Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mountain revolutionaries

The monks who reclaimed Ontake as a sacred summit for ordinary people

Unwittingly, we behaved just as Fukada Kyūya said we would. Big-booted, ice-axe-wielding alpinists feel out of place here, wrote the Hyakumeizan author back in the 1960s. They shun the peak as too popular and avoid it. The few mountaineers who do come here tend to avoid the summer season.

And so we ski-climbed Ontake on a crisp, clear winter day, laying our zig-zag tracks up a flank of hard-frozen snow. On the summit plateau, at 3,000 metres, it was the steam-jets pluming from the new crater that captured our attention. Not being greatly into mountain history, we didn’t give much thought to the statues and monuments, half-buried in snowdrifts, that marked out this ancient volcano as one of Japan’s most sacred summits.

Besides, the harrying breeze made it too cold to hang about. After posing for photos at the summit shrine, we snapped our big boots into our Silvretta 404 bindings and pointed the skis downhill. After that, there was no reason to revisit Ontake. Until, that is, the other day when an e-mail came in from Ted, a fellow Japan blogger and aficionado of the old Nakasendō road:

On one of my walks, writes Ted, I came across a small Ontake shrine between the towns of Nakatsugawa and Ochiai, both in Gifu. There was a small group of people there, in the midst of their cups, the prayers now done. I asked them what was going on, and they told me that it was a ceremony in honor of Kakumei Reijin (覚明霊神), who 'opened' Mt. Ontake. Try as I might, I can't seem to find the 'human' name for this deity, who this person actually was. Do you have any idea?

Well, it turns out that Kakumei Reijin isn’t mentioned even in Nihon Hyakumeizan, Japan’s most famous mountain book. But a quick look at Google and some other references hinted at a fascinating story.

The Buddhist name “Kakumei”(覚明) is written with different characters from the Japanese word for “revolution”, which is pronounced the same way. Yet monk Kakumei (1718-1786) was indeed a revolutionary. He challenged the adepts and shrine authorities who held Ontake in their exclusive grasp, and opened the mountain to ordinary people. Unlike many a revolution, however, the movement he started has endured to this very day.

When Kakumei was born at Kasugai in Owari province (today’s Aichi Prefecture), the son of a farmer, Ontake had already been revered for centuries. Indeed, its very name means “Sacred Mountain”. Records from the Muromachi period (1392–1573) show that the austerities practised there by mountain mystics resembled those of Ōmine and Kumano.

Kakumei also came to Ontake as a hermit or yamabushi – the word means ‘one who hides himself in the mountains’. But he seems to have soon run afoul of the local shrine authorities with his revolutionary ideas of improving the mountain paths, so that ordinary people could climb the mountain. And letting them do so without undergoing the traditional seventy-five or one hundred days of severe purification rituals.

In the fifth year of Tenmei (1785), Kakumei took matters into his own hands. He climbed the mountain after purifying himself only with a “water austerity”, probably by standing under a waterfall at the mountain’s foot. This was by itself a challenge to the religious establishment.

The following summer, he made another ascent. Struggling with the burden of his sixty-eight years and frail as an autumn leaf from years of fasting, he made his way up to Ni-no-ike (above), a crater lake far above the clouds. And there, as the wind chased ripples over the cobalt waters, he gave up his spirit.

Ontake now had its martyr; next a proselytiser was needed. That role was fulfilled by monk Fukan (1731-1801), who came to the mountain in 1792. Fukan (right) pioneered a new way up the mountain – one that was more convenient for pilgrims coming from the fast-growing city of Edo – and founded hundreds of congregations or kō (講) all over the Kantō region. Known as Mitakekyō or Ontakekyō, the resulting movement gained official recognition as a sect within Shintō in 1882.

Thus far, the story has close parallels with that of the Fuji-kō, the congregations whose worship centred on Japan’s highest mountain. Mt Fuji too had its martyr, in the person of Jikigyō (1670-1733), who fasted to death in a rocky cell near the mountain’s sixth station. (The shrine authorities kept him away from the summit, for fear that his death would ritually pollute this sacred ground.) And Jikigyō’s self-sacrifice greatly increased the popularity and prestige of the congregations that worshipped Mt Fuji.

