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Voyaging Towards Introspection with the Yamabushi Mountain Monks

A symbolic death and rebirth in the mountains of Yamagata, but not without indulging in the local nightlife

By 10 min read

As soon as the water hit my head, I gasped for air in a panic. Closing my eyes tightly and taking deep breaths, my heartbeat slowed and everything else ceased to exist—there was only me and the water.

Jumping into a freezing cold waterfall isn’t really my idea of fun, but it’s what I signed up for when I decided to train as a yamabushi (mountain monk) in Yamagata Prefecture. Waterfall meditation is one of the practices they believe will guide them towards enlightenment.

Fire crackled in a cauldron-like pot and esoteric chanting from the monks filled the room as I put a small branch on the altar representing the life I was about to leave behind.

The yamabushi use their natural surroundings—forceful rivers pumping life into everything around them and mountains stretching towards the gods—to elevate themselves to a higher understanding of self. They become one with nature.

Ever since coming face to face with the self-mummified monks at five temples across Yamagata, I’ve been spellbound by the area and wanting to return.

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Traversing into the spirit realm on Dewa Sanzan.

My second trip to this northeastern prefecture took me on a voyage filled with lots of sake, a boisterous cabaret club, and a date with fugu (highly-poisonous pufferfish)The Hidden Japan, a company working to promote tourism in Yamagata, led the way.

Spoiler alert: the fugu, which was damn delicious, didn’t kill me but I did experience a symbolic death and rebirth amongst the mountains.

The transformation into a Yamabushi mountain monk

My journey began in isolation at the rustic Miyatabo lodge tucked in the mountains of Shonai—an area made up of two small Yamagata cities, Tsuruoka and Sakata.

The lodge, where the monks stay during their training, was eerily quiet upon my evening arrival. A simple futon lies on tatami mats frayed by time with a corroded public bath being the only bathing option.

In the morning I would become a yamabushi, which literally means one who has committed themselves to the mountains. In Yamagata, these monks worship Dewa Sanzan, a trio of sacred mountain ranges representing birth, death, and rebirth.

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During a sacred ritual, the monks asked the gods to protect me during my journey.
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Donning the yamabushi robes.

I felt like a newborn baby at around 6 a.m. the next morning as one of the yamabushi dressed me head to toe in ceremonial white robes resembling those worn by the dead. We laughed a bit at him carefully wrapping the cloth around my head, trying not to mess up my hair.

The lodge held a ritual prayer in my honor, asking the gods to protect me as I ascended into the spirit world. Fire crackled in a cauldron-like pot and esoteric chanting from the monks filled the room as I put a small branch on the altar representing the life I was about to leave behind.

I lost a part of myself on that mountain, and the mountains gave me a piece of themselves in return.

We approached the torii gate at the base of Mount Haguro, where the yamabushi of Yamagata start their pilgrimage. I felt awestruck standing before Mount Haguro’s five-storied pagoda, the oldest in the region. The solemn atmosphere of the forested path distracted me from the exhaustion of climbing 2,250 stone stairs to the top.

Be like water, my friend

The unearthly energy of the mountain was starting to take effect as I found myself lost inside my mind, devoid of any concrete thoughts and unable (or unwilling) to partake in small talk as we approached the waterfall.

The awe-inspiring pagoda on Mount Haguro.

Stoically, my yamabushi guide and I performed breathing exercises in unison as if they had been unlocked from somewhere deep within my consciousness. The sound of the roaring falls called me underneath them like a siren’s song as the yamabushi stood silent, letting me step into the water at my own pace.

I could only retreat inward, and not worry about the water temperature or the strange spider-like abomination that was crawling towards me. Free your mind, and the rest will follow, as they say.

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Silence.

I don’t know exactly how long I stayed underneath the falls, as time felt warped and strange, but it seemed to be over all too soon. That newborn baby feeling washed over me again as I stood absolutely drenched yet smiling.

I felt everything, yet nothing simultaneously—the rushing water pouring over me was nothing more than the life source of blood flowing through my veins. I lost a part of myself on that mountain, and the mountains gave me a piece of themselves in return.

Donning a different type of traditional robe

Still keeping the mindfulness of the morning, I changed into a yukata to explore Sakata and see what else the humble area had to offer.

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The Honma Museum of Art’s garden.

Wearing a yukata isn’t specific to Shonai, but any excuse to dress up in this beautiful garment is a good one. The gorgeous colors of the robes stood in stark contrast to the white tunics I had worn earlier, reflecting a different side of Japanse traditional dress.

Walking the stone-laden garden path at the Honma Museum of Art wearing geta (wooden sandals) hurt my feet, but part of becoming zen is pushing through the pain, right?

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The maiko spend years training under strict supervision before they can make their debut.

A stroll through the garden reflects the kind of place Yamagata is—a space where time stops and you learn to appreciate the simple things that are right in front of you. A steaming cup of tea in hand, I gazed out over carefully-arranged bonsai bushes and swimming ponds of carp, taking time to reflect on the experience.

After tea, we met some real maiko at the Somaro Maiko Teahouse. Their voices were simultaneously delicate and strong as they performed a traditional song and dance that takes years of practice to perfect. Their white faces painted with deep red lips, bright like the rising sun burning against the sky, were just another of the many faces of Japan.

