immortal wishes:
labor and transcendence
on a Japanese sacred mountain

Ellen Schattschneider

Duke University Press (2003)

Immortal Wishes (Home)


















Immortal Wishes (Home)

Teaching Resources

Akakura Mountain Shrine Rituals

Acetic Discipline (Shugyo)

Ascetic discipline (shugyo) has been undertaken on the slopes of Akakura mountain for centuries. Among the worshippers of Akakura Mountain Shrine, shugyo is usualy practiced under the supervision of the shrine priest or of an experienced kamisama spirit medium. During the winter months ( November through April) ascetics are confined to the precincts of Akakura Mountain Shrine; after the Mountain Opening rite in May, ascetics roam the mountain, usually following the routes undertaken by the shrine's foundress.

Climbs usually start before dawn and may continue until mid-day. Worshippers first cross the bridge over the Akakura river and then climb the steep path.

They climb up to the waterfall of Fudo (Fudo taki) within the Akakura gorge, or up the mountain's left ridge to Ubaishi (old woman stone), where they crawl through a tunnel. Some continue up to the great Shokannon statue near the summit. Ascetics offer prayers and make material offerings at sacral sites on the mountain. As represented in this painting, they may perform cold water ablutions at the base of the waterfall.

Although shugyo may be profoundly transformative for the soul of the ascetic and the well-being of her family, it is also poses considerable dangers. Ascetics may be possessed by the numerous demons (oni) believed to inhabit the mountain.

Those undertaking shugyo usually reside at the shrine, for a period of 3,5,7, 9 or 21 days. Labor undertaken within the shrine, including work in the kitchen and in presenting beautiful offerings to divinities and ancestors, is also considered to be a form of shugyo.

See: Internet Resources on Asceticism


The following ethnographic account of mountain asceticism (shugyo) by anthropologist Ellen Schattschneider describes an episode during one of her first days of shugyo, guided by the experienced ascetic "Fumiko":

Excerpt from Immortal Wishes, Chapter Five,

"My Mother's Garden: Ascetic Discipline on the Mountain"

"The gray sky seemed to be enveloping us, as cold wet wind beat our exposed faces. Fumiko careened down the mountain ahead of me half flying, sometimes disappearing altogether around a curve in the path. Her eyes never seemed to glance down; it began to seem to me as if she were moving on the wind itself. As before, Fumiko stopped occasionally to allow me to catch up. I would arrive panting, out of breath, always more awkward in my negotiation of the slippery rocks, marveling aloud that Fumiko managed to make it look so easy.

As we set off again after one of these catch-up stops, Fumiko began to reassure me that I too would learn how to walk on the mountain the way she did, without ever letting her feet rest on the ground for more than the slightest instant. She said, "The mountain will teach [you] through your body" (Yama ga karada de oshiete).

With that she leaped effortlessly over the boulders and turned back, demonstrating how easy it would become for me. Just at that moment it began to snow. As the snowflakes swirled around us, the clouds above us shifted rapidly in the wind, casting alternating patterns of darkness and brightness on the rockface. In spite of the bitter cold it was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. Fumiko suddenly became very still. Looking back at me, she declared solemnly, "Always remember this moment, all right?" (Ima itsumo oboete, ne?) She gestured skyward to the falling snow and shifting rays of light. Once more looking back at me she said: "I hope you will never forget." (Immortal Wishes, p.157)

Internet Resources on Asceticism

A Look at Japanese Ascetic Practice

Asceticsm on the Web

A very helpful guide to on line resources on asceticism around the world.

Website developed by Ellen Schattschneider (Brandeis University)