© Christopher Earls Brennen

Hike C6. Ominesan


Mountains have always figured large in the religious and social landscape of Japan. Perhaps this is so because in such a densely populated yet mountainous country where the flatland had all been developed for agriculture, the only wilderness left in which to seek privacy for meditation and prayer was in the mountains. Moreover, it was evident that the mountains brought the rain that was so important to the crops, particularly the rice. So in the ancient shamanistic belief system known as Shinto the mountains were believed to be the home of the spirits and the place where dead souls went to rest. Some mountains are believed to be more sacred than others. Individual religious sects have their own favorite and most sacred mountains. Adherents of those sects are often required to climb their holy mountains once or twice a year and to perform religious ceremonies during those pilgrimages. These pilgrims signify their devotions by wearing particular clothing and carrying particular objects; they are sometimes referred to as ``yamabushi''.

The mountains of the Kii peninsula south of Osaka and Kyoto were a natural refuge from those crowded cities and, after the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century, the principal peaks, and particularly the mysterious peak known as Ominesan or Sanjo-go-take, became invested with much Buddhist symbolism. The most reknowned of Japan's mountain ascetics, En no Ozunu, is said to have climbed Ominesan about 1300 years ago. Later the mountain became the center of the Shugendo sect and was associated with paradise. Even today every member of the sect is expected to go on a pilgrimage to Ominesan once a year. Moreover a strict set of rules were expected to be observed during the pilgrimage, rules that were enforced by local residents including the inhabitants of the local village of Dorogawa at the bottom of one of the pilgimage trails. Among the rules were the prohibition of food except for that found growing naturally along the way. Moreover, women were not permitted beyond a certain point on the mountain. Those not observing the rules risked being thrown to their deaths from trailside cliffs.

In the early months of 1993, I embarked on an extended academic trip to Japan. One of my longer sojourns was in Osaka with my friend Yoshi Tsujimoto and, one weekend, he decided to take me hiking in the mountains south of Osaka. Our goal was the summit of Sanjo-go-take in the Ominesan region of the Kii peninsula. Early one morning we drove through Wakayama and wound our way over narrow mountain roads to the village of Dorogawa. Driving through Dorogawa on highway 21, we parked at the trailhead at 34o16.013'N 135o54.830'E and an elevation of 3050ft. From there we began our hike to the summit of Ominesan, called Sanjo-go-take. White clad yamabushi were frequently seen starting their pilgrimage up the mountain, festooned with various paraphenalia and making stops for devotions at small ``shrines'' along the way. The standard outfit was comprised of white and yellow baggy clothes (sometime deerskins) with white leggings and slippers. They were decorated with colorful beads and pendants and the bells they wore, the staffs they carried, the small drums they played and the chants they performed were presumably intended to attract the attention of the spirits as they walked.

Sign at trail junction just below the summit

The trail started northeast crossing a stream after about 15 minutes and then turned southeast. About 1.5hr from the start the trail steepens as it climbs to a ridgetop where at an elevation of 4900ft it meets another major trail coming in from the north, a trail that connects the peaks along the spine of these mountains and constitutes the main multi-day devotional route for determined pilgrims. At this trail junction, the trail proceeds through a large corrugated-iron hut that contains various facilities for the yamabushi and other hikers. About 0.3mi further on there was another large ``tunnel'' hut with more facilities. The yamabushi who collected in and around these huts seemed to act as guides for other pilgrims between here an the summit. Shortly beyond the huts there was a steep but short, class IV rock climb equipped with fixed chains that accessed the ridge that would eventually lead us all the way to the summit. Closeby, at a place called Nishi-no-nozoki, was a precipice where we observed yamabushi dangling young pilgrims head-first over the edge so that they would confess their sins and could proceed, cleansed to the summit of this sacred mountain. Just beyond this the trail proceeded through a narrow gap in the rocks which symbolized passage through the womb to a new beginning. Beyond this the trail was lined with stone-carved devotional (funeral?) decorations as we approached the summit. A large wooden gate announced our arrival and various wooden temples and other buildings adorned the summit at 34o15.188'N 135o56.470'E and an elevation of 5640ft. The number of yamabushi at or near the summit as well as the extensive ornamentation made this perhaps the most active pilgrimage site that I had encountered in Japan. Few foreigners visit this place and so I was observed with curiosity.

The main, multi-day pilgrimage trail proceeds on beyond the summit of Sanjo-go-take to a series of peaks to the south and west. However, after a brief rest and time for admiring the view from the summit, we turned back the way we came. Several trails drop down to the village of Dorogawa and we chose to return using a trail just south of the way we ascended. About 100yds from the summit we turned left, leaving the route of our ascent and dropping steeply down toward a large valley evident toward the west. After 30 minutes we arrived at another trail junction (elevation 5050ft) where another large sign, similar to one we had seen during our ascent, stated that women were not allowed closer to the sacred summit than this sign.

Apparently this is the only mountain in Japan where women are banned from hiking to the summit. The area around Sanjo-go-take which is off-limits for women is apparently about 2 miles in radius and those that defy that restriction have, at least in the past, risked the wrath of Shugendo practioners known to resort to some ancient methods of punishment. It seems extra-ordinary that such medieval practices should continue to exist in a modern country like Japan but then western religions also preserve many discriminatory traditions.

Turning right at these anti-feminist signs we followed the trail that drops down into the large valley below. This bucolic route tracks beside the stream in many places and eventually, about 2hrs later leads directly to the parking lot above Dorogawa where we left our vehicle.

Last updated 9/1/00.
Christopher E. Brennen