Abode of the gods

by Rob Gilhooly

An indentation on the peak of Sri Pada, a mountain in central Sri Lanka, is reputed by some to have been made when Buddha first set foot on Earth. The mountain is also said to be the place where butterflies go to die. Another legend has it that the world’s highest mountains, the Himalayas, are inhabited by the mysterious Yeti.

Throughout the world, mountains and mythology are inextricably intertwined. Japan is no exception. Even the smallest peaks here seem to have some folklore associated with them.

Since ancient times, the worship of mountains was a part of an animistic set of beliefs, known as sangaku shinko, or “mountain creed.” With mountains accounting for almost 80 percent of Japan’s total land mass, they were later worshipped as the dwelling place of divine spirits.

Hunters, the earliest mountain inhabitants, believed these mountain beings to be providers of the game they hunted and the home of the spirits of benevolent ancestors.

Farmers and lowland dwellers believed the mountain spirits to be guardians of their agricultural lifestyle and providers of a healthy crop. It was customary for farmers and villagers to climb mountains in early spring to make offerings, pray for a good harvest, and invite the spirits into their communities.

Such beliefs are now a part of Japan’s folklore, and are at the heart of many of its spring and autumn festivals. While worship of mountain gods likely started well before Shintoism became an established body of religious doctrine, it is the Shinto gods of mountains (yama no kami) and of paddies (ta no kami) that are celebrated in many of these festivals.

Shinto deities occupy almost all natural places, but mountains have special significance: They are closest to the heavens and also the providers of life-giving water. Perhaps because of this, mountain kami are often female — the deity of Mount Fuji, for example, is a goddess.

A major development in the cultic status of Japan’s mountains occurred during the sixth-century influx of Chinese culture and religious thought. As was common in China, sacred mountains became hermitage sites for adherents of Buddhism and wandering ascetics. Increasingly, royalty and members of the ruling aristocracy made pilgrimages to sacred peaks.

By the ninth century, the Tendai and Shingon Buddhist sects had been established, both headquartered on sacred mountains — Mounts Hiei (bordering Kyoto and Shiga prefectures) and Koya (northern Wakayama Prefecture), respectively. The latter, founded by the celebrated sage Kukai (774-835), also known as Kobo Daishi, placed particular emphasis on sacred mountains as the ideal sites for religious practice and the attainment of Buddhahood.

Such mountain discipline reached its height in the 11th century through the practice of shugendo (mountain asceticism) by yamabushi (mountain priests), a practice still prevalent today.

Little surprise, then, that so many tales — blending faith with folklore — have gathered around Japan’s peaks. For example, Mount Atago, northwest of Kyoto, has long been venerated as that city’s guardian against conflagrations.

In Japanese mythology, the fire-god Kagutsuchi is associated with both destructive and purifying fire. Legend tells how, at his birth, his terrible heat scorched the private parts of his mother, Izanami no Mikoto, so badly that she died. Izanaki no Mikoto, Kagutsugi’s father, became so enraged that he cut his son up into pieces. As the god’s flame-colored blood hit the ground, it turned into a variety of mountain kami.

Today, Kagutsugi’s spirit is said to reside in Mount Atago, and on July 31 every year, worshippers climb up to a shrine on the mountain. There, they pray to be spared from fire and obtain an amulet, to be kept in the kitchen to protect the house.

Mount Bandai, in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture, is believed to have once been the home of two unusual goblins named Long Legs and Long Arms.

Long Legs, it is said, was able to cross the expanse of the Aizu basin in one step. Indeed, his legs were so long that he could straddle the region, with one foot atop Bandai and the other on Mount Hakase, several kilometers away. From this vantage point, he amused himself by trapping the rain clouds that came his way.

Long Arms, meanwhile, had a nasty habit of reaching down from the mountaintop, scooping water from a lake at its foot, then throwing it over the surrounding area.

Between them, the two were able to create some pretty nasty weather for the Aizu region — particularly when local farmers were in need of some sunshine.

One day, a monk passing through the area decided to help the downcast locals, hungry after their crops had again been damaged by rain.

Tricking the boastful goblins by challenging them to hide in a glass jar, he trapped them and buried the jar in a hole on the summit of Mount Bandai. Occasional tremors in the Aizu region are sometimes attributed to their efforts to escape.

The benevolent monk? He was, so legend has it, none other than Kukai.