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I was at a dead end. In front of me was a wild mountain landscape of towering trees, rugged rocks and dense vegetation.

I had been trying to find a statue of a legendary sennin, an immortal mountain ascetic who is reputed to have called this area home long ago, but I could not locate the path that would lead me there. After several unsuccessful attempts, I called the local tourist board only to have an official suggest that I get off the mountain, since it could be dangerous.

Earlier that day I arrived in the town of Shinshiro, Aichi Prefecture. Off the radar of most foreign visitors, Shinshiro is most famous for the Shitaragahara Plain, an area connected with the founding of early modern Japan. It was here that the allied forces of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu — who would later found the Tokugawa shogunate that ruled for nearly three centuries — crushed the forces of Takeda Katsuyori in the decisive battle of Nagashino in 1575.

It was, however, a different site that I had come to visit: Mount Horaiji. I first came across it while looking at some ukiyo-e prints a number of years earlier. Among the “Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces” by Utagawa Hiroshige is one of Horaiji. The print shows a mist-covered and rocky mountain with a number of steep staircases. The image captured my imagination and I resolved to visit someday.

In modern times, this volcanic mountain, which is part of the Tenryu-Okumikawa Quasi-National Park, has earned a place on the nation’s list of designated natural monuments and scenic spots for its venerable trees, unique geological features and rare wildlife. It has also been revered as a sacred wellspring of great natural and spiritual power since ancient times, making it a perfect training ground for ascetics and holy men seeking to obtain some of its power.

According to legend, the mystic Rishu Sennin came to this mountain nearly a millennium-and-a-half ago after returning from the Korean Peninsula, where he is said to have studied Buddhism and esoteric magic. Living inside the hollow of a tree, he devoted himself to spiritual practice and religious ritual. It’s said he became so powerful that he was able to fly among the clouds on the back of a large phoenix, subjugate monsters and cure people of their ailments.

His name spread throughout the land and when the Emperor took ill, he arrived in the capital on the mythical bird. After praying for 17 days, the Emperor was cured. In gratitude he allowed Rishu to establish a temple on the mountain and named it Horaiji, “the temple of the arriving phoenix.”

Stately cryptomeria trees stood by the path leading into the mountain and I soon saw the first flight of irregularly shaped stone stairs. After a while, I came upon a shuttered and abandoned hall. In one of its windows was a makeshift altar with candles and coin offerings. Climbing on, I noticed various monuments scattered along the way. Some were inscribed with poetry inspired by the mountain, while others commemorated the numerous sub-temples that once flanked the path — a testament to the mountain’s past glory.

After climbing up nearly 1,500 stairs, I reached the squat main hall of Horaiji Temple, which is situated dramatically beneath a sheer cliff of exposed rock. The temple is dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing and medicine. Since olden times, the temple’s main image, which Rishu is understood to have carved out of a sacred tree, has been especially celebrated as a god of childbirth. And so it was that Odai no Kata, who had recently married into the Matsudaira clan, came here to pray for a strong and healthy son. Her prayers were soon answered and in 1543, she gave birth to Matsudaira Takechiyo, who would later take the name Tokugawa Ieyasu.

I asked the temple attendant about an old statue of Rishu that I had seen in a book, and which was located deep in the mountains where he used to perform esoteric rites. She said that there were a number of statues of the saint in the area, but she did not know the one I had mentioned. So, I made my way to the Horaisan Toshogu Shrine, located a short distance away.

Toshogu shrines are dedicated to Tosho Daigongen, the deified spirit of Ieyasu, and can be found throughout Japan, the largest and most famous being the headquarters in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture. Ieyasu’s descendants wished to establish a shrine here to commemorate the connection between the holy mountain and their illustrious ancestor.

The shrine is painted red and topped with moss-covered thatch, which blends into the surrounding forest. Its walls are adorned with vibrant designs, gold-leaf decorations and elaborate wood carvings. The decorations are filled with symbolic meaning, for example the carving in front of a hawk in a pine tree. Hawks have long been associated with Ieyasu due to his fondness for falconry, and pine trees are a symbol of longevity.

The shrine attendant also had no idea where to find the statue of Rishu that I had been searching for. Instead, he recounted a legend about Horaiji and Ieyasu’s birth. When the future warlord was born, one of the statues of the 12 Heavenly Generals, a group of deities who serve as the guardians of Yakushi Nyorai, disappeared from the main hall. Years later, upon Ieyasu’s death, the statue miraculously reappeared, causing many to believe that he had been an incarnation of the deity.

By the shrine was a trail leading to the mountain’s upper reaches and connecting to the Tokai Nature Trail, which is over 1,600 kilometers long and stretches from Tokyo to Osaka, traversing 11 prefectures. An easy hike led me to the takauchiba, a rock outcropping where people used to hunt for hawks and which today affords a sweeping view of the region’s dramatic topography.

Later, back at the foot of the mountain, I spotted a sign for Rishu’s sanctum. The path it pointed to gradually narrowed and I had to use my tripod to clear the cobwebs and overgrown bushes. I then heard the trickle of water and caught a glimpse of red beyond the shrubs in front of me. It was a small torii gate and behind it, atop a stony mound with a thin stream of water flowing down, was a little statue. Excited, I moved closer, but soon realized that the worn figure was the Buddhist deity Fudo Myoo and not Rishu.

By now the path was very hard to discern and I wondered if I was going in the right direction. I saw a small handmade sign affixed to a tree with an arrow pointing to my goal, but the path had run out and I was forced to turn back.

The sun was already low in the sky when I entered a shop in town and purchased some crackers made from locally grown rice. When I asked about the statue, the owner seemed puzzled, but a local resident who was listening said he knew how to find it.

Following the man’s directions, I found myself again approaching the mountain, but this time from a different side by a quiet residential neighborhood. I asked an elderly woman working outside her house about Rishu and she told me that locals considered him a god of longevity since he had lived for over 300 years. She then pointed a bony finger to a trail leading up into the wooded foothills.

After climbing for a while I saw a cluster of rocks looming large up ahead. They had the look of having been hewn by something supernatural and I could imagine ancient ascetics training and performing secret rituals here. Then, I noticed a spot where the rocks formed a natural chamber. Inside there was a small altar made of piled slabs of stone on top of which were a few bottles of water and some withered branches of the sacred sakaki tree. And there sitting peacefully behind it was Rishu Sennin, gazing at me with benevolent eyes.

From Toyohashi Station on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line, take the Iida Line to Hon Nagashino Station and board a bus to the Horaiji Bus Stop. It takes about one hour to reach the top of Mount Horaiji.

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