In time, both Ontakekyō and the Fuji-kō won so many converts that the feudal authorities started to worry about the sects as potential sources of unrest. (The parallel with the Chinese Communist Party’s current nervousness about Falun Gong is striking.) Inheriting these suspicions, the Meiji government coerced both movements (or large sections of them) into becoming approved sects within state-controlled Shintō.

It was at this point that the fortunes of the two mountain religions started to diverge. For the Fuji-kō, official recognition seems to mark the start of a long decline. In contrast, Ontakekyō has held up against the secularising trend of the modern age with surprising resilience. By 1938, for example, the two officially recognised Fuji sects reported about one million adherents between them. Ontakekyō had twice as many.

The extraordinary durability of the Ontake faith was noted by Fukada Kyūya in Nihon Hyakumeizan, which was published in 1964:

In the past, holy mountains were legion, among them Fuji, Chōkai, Tateyama, and Ishizuchi to name but a few. Yet their sacred aura has dissipated in the light of modern mountaineering. Ontake alone retains its bands of pilgrims, their rituals and their customs. If you climb the mountain on a summer's day by its front route from Ōtaki and Kurosawa, the white robes of the faithful, among them both children and greybeards, still limn out the path ahead. These people are not climbing the mountain for sport. I know the owner of a teahouse who would otherwise take no interest in mountains, yet never fails to make her annual pilgrimage to the top of Ontake.

Even today, reports Naoko Kobayashi, a researcher at Nagoya University, Ontake and its “great gods” are worshipped by an estimated 800,000 believers and more than 1,000 congregations. Among the reasons for the cult’s success, she suggests, is the strong belief in its reijin. This is the title given to deceased devotees of Ontake. Reijin are enshrined in reijin-hi, small stone monuments set up in groves at various places on the mountain.

Reijin-hi become the yori-shiro (the spirit abode) of a deceased Ontake adherent. And living relatives can use them as a means of communicating with the departed. This is the purpose of a shamanistic ritual known as the oza in which a practitioner (maeza) encourages the departed spirit to possess a medium (known as the nakaza). Graphic descriptions of such séances can be found in books by both Walter Weston and Carmen Blacker (see references).

While doing her fieldwork, Kobayashi met a woman who had just lost her brother:

An Ontake ascetic acted as the maeza. After the reijin possessed the nakaza, he stated that her brother was fine and in training near the Ontake Ogami in the next world. When the woman heard this, she started to cry. She said that she was relieved to know that her brother was fine in the other world.

The worship of reijin serves to tie the devotees to the Ontake faith. In this way, the reijin facilitates a form of ancestor worship, one of the most ancient elements in Japan’s culture. Moreover, concludes Kobayashi, “the chain of successors, from the believers to the reijin, perpetuates Ontake belief. As long as Ontake believers continue to worship the reijin, Ontake belief will continue.”


Nihon Hyakumeizan in the forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Naoko Kobayashi, Research report: The vital role of reijin worship in Ontake belief in SOAS Centre for the Study of Japanese Religions newsletter, January 2005 issue

D C Holtom, The National Faith of Japan: A Study in Modern Shintō, 1938

Walter Weston, Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps

Carmen Blacker, The Catalpa Bow

All above images of Ontake after the first two are from Wikipedia (Japan)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Approach with awe (1)

A Japanese theologian's view of mountain religion in Japan

"Mountains have always held religious significance for people. Towering, mysterious, dangerous, overwhelming, some parts always appearing bright and visible, while others are shrouded in perpetual shadow, they are thought to be the abode of spirits, demons, and gods. Often the mountain itself is thought to be the connection between heaven and earth, the centre of the world, axis mundi.

Particular mountains have been endowed with the character of representing the entire universe, the cosmic mountain. ‘In China the capital of the perfect sovereign stood at the exact centre of the universe, that is, at the summit of the cosmic mountain.’ The religious significance the Himalayas played in Hindu religious thought is substantial.

The image of the mountain as axis mundi has inspired some of the most refined and impressive religious buildings of humankind, such as the hill temple of Borobodur in Java and the famous Angor Wat in Cambodia. They are cosmic mountains elaborated by religious symbolism.

In Japan since ancient times people have believed that the spirits of the departed reside on the mountains overlooking the villages, watching over their welfare. Eventually those spirits will become gods of the mountains, staying in the mountain during the winter months and coming out to the village from spring to autumn to help the villagers work in the rice paddy fields.

