History & Faith

History & Faith

One of the 7 Holy Japanese MountainsThe lofty, beautiful, deeply affirming mountain of worship

Having the tallest peak in western Japan, Mount Ishizuchi is worshipped as one of the Seven Holy Mountains of Japan. The mountain was first recorded in history 1,300 years ago. When a temple was founded by a well-known ascetic En no Ozunu, it became a holy ground for mountain worshippers who consider the mountain itself a body of kami, or deity. Later, Bodhisattva Jakusen and Kōbō-Daishi Kūkai also underwent arduous ascetic training here, making Mount Ishizuchi a revered place of worship for followers of both Shintō and Buddhism. It possesses not only the loftiness of a holy mountain, but also a gentleness that welcomes and cradles in its bosom everyone who is drawn to its beautiful nature and landscapes. Its presence has long offered opportunities for learning and healing to many.

The lofty, beautiful, deeply affirming mountain of worship
The echoing sounds of the conch horn

The echoing sounds of the conch horn

Shugendō practitioners who train in the mountains must carry with them 16 training articles. Of them, the hora-gai, or conch shell, is one that has great significance. The echoing sound it makes when played using a unique technique called ryūra sahō is said to have the power to bring down the devil. The trainees also use it to communicate with each other. At a major annual “mountain opening” festival held July 1–10 to commemorate the beginning of the climbing season, the Ishizuchi pilgrims dressed in white attire sound the conch horns as they make their way toward the shrine located at the summit. It is a special seasonal event that pronounces that summer has arrived in the mountains.

Understanding the Tengu folklore of Ishizuchi

Understanding the Tengu folklore of Ishizuchi

At Mount Ishizuchi, there is a “Tengu legend” which claims that a dai-tengu (greater tengu)* called Ishizuchi Zanhō Kibō once lived there. Ishizuchi Zanhō Kibō, a spirit that possesses great powers, is considered one of Japan’s eight dai-tengu and even that he belongs to a greater class all of his own. There is also a widely accepted theory that he is actually En no Ozunu, the founder of Mount Ishizuchi. En no Ozunu, a yamabushi (ascetic who trains in the mountains to attain enlightenment) who sought to connect with deities and nature, probably ran freely around Mount Ishizuchi just like a tengu.

* Dai-tengu are believed to be deities or yōkai (supernatural beings) who are incarnates of Buddhist monks and ascetics who possessed superior abilities.

Tracing the footsteps of Kōbō Daishi Kūkai in this sacred ground founded 1,200 years ago

Tracing the footsteps of Kōbō Daishi Kūkai in this sacred ground founded 1,200 years ago

The Shikoku Henro, a pilgrimage through 88 sacred sites, has recently celebrated the 1,200-year anniversary of its founding. It is a pilgrimage that attracts much attention both within Japan and overseas. It is deeply rooted in a practice unique to this region called osettai, which is the offering of charitable gifts to the pilgrims. As you walk the path of the pilgrimage, warm connections with people await you at various places along the way. The path of Shikoku Henro was the only place in Japan selected by The New York Times as one of the “52 Places to Go in 2015.” Shown in the article is the Iwaya-ji Temple, which is the 45th stop on the pilgrimage located in Kumakōgen-chō, Ehime Prefecture.


1,300 Years Ago by En no OzunuMountain where En no Ozunu,the founder of Shugendō, established a temple

En no Ozunu was believed to have been born during the Asuka period (538 – 710) and to have been a holy man with mystical powers that could subdue even the fiercest of divine powers. In addition to Mount Ishizuchi, he is known to have founded numerous other holy grounds around the country. Legendary stories about him are found in writings like the Shoku Nihongi and Nihon Ryōiki, and what is known about him today is likely based on information that was passed down through the subsequent generations. He, however, was a man who actually did exist, and even today, Mount Ishizuchi is visited by Shugendō followers who worship him.

Mountain where En no Ozunu, the founder of Shugendō, established a temple
Mountain where En no Ozunu, the founder of Shugendō, established a temple
Mountain where En no Ozunu, the founder of Shugendō, established a temple

The tengu, who are part of a folk religion passed down through generations in Japan, are considered at times divine powers and at times yōkai (supernatural being). Living deep in the mountains, they had a red face, long nose, wings, and the ability to soar through the sky. In the past, people feared going into the mountains which they believed belonged to the spirit world, and they began seeing the tengu as deities who lived in the mountains. Dai-tengu Ishizuchi Zanhō Kibō, whose home was Mount Ishizuchi, must have been seen as one such mountain deity. It is perhaps for this reason that Mount Ishizuchi’s summit is called Tengu-dake (“tengu peak”).


O-yamabiraki Taisai FestivalThe great summer festival fills the entire mountain with excitement

On Mount Ishizuchi, believed to be holy land by the mountain religion that saw mountains themselves as a divine power, is Ishizuchi-jinja Shrine. The shrine is comprised of four structures, which are Kuchi-no-miya Honsha Main Shrine, Jōju-sha Shrine, Chōjō-sha (“mountain peak”) Shrine, and Tsuchi-goya Yōhaiden Shrine. The Chōjō-sha, the interior shrine, is located at Mount Misen at the summit, and on the path leading to it are four sets of chains used for climbing as part of the pilgrimage. Every year, tens of thousands of followers who belong to the Ishizuchi Shrine gather at this mountain for the “mountain opening” festival taking place from July 1st through 10th, filling the entire mountain with great spiritual upliftment.

The great summer festival fills the entire mountain with excitement
The great summer festival fills the entire mountain with excitement
The great summer festival fills the entire mountain with excitement

On the early morning of every June 30th, three mikoshi (portable shrines (palanquins)) are brought out of the Main Shrine carrying three deities representing the three primary virtues of “benevolence,” “wisdom,” and “valor.” After spending one night at the Jōju-sha Shrine, the statues of gods set out on the backs of the religious followers make their way toward the shrine at the mountain peak. Taking place over the following 10 days, during which the gods are placed at the Main Shrine, is a grand festival commemorating the “mountain opening.” It is quite a sight to see the Ishizuchi dōja (mountain worshippers) climb the mountain as they blow on their conch horns, ring their bells, and chant “Nanmaida, nanmaida bō” (colloquial form for “Namu Amida butsu,” a prayer for salvation).


52 Places to Go in 2015Acceptance of prayers, a path of healing

Shikoku henro is a pilgrimage route that extends the distance of 1,200km. People walk this path with their own individual set of goals and prayers. Whether it is to mourn the loss of a loved one or to discover new possibilities for themselves, each person has his or her own intentions. They can gain a sense of tenderness and serenity not merely by visiting the 88 temples, but also through the beautiful landscapes and interactions with people of Shikoku that they encounter along the way. And the path is one of dōgyō ninin (“same path, two people”) being taken with Kōbō-Daishi always at your side. Pilgrims, while being protected by his love, learn to grow as individuals.

Acceptance of prayers, a path of healing
Acceptance of prayers, a path of healing

In a New York Times’ article “52 Places to Go in 2015,” the only place selected from Japan was Shikoku’s 88 Temples. Included in the article was a mystical image of Iwaya-ji Temple, the 45th temple tucked away deep in the mountain. Standing at 700-meter altitude, the Iwaya-ji Temple is the mountain’s holy spot whose structure appears to have been buried into the side of a huge rock. It is said that in 815, Kōbō-Daishi who visited this place met Hokke-Sennin, a female hermit living in this mountain, who became his follower and offered him the entire mountain. There is also a legend that Buddhist monk Ippen Shōnin trained at this temple during the Kamakura period.