If I fall from here, I’m as good as dead. I crept along the razor’s edge, my back pressed tightly against the wall as fresh mountain air kissed my cheeks. The view from 1,500 feet above a gorge of orange trees dotting the mountain below was breathtaking. But with my heart jumping repeatedly into my throat, I could hardly appreciate the scenery at Japan’s “most dangerous national treasure”—Nageiredo in Tottori Prefecture.
Nageiredo itself isn’t dangerous, it’s the climb up Mount Mitoku to reach this precariously-perched temple that’ll have your heart racing. While it may seem like an egregious title, one misstep on the trail and you’re done for. Factor in the thin straw sandals strapped to your feet and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster—one that has attracted adventurous travelers from far and wide for decades.
Gripping iron chains by which you must pull yourself up with your own willpower serves as a lesson in harnessing your inner potential.
Life is boring without a bit of danger, so on I climbed, forward I leapt, and upwards I crawled through the valley.
The mystical history of Nageiredo
For over 1,300 years, monks of the Tendai Buddhist sect have made the sacred pilgrimage through Mount Mitoku to reach Nageiredo.
As the legend goes, Buddhist monk En no Gyoja used magic to cast Nageiredo into the side of the mountain back in the Heian period (794-1185). It’s been an object of worship ever since, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a strange sight, this wooden building lodged into the edge of a cliff, like something of fantastical ancient mythology.
Mitoku actually houses a whole complex of temples and monuments collectively referred to as Sanbutsu-ji Temple. Nageiredo is the reward at the top of the perilous climb. The mountain tells a story of passing into the spirit realm, conquering a chasm of arduous trials, and returning to the mortal plane stronger and wiser.
Test your willpower
After donning traditional monk’s robes I was ready to make the pilgrimage for myself.
This wasn’t my first spiritual journey in Japan—I’ve taken a similar voyage with the yamabushi mountain monks in eastern Yamagata Prefecture. The difference in the two schools of thought, however, lies in what the quest represents.
In Tottori, the pilgrimage does not necessarily symbolize reaching enlightenment, it represents the very human experience of living and growing as a person.
The realization that your life is so fragile is freeing.
Climbing over jagged cliffs, gripping iron chains by which you must pull yourself up with your own willpower, serves as a lesson in harnessing your inner potential. Nageiredo may be the end goal, but these trials are less about the destination and more about the journey.
My feet slipped repeatedly as I struggled to find my footing in the gnarled tree roots before me. I rode on the back of spirit animal guides while crossing the Umanose and Ushinose rocks which symbolize a horse and a cow respectively.
It was at Monju-do and Jizo-do Halls, though, where I thought I might fall to my death. The two temple buildings have narrow ledges spanning their perimeter with space for only one person to tip-toe around carefully, overlooking the canyon below.
The realization that your life is so fragile is freeing, and only when you comprehend just how small you are within the widespread valley can you appreciate the stunning view.
Up ahead, crossing through a dark, hollow cave at Kannon-do Hall was like emerging from the womb. On the other side of the cavernous canal lay a tiny wooden altar. Here, ascetic monks traditionally shaved their heads, relinquishing what no longer served them in their newfound wisdom.
Taking a silent reprieve in front of Nageiredo defiantly jutting out of the rocks, I dreaded making the journey back down.
At the beginning of the climb, Yoneda-san—a monk at Rinkoin Temple where I changed into the ceremonial robes—told me that crossing into the other side allows you to gather the knowledge necessary to move forward in your life.
Contemplating his words in a culmination of self-realization, I made the valiant descent in silence.
Monitor your thoughts
Nightfall brought me to my humble sleeping quarters, a quiet lodge where monks stay during their pilgrimage. These lodges, or shukubo in Japanese, provide only the bare necessities—fluffy futons and shared bathing quarters.
We approached the Sanrakuso lodge perched solemnly on Mount Daisen, another mountain range nearby. Daisen is also a site for ascetic monk training that emits otherworldly energy. Thick, moss-covered trees shrouded the stone pathway to the lodge.
Inside, the resident monk was waiting to lead me into zazen meditation. “Monitor your thoughts,” he said. “Don’t force your mind to be empty, instead inspect the way you’re thinking and see if you can change it.”
Cross-legged I sat as time ticked away slowly to the soundtrack of water dripping down rocks outside the window.
The monks at the lodge eat a vegetarian diet of mountainous vegetables based on the Dharmic concept of non-violence. This cuisine incorporates a creative spread of tofu and locally-grown mushrooms.
For travelers who prefer a slightly-less rustic place to rest and recharge, the Daisen Sando Hotel Itadaki is also an option. Just down the road from Sanrakuso, the newly-opened hotel feels more like an upscale apartment complete with a personal chef preparing dinner in your room.
Either way, the whole experience will leave you with a renewed sense of self.
Realize your potential
Increasingly, repeat tourists to Japan are seeking out ways to experience a more authentic side of the country. In a sort of reawakening of consciousness, travelers are longing for something more meaningful than typical sightseeing and boozing.
It’s evident in the society around us—in the faces of people riding a wave of sadness through their daily lives, longing to break free. Japan’s ancient nature-based religions offer us a rare escape out of our mundane existence, even if it’s only for a brief moment.
Once you’re ready to realize the potential that lies within you, I’ll be waiting for you on the other side.