Mountain Worship That Lives On Today
Mt Hakkai is one of the three mountains of Echigo, with an elevation of 1,778 meters. Seen from a distance, the gentle foothills of Mt. Hakkai spread out endlessly, and one might even describe the villages at its base as being cradled by the mountain itself.
However, when one briefly looks up from the mountain’s trail head, a rugged summit raises its imposing shoulders as it towers above, striking a harsh figure that seems to reject people’s meager aspirations to climb it.
Mt. Hakkai became widely known as a place of worship in 1794. The renowned mountain ascetic Fukan, who had opened the Otaki pilgrimage trail on Mt. Ontake in Nagano Prefecture’s Kiso Valley, traveled to Niigata. Together with a local disciple from Osaki village named Taiken, he then revived the shrine atop Mt. Hakkai. Shrines would often have an upper shrine atop the mountain peak alongside the main hall since mountains were believed to be the meeting points of heaven and earth.
Suddenly, Mt. Hakkai now stood shoulder to shoulder as an equal with the world-famous Mt. Ontake. As if overnight, many from Echigo and beyond who admired Fukan and Taiken’s wondrous virtue began arriving to follow in their footsteps, and perform the pilgrimage atop the mountain.
Ten years later, Taiken himself personally spearheaded a local group of Mt. Ontake worshippers and opened the Osaki pilgrimage trail in 1803. This was the beginning of what would be known as Osaki Shrine, now present-day Hakkaisanson Shrine.
Today, Hakkaisanson Shrine is one of the few shrines that still carry on the seasonal traditions of shugendo mountain worship starting with the Hiwatari (Fire Walking) Festival, the Summer Mountain Ascension Worship, the Fall Cross-mountain Pilgrimage, and the Purifying Waterfall Ritual during the coldest time of the year.
Upon entering the shrine grounds, if one faces in the direction of the torii gate, they will see a flight of 88 stone stairs. Halfway up the stairs sits the statue of a dragon inscribed with the words ryuumei or “Dragon’s Roar”. When one claps their hands near it, its roar is said to ring out simultaneously all around them. According to ancient Japanese thought, clapping one’s hands is believed to allow people to reinvigorate their spirit by offering up a prayer to the gods.
Moving past the statue, a stone torii gate standing eight meters tall is surrounded on both sides by tamagaki, or stone barriers surrounding a shrine. These represent the boundary between the shrine deity’s domain and the outside world. In other words, once one passes through this boundary between the inner and outer sanctuaries, they will then be entering the holy inner sanctuary of Hakkaisanson Shrine.
From atop the shrine one can admire the sprawling panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and forests, interspersed here and there with villages.
If one ventures a little further behind the main hall, they will find a mossy foothill shrine nestled in a quiet forest that reminds us of a bygone era. There lies the Sacred Cave of Ascetic Taiken where he routinely meditated, as well as the Fudo Waterfall, where the spiritually purifying Waterfall Ritual is held each year.
Hakkaisanson Shrine’s Fire-Walking Festival
It is believed that the shrine’s Fire-walking Festival was started by Mt. Ontake worshippers of the region who wished to emulate mountain ascetic Taiken’s virtue and influence.
Taking part in the Fire-walking festival was a sign that an ascetic had attained a level of great spiritual power. The esoteric rituals were secretly passed down orally from master to disciple throughout each religious chapter, with the festival only happening sporadically.
Eventually, as times changed, religious chapters from both inside and outside the prefecture united in their desire to hold the festival yearly at Hakkaisanson Shrine. Thus, in 1961, the festival date was set for October 20th of each year, and the religious chapters assembled on the memorial grounds of the shrine to carry out the festival. This would mark the start of Hakkaisanson Shrine’s annual Great Fire-walking Festival.
On the official day of the festival, the surrounding mountains echo with verses of the Heart Sutra as the multitude of believers packing the ceremonial grounds chant in unison. The pyre is ignited and eventually bursts into flames to become a blazing column of fire. Once the flames have died out and only embers remain, believers begin walking through the coals. Not only does this represent the cleansing of all sins and impurities, but it is also considered the greatest joy of the Dharma, as through this act God and man become one.
After the practitioners have crossed over, the general public is free to do the same. In accordance with staff direction, we invite you to follow in the ascetics’ footsteps to cleanse yourselves, body and soul.
Narrator: Chief Priest Yasutoshi Yamada
|3746 Osaki, Minamiuonuma City, Niigata Prefecture
|Move to Shrine office during winter (December to mid-April)
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