The art of sushi making

By this time the Buddhist vegan breakfast I ate of mountainous vegetables and rice had worn off, and my stomach was rumbling. Naturally, we headed to Kamo Aquarium back in Tsuruoka for some sushi.

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Mesmerizing jellyfish at Kamo Aquarium.

The aquarium has the biggest collection of jellyfish in the world, including a towering tank of moon jellyfish. But the star of the show here is Chef Suda who’s ranked as the top fourth chef in Japan for his skillful preparation of fugu. If there’s one person to trust with your life, it’s this guy.

He sliced the fugu with swift precision, separating the poisonous bits from the edible flesh, and arranged them carefully into the shape of a crane. The glimmering, edible gold flakes dusted atop the thin slices transformed the dish into nothing short of a Picasso.

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Chef Suda putting the finishing touches on the fugu against a gorgeous sunset backdrop.
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Chef Suda with his sharp knife skills, the maiko with their delicate performance, and the venerable yamabushi all embodied the Japanese spirit of becoming a true master at one’s craft.

As for the sushi workshop, I really sucked at getting the shape right but thankfully it didn’t overshadow the flavor of the fish.

Indulging in sake

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All locally made.

With a belly full of tasty albeit misshapen sushi, and more than a lifetime’s worth of introspection, it was time to relax with some sake. In Yamagata, you don’t have to go far to find it, there’s a fantastic sake bar right across from Tsuruoka Station at FoodEver, inside the visitor center.  All of the drinks served here are locally made by tiny breweries in Shonai.

If you’re simple like me, you’ll choose your sake based on which bottles have the most interesting labels. If you’re smart, you’ll pick your preferences on the questionnaire and select either sweet, dry, or fruity varieties.

Whoever created the saying “too much of a good thing” is a liar. There’s always room for more sake and good food, and Shonai has plenty of it.

Keeping the spirit of Showa alive

Alleyways crammed with tiny food stalls and pubs are synonymous with cities like Osaka and Tokyo, so you can imagine my surprise upon finding one in a place like this.

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Drinking like a local.

Kitamae Yokocho is exactly that, a cluster of restaurants jam-packed with bars slinging beer, fried food, and even Hawaiian-themed fare. Shoulder-to-shoulder with friendly youth and old dudes excited to see an attractive foreigner, we drank the night away forgetting about language barriers.

When we approached a building that said “Cabaret Shiobara” painted across the side in a glam metal font, my heart skipped a beat. Inside, neon disco lights flickered across a huge stage in front of velvet couches.

Flashy burlesque costumes and props backstage screamed sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Many international acts have graced this glamorous stage since the club opened in the late ‘60s, but these days it’s used for weekend karaoke. It’s only open on Saturdays and Sundays.

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Glam theater.
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Cabaret Shiobara owner Hitoshi Sato backstage reminiscing about the acts that have performed at his club.

Stepping off the stage after singing some of the worst sounding, but most glorious karaoke of my life, the club owner told me his motivations for keeping this place going aren’t monetary. He simply wants to keep a piece of Japan’s bygone Showa Era (1926-1989) alive.

The cabaret club felt like an entirely different world than my yamabushi morning, but that’s the beauty of Shonai—it reflects the diversity of experiences that make up Japanese culture.

Sun salutations and the quest towards happiness

Stuffed full of booze and food, after a day of self-reflection and drinking, all I could think about was sleep. The sound of waves crashing against the shore outside the window at Yaotome Hotel was swaying me towards dreamland. A soothing dip in the rooftop hot spring baths helped lull me to bed.

We greeted the sun with beachside yoga in the morning, just as the yamabushi give thanks to the mountains, before jetting off back to all the noise and bustle of Tokyo.

Many people bounce through life on a futile search for happiness failing to realize that it’s something we choose to be.

With the chaos of everyday life unfolding around me, hordes of people scurrying onto the train and neon signs glaring in every direction, I tried to find a piece of quiet.

If there’s one thing I learned during my short time in Yamagata, it’s that happiness comes from within. Many people bounce through life on a futile search for happiness failing to realize that it’s something we choose to be.

Hitoshi Sato opens the doors to Cabaret Shiobara every weekend regardless of being swamped with repairs on an aging building that he can’t afford. He’s happy. Chef Suda left his job at an expensive traditional restaurant and opened his shop in Kamo Aquarium to make high-quality seafood available to normal people like you and I. Though he makes significantly less money, he is happy.

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Whether or not you’re happy in life is up to you.

Those who walk the path of the yamabushi make their tiring pilgrimage through Dewa Sanzan and throw themselves under frigid waterfalls without complaining. They are happy because they have chosen to be.

I’m in no way positioning myself as some spiritual guru after spending one day doing yamabushi training, and I won’t claim to know all life’s answers, no one does. But that’s the beauty of this strange ride called life we are all on.

No matter the circumstances we find ourselves in along our own individual journeys, we can choose to be happy. I hope to return to the mountains of Yamagata again, but for now, my quest towards self discovery will continue wherever I am. And wherever I am, I choose to be happy.

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