View Full Version : yamabushi hikes

Jake McKee
2nd April 2001, 16:05
Has anyone here ever been on a yamabushi hike or retreat? I've heard of some events here in Japan and it seems like it would be interesting.

Walking on hot coals, climbing sword ladders, sitting in a small smoky room, and being held off the side of a cliff are, believe it or not, some of the things I've heard of happening at these retreats.

If you have a story about such an esperience, I'd like to hear about it!


Mark Brecht
3rd April 2001, 14:24
Hmmm, i read an article in an English speaking mag here last year. It was about one of these retreats with Yamabushi (i think it was about a week long). I still have the mag somewhere i will try to dig it out, and come back with more info.

9th May 2001, 09:18
Mr. Brecht,

What did your search turn up, regarding the information about the yamabushi retreat? It would be interesting to know how this story ends, if it does. :)


9th May 2001, 09:25
but this reminds me of a show I watched on Discovery Channel about some holy days in Malasia. . . At a certain time of year, the people conduct this spiritual faire, which includes the climbing of razor-blade ladders, and other similar feats (as well as shoving metal needles through various portions of their anatomy) without feeling ill effect from it.

I think it has to do, with something akin to possession (not quite what I was looking for though), where-in the participants are in such a state of ecstasy that no matter the degree of pain that they can withstand it.

Jake McKee
14th May 2001, 16:54
Perhaps this is what Mark read:


Mark Brecht
14th May 2001, 18:01
Sorry Guys,

I had totally forgotten to look it up...

That is the one I am talking about... Good job Jake, but hey you are PI... :up:

20th June 2003, 08:28
I did a four day program up at Dewa Sanzan a couple years ago. It was basically what was written in the article posted above. There were about twenty of us, seven were women.

We woke up before 4 am, then went down to the river and immersed ourselves up to our necks in freezing water. Then a breakfast of rice gruel and a couple pickles, which was it for the day. After mediation, we hiked through the morning; then after a quick meditation under a waterfall, another hike. In the evenings, we'd do a short hike, then come back and inhale the "acrid smoke", which was some kind of chili and pepper grounds thrown on a fire. For me, this was the worst part, having spent years working on breath control for yoga and martial arts. I found that if you cover your mouth with your sleeve, taking quick and shallow breaths thru your nose, it's bearable. I was doing well until I sneezed, after which the body naturally takes a deep gulp of air. Agony. (The smell stays on your clothes which helps keep the mosquitos off.)

Before each meditation, the main yamabushi would give a talk which would help guide our thoughts. (This is similar to tantric practices worldwide.) As each of Dewa's three peaks represents the Buddhas of past, present, and future, our meditation theme followed our sense of self, who we were, are, and want to be.

The last night we did Tengu sumo, which had us paired off in a ring, holding each other's "belts" (fundoshi)trying to throw each other. Unlike sumo, it wasn't over until someone hit the ground. There was no out of bounds. (Unable to use strikes or reposition my hands for a lock or throw, I lost pretty quickly to a judo guy.)

The main idea of this training is that you symbolically die and enter various hells before being reborn (Again, Tantra).
Lack of food was the hungry ghost realm.
Not bathing, shaving, or brushing your teeth was the animal realm. The acrid smoke was the hell realm.
Human realm was purification by water, ie waterfall and river immersion (aikidoka might recognize this as misogi).
The celestial realm was the wrestling.

On the last day, we jumped over a bonfire, being reborn. The first act of my new life was the most incredible bath ever. Next was a huge party with lots of food and beer; a typical Japanese enkai.

I had wanted to do this kind of training (called taiken in Japanese, literally, "experience") for many years. Going in, I had assumed the yamabushi would be pretty tough dudes. Instead, they were typical Japanese guys, laughing and joking at times, serious and perseverant at others. (The leader, Takeshi Goto, was hilarious and has a book in Japanese called "Dewa Sanzan no Shinbutu Bunri.") The idea of the weekend was not to break people down, but to build up their spirit thru overcoming physical and mental obstacles. When hard times come (as they did two days later, on Sept. 11), we can remember the strength we gained and rely on it to get thru. (Trust we, this experience is no New Agey affirmation seminar.) Most of the other members were just ordinary folk that you would meet on any subway in Japan, partaking in the experience for a variety of reasons. (One immense guy said he wanted to lose weight. After dropping 16 kg over the weekend,it seemed like he was desperately trying to put it back on at the party.) What surprised me was that all the women were in their twenties, a far cry from the Shibuya clones. All members finished, except one Hong Kong tarento who showed up with two photographers. (Schadenfreude.)

As for me, I didn't find the training especially hard. As a budoka and avid hiker, I came in with a general level of fitness and endurance. Aside from the sumo, it isn't martial arts training at all, though we can take many things into that world as well. Like anyone else, I often flake on training if I don't feel I got enough sleep, or that I didn't eat well enough. I was surprised how much energy I had on a single bowl of rice and four hours sleep daily. The only problem I had was that I got a headache while hiking up a 1980m peak. At the visitor center where we had lectures and meals, I swiped sugar packets from the tea shop, and emptied them in my drinking water. That cleared up the headache immediately.

I plan to go back up to Dewa some time for the week long training. I will also try a ten day hike down the Omine san range which starts south of Nara and runs to the Pacific. For anyone interested, I have Japanese info on these programs and others, which run from a half day to 10 days, at locations throughout Japan. (Japanese language ability isn't necessary, though spotty translation can hinder the meditation practices.) I think that just about anybody, especially those of us martial artists tuning in here, can handle this type of experience and take a lot out into your training and life.

Jake McKee
24th June 2003, 01:33
Thanks for the detailed report Ted! I found it fascinating. Now when are you going to post the pictures? ;)

Jake McKee

24th July 2003, 18:19
Hi Ted Taylor,

Could you post a link or provide some contact information fot the 4 day retreat you took. It looks like I may actually, finally get to Japan and Shugendo/Yamabushi experience is definitely on my list of "must-do's".

John Hidalgo

25th July 2003, 00:20
There seems to be no internet info that I can find, so I would suggest contacting the address given in the article posted above by Jake. They recommend faxing over calling so that they have time to get their interpreter, who will respond. The event should happen in early September. There are other events on other mountains, but they usually happen in July, early August. Due to all the rain this year, it should be an interesting slog.

Good luck and have fun,

25th July 2003, 12:59
Thanks Ted.


Based on your experience of having gone through that retreat, what training or preparations recommendations would you make to someone who is going to take that retreat?


26th July 2003, 00:42
John, I think that an average level of fitness would do you well. As a martial artist you are no doubt there already. In my group, I would assume that fewer than half got no regular exercise, just average folks. Myself, i did nothing special to get ready. The hikes themselves weren't terribly long, and the group's pace was set to the slower members. The whole purpose of this training is too push your limits, yet not dramatically. For most people, lack of sleep or food is tough. For others, it is the lack of Starbucks!

Logistics wise, you don't need much as they will provide clothes (the underwear will have feeling like a sumo tori), futons, etc. I would bring a small water bottles and sugar packets, to help with low blood sugar. (Remember, you will be eating nothing but rice and pickles for three days.) Anything else, the Haguro center should let you know.

If you have any other questions, please send me an email. (I'll be away from home alot in August and may not check ebudo.

Good luck John,