At a time of drought prayer is offered to the mountain. One name for a funeral procession is yamayuki, ‘going to the mountain’. A certain part of the mountain, always dark, is understood to be the location of ‘hell’ and another part, which appears brighter and happier, is the place of ‘heaven’. Thus the mountain itself suggests the totalities of light and darkness, life and death, salvation and damnation. The mountain must always be approached carefully and with awe…"


Excerpted from Kosuke Koyama, Mt Fuji and Mt Sinai: a pilgrimage in theology

Thursday, June 7, 2012

La montagne est toujours présente ...

All Japanese literature is mountain literature, according to literary critic Chiwaki Shinoda ... (scroll down for English version)

Dans la la littérature japonaise, la montagne est toujours présente, la quasi totalité des poètes japonais le chantent depuis Man’yōshū et même le paysage urbain n’existe sans elle. Evidement ce ne sont pas de hautes montagnes, ce sont des montagnes qui se trouve juste à côté des villes, ou derrière les villages, d’où descendent des rivières, et d’où les âmes des ancêtres nous surveillent; ce sont plutôt des montagnes spirituelles, puisque l’on croit aussi qu’en les gravissant on peut parvenir à la purification de l’âme. De la sorte, chaque montagne possède sa propre divinité, laquelle suppose un culte particulier. C’est dans ces hauts lieux que les moines bouddhistes établirent leurs temples et leurs monastères. Aussi, les récits qui racontent les origines de ces temples (shintoïstes ou bouddhistes) situent-ils leurs histoires dans les montagnes, car c’est là que le saint moine reçut invariablement la révélation après avoir passé une série d’épreuves. Ces histoires racontent également les mystères ou les miracles qui se sont manifestés sur ces hauteurs ....

Mountains are always present in Japanese literature; more or less all Japanese poets have written about them since the Man’yōshū and not even the urban landscape can exist without them. Obviously these are not high mountains, these are mountains that sit right next to cities, or behind villages, from which the rivers spring, and from whence the souls of our ancestors watch over us. They are, indeed, spiritual mountains, so that climbing them, it is believed, can purify the soul. In this way, each mountain has its own deity, each attached to a particular cult. It is in such high places that Buddhist monks established their temples and monasteries. The stories that relate how these Shinto or Buddhist shrines were founded are set in the mountains, because that is always where the holy monk received his revelation after undergoing a series of ordeals. Such stories also tell of the mysteries and miracles that have taken place in these high places ...


Chiwaki Shinoda: "La montagne dans la littérature japonaise" in Montagnes imaginées, montagnes représentées

Sunday, June 3, 2012


A Hyakumeizan encounter with the father of modern physics in Japan

eclipse in Fukui, Japan  by sunnybeauty
eclipse in Fukui, Japan , a photo by sunnybeauty on Flickr.

Only one solar eclipse is mentioned in Nihon Hyakumeizan, Japan's most famous mountain book. This was one that tracked directly over Shari-dake, a famous peak in Hokkaidō:

The Japanese will never cease from putting shrines on their favourite mountains and Shari-dake was so honoured in 1935. Its summit sanctuary is sacred to Ōyamatsumi-ōkami and Ame-no-mikumari-ōkami. In 1936, Dr Nishina Yoshio, who had come to the mountain to take measurements of cosmic rays during the solar eclipse that year, dedicated a torii gate of silver birch wood…

Cosmic rays were not Dr Nishina's principal line of business. The best part of a decade before the Shari-dake eclipse, he'd returned to Japan after several years in Copenhagen studying quantum physics under Niels Bohr. Back in Tokyo, he'd settled down to propagate that arcane new science within a small but enthusiastic community of researchers. It was this work that earned Nishina (left) his reputation as the "father of modern physics in Japan".

