By Chihiro Ikuta
Asia News Network
AN INCREASING number of foreigners are coming to Japan to experience its unique spiritual culture. Late last year a tour was launched that gives foreign tourists the opportunity to meet the Dai-Ajari, a master who has completed the 1,000-day kaihogyo, a rigorous ascetic practice found at Enryakuji in Otsu, the head temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, on Mount Hiei.
In December a man and woman from overseas hiked a five-kilometre section of the kaihogyo route on the mountain. On the walk lasting about two hours, a guide told them about the practice in which the ascetic will not eat, drink, sleep or rest for nine days while continuously chanting mantras. The pair gasped, saying it was “amazing” and “unbelievable”.
Foreign visitors listen to an explanation of the 1,000day kaihogyo ascetic practice while walking along a path./Yomiuri Shimbun
The 1,000-day kaihogyo is a pilgrimage that takes about seven years and covers about 40,000km, roughly the circumference of the Earth. People who complete it are considered to be embodiments of the Fudo Myoo deity and are granted the title Hokurei Daigyoman Dai-Ajari.
After their walk, the pair descended to the Ogi district of Otsu at the base of the mountain. There they met 44-year-old Endo Mitsunaga, the chief priest of the Kakushoritsuan temple and the 50th person recorded to have completed the 1,000-day kaihogyo since the siege of Mount Hiei by Oda Nobunaga in 1571.
With the guide interpreting, Mitsunaga told the pair, “During the practice I injured my right leg and was prepared to die, but many people watched over me and an unseen force supported me.”
The pair listened intently. Afterward, Mitsunaga recited an incantation, touching their heads and shoulders with prayer beads.
“I felt the sacred atmosphere of Japan. Meeting a Dai-Ajari, someone who underwent something so unbelievably harsh, made for a memorable trip,” said Carly Scothern, 30, from Britain.
A study group on foreign tourism organised by the prefectural government that includes travel agencies among its members is in charge of the tours. Otsu-based Tour du Lac Biwa designed the basic tour and Mitsunaga agreed to take part out of a desire to convey the teachings of Buddhism to anyone who is interested.
Endo Mitsunaga performs an incantation over foreign tourists and other visitors in Otsu./Yomiuri Shimbun
The company had several inquiries for the spring mountain-climbing season. A staff member in charge said they hoped to gain attention as an “unknown spiritual journey”.
The number of foreigners attempting the Ohenro pilgrimage in the Shikoku region is growing rapidly. There has even been notable foreign interest in the three mountains of the Dewa pilgrimage in Yamagata Prefecture.
In fiscal 2017, 416 foreigners were recognised as “Henro ambassadors” for walking to all 88 sites, according to the Henro to Omotenashi no Network, a non-profit organisation based in Takamatsu. This is about 10 times the number in fiscal 2007.
Tokushima University Associate Professor George Moreton, who studies Ohenro, spoke to 95 foreigners who attempted the pilgrimage last year.
Many of them expressed inward-looking motivations and sentiments, such as the opportunity to think about life while encountering lots of different people and places.
“Ohenro allows people to forget differences in nationality, social position and language. It’s been spreading as a way to experience ‘deep Japan’ by the media and through word of mouth,” he said.
The Haguro Tourist Association offers ascetic tours related to the three mountains of the Dewa pilgrimage that include activities such as praying under waterfalls and fire-walking.
The association had one group of five foreigners in fiscal 2014 and five groups totalling 52 foreigners in fiscal 2018.
About five years ago Yamagata Prefecture launched a multilingual website that says the visit to Ise Shrine in the west and the three mountains of the Dewa pilgrimage in the east have been known since the Edo period (1603-1867) as a symbol of Japan’s spiritual culture.
“Real ascetic experiences are rare and are especially attractive to those from the United States and Europe,” said the association’s Yoshiyuki Ishizaki, professor of tourism marketing theory at Ritsumeikan University.
“When Westerners come all the way to Japan, they really want to understand it deeply,” he said.
“There is a strong pilgrimage culture there, particularly the Santiago pilgrimage across northern Spain, which probably has a strong impact on them. But there needs to be a balance. If things become more touristy, the solemn religious practice will be lost.”