irrelevant; the mountain became Bukka since that moment. If you happen to meet a hiker with all-white robes, holding a stuff, great them, they are probably a yamabushi. I doubt any Zen pilgrim would like to follow the fate of their great master.

Lake Miyagase and the rest of the ridge

There are two ways to enter the path to Mt Bukka from Kiyokawa. Either to walk until Richland campground and climb a steep slope, or walk along the mountain road, but cover double the distance. The latter option is highly favoured by cyclists, I met at least 20 people on that route. Afterwards, the path along the ridge is intentionally harsh, that’s the whole point of shugendo training. The mountain is 747 m tall, and practically the path covers its entire height. After lots of steps and the occasional rock climbing, the top of Mt. Bukka is surprisingly refreshing. There are a lot of benches to rest and have lunch. In the 1980s, a 13-meter tall platform was built, to offer a 360 view above the tree tops. The paint on the platform rail is rusting, so if you are afraid of heights, take that into account. I guarantee that the view is worth fighting your fears, because on a clear day you can see all the way to Skytree in Tokyo and Mt. Tsukuba in Chiba. On cloudy days, the view of lake Miyagase and Sagamihara city is a small treat. I visited on a humid summer morning, so the entire area was covered by mist around noon.

The view towards Tokyo
The view to Sagamihara city

On the way back, be sure to hand around Hanbara village. It is an interesting place, where the past is still visible. I found an abandoned car mechanic’s shop with dozens of cars and -probably collectible- engines. Hanbara is also the home of the first Vietnamese temple in Japan, Chùa Việt Nam. I saw a lot of people having barbecue or fishing at the banks of Nakatsu river.

Abandoned cars in Hanbara
A flying car, left as it was, in a derelict mechanic’s shop
Reclaimed by nature
A guy chilling with his dog
Honda engines live forever
Kenmyoji temple (did you notice the butterfly?)
People fishing at Nakatsu river

You can check out today’s route at Alltrails. Stay tuned for the next post, there are a lot of hidden paths that I can’t wait to introduce!

The route from Sakajiri (坂尻) bus stop to Hanbara (半原) bus stop

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