In 1931, he opened his own laboratory at Riken, Japan's national research centre for physics and chemistry (right). His leadership style was as novel as the scientific theories he propounded. This is how a young associate remembered it:

The word “organisation” gives an impression of formality, but the whole Laboratory was really a very easygoing, free and friendly group. We related to each other as equals, except in research, and the senior members were kind and solicitous towards newcomers like me. I felt then that this highly supportive atmosphere, exceptional especially in those days, was a naturally occurring phenomenon. However, in hindsight, I realise that it was probably a reflection of Dr. Nishina’s personal ambitions. I think he was eager to create the kind of atmosphere that he had experienced during his eight-year stay in Europe, in the circle of highly talented men who followed and revered Professor Niels Bohr…

By 1935, Nishina's main ambition was to build a cyclotron, along the lines of the pioneering particle accelerator that Ernest Lawrence had devised a few years earlier at Berkeley. With advice from Lawrence – who remained a life-long friend – construction of a small cyclotron started in 1936.

Meanwhile, Nishina had also started to take an interest in cosmic rays, as a source of sub-atomic particles with energies that no cyclotron could match. A cosmic ray research group was set up in 1931-32. This was a lively epoch in an emerging field of enquiry.

When a foreign group reported that some particles, perhaps neutrinos, were capable of penetrating deep underground, Nishina said “Interesting, let’s try it” – a characteristic phrase – and his group took their detectors to the innermost reaches of the Shimizu tunnel. Cosmic ray experiments were also installed on the roof of Riken, on an ocean liner, and atop Mt Fuji – transforming Japan’s most eminent Meizan, not for the first time, into a mountain of science.

But where did cosmic rays come from? If some came from the sun, then an eclipse should temporarily block them from reaching an earth-bound observer. The June 1936 eclipse in Hokkaidō provided Nishina's research group with the chance to re-test that hypothesis.

North wall, Mt. Shari by threepinner
North wall, Mt. Shari, a photo by threepinner on Flickr.

Some 800 kilos of kit were freighted from Tokyo up to a remote corner of Japan's northern island and then ported two-thirds of the way up the 1,545-metre Shari-dake. On June 19th, the scientists were rewarded with a clear view of the sun's temporary disappearance.

Others who stayed at the mountain's foot, including a British delegation were not so lucky; low clouds obscured their view. In the event, the needles of Nishina's apparatus barely wavered during the eclipse, confirming that cosmic rays originate from far beyond the solar system.

Annular Eclipse by tsubame
Annular Eclipse, a photo by tsubame on Flickr.

Then came the war. In May 1943, Nishina was put in charge of Japan's efforts to develop an atomic bomb. Or rather the Army's efforts. For the Navy had its own nuclear project and the two research groups hardly spoke to each other, so intense was the inter-service rivalry.

By January 1944, the Army's "N-Project" (N stood for Nishina, not for nuclear) had produced a rice-sized crystal of uranium hexafluoride. The next step would be to run a larger-scale refinement process using a thermal separator. But in March 1945, most of the Riken buildings burned to the ground after a bombing raid, effectively ending the project.

The N-Project brought down on Nishina's head a petty yet savage act of reprisal. In November 1945, a low-loader drove unannounced into what was left of the Riken compound. Soldiers started to break up the laboratory’s large cyclotron as the scientist remonstrated and his wife and secretary stood by and wept. Then the wreckage was dumped in the sea (below).

To this day, it is unclear who in the Occupation authorities gave the order to destroy the cyclotron – which had little or nothing to do with weapons research. No American scientists were consulted, for none would have approved the action.

Fortunately, Nishina was able to ally himself with American physicists such as Karl Compton, the president of MIT, to prevent Riken itself sharing the cyclotron’s fate. During the first desperate post-war years, he also oversaw a project to manufacture penicillin, as way of shoring up the institution’s finances.

Once Riken’s future was safe, Nishina prepared to return to physics research. But this was not to be. His colleagues were planning his 60th birthday party when he suddenly fell ill. The celebration had to be cancelled and he passed away on January 10, 1951.

Sixty years later, Riken continues to flourish as one of Japan’s leading centres of fundamental research. Cosmic rays are still a speciality. Recently, Riken scientists used them to illuminate the inner structure of Mt Asama, a volcano and yet another of the Hyakumeizan. One can almost hear Nishina-sensei murmuring his encouragement, “Mmm, interesting, let us try it …”


Nihon Hyakumeizan in the forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Dong-Won Kim: Yoshio Nishina: Father of Modern Physics in Japan

Thomas C. Reed, Danny B. Stillman: The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation

Many thanks to sunnybeauty, threepinner and tsubame for allowing me to link to their photos on flickr.