Daisen: A mountain ski hamlet with a 1,300-year history
Perched near the peak of western Honshu’s majestic Mt. Daisen – known as Japan’s second Mt. Fuji – the town of Daisen was once home to 100 temples, thousands of soldier-monks, and a centuries-old tradition of religious asceticism. Generations of worshipers have walked the pilgrimage roads leading to the holy volcano, which some say is the abode of Kagutsuchi-no-mikoto, god of fire.
Today the town is a popular ski destination in winter and a perfect base for exploring the region’s beech forests, alpine meadows, and sparkling waterfalls in warmer seasons. Overlooking the Japan Sea, Daisen is also a short drive from beachfront hot springs and very fresh seafood. So book a room at a traditional inn, plan a few days of touring, and discover one of western Japan’s best-kept secrets.
Shrines and Temples
Daisen’s main temple was founded in 718, and in ancient times was an important training ground for followers of Shugendo, a form of ascetic/shamanistic worship practiced in the remote mountains of Japan. As these indigenous mountain religions were increasingly brought under the umbrella of Buddhism in the Heian era (794-1185), more and more temples were founded in Daisen. At the height of its power the region boasted over 160 temples and 3,000 warrior monks, making it a seat of influence comparable to the powerful Koyasan, Hieizan, and Yoshino regions. Daisen Temple is said to have amassed impressive riches by the Edo period (1603-1868). But the religious center fell into decline in the late 19th century, when the emperor made Shinto Japan’s official religion and forcefully disentangled Buddhist and Shinto practice. Today just four main halls of worship and five sub-temples remain in town.
Daisen Temple’s ancient treasures can still be viewed in the Reiho-kaku, or treasure house, and the Amida Hall, a structure dating to the Fujiwara period (898-1185) that houses a statue of Pure Land Buddhism deity Amitabha Tathagata carved by the great sculptor Ryoen. The main temple burned down in 1928 and was rebuilt in 1951. If you make reservations ahead of time, you can get a lesson in Zen meditation from the temple priest; fees are 500 yen per person (more when the number of participants is very low). 20-minute “Mini ZaZen” sessions are available at Amida Hall for 500 yen, also by reservation only.
O-Gamiyama Shrine/ Oku-no-Miya
Although Oku-no-Miya’s main shrine today ranks among Japan’s most impressive examples of gongenzukuri (a style of Shinto architecture in which the main hall and worship hall stand beneath a single roof, connected by a passageway), its origins are said to be far more humble. Legend has it that the shrine was once a simple shelter for worshipers who came to Daisen to practice a form of mountain asceticism called Shugendo. Despite being mentioned in numerous ancient records, however, its story remains shrouded in mystery.
During the long period of history during which the line between Buddhism and Shintoism was less clearly drawn than it is today, O-Gamiyama Shrine Oku-no-Miya joined forces with Daisen Temple to expand its range of influence and build a large army of monk-and-priest warriors. Far from being under the thumb of the Buddhist monks, the Shinto priests presided over all religious ceremonies on the mountain.
In the late 1800s when Shintoism was forcefully separated from Buddhism and became Japan’s state religion, the shrine lost its connection to Daisen Temple. Today it is famous in western Japan for its magnificent portable shrine, which can be viewed at an annual procession each spring.
One of Daisen Temple’s five remaining sub-temples, Enryu-in was rebuilt in 2009 with a highly unusual feature: 108 paintings of fantastical beasts and ghostly creatures by Japan’s beloved manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, creator of the GeGeGe no Kitaro series. The round paintings adorn the ceiling of the main hall and draw visits from Mizuki fans from around the country. Among the paintings is a “Tengu Crow” character drawn specially for the temple. You can try out Zen meditation or sutra-copying at Enryu-in as well.
Ju-un Temple Established in 1334, this Buddhist temple is affectionately called “Fuji-dera,” or “Wisteria Temple,” after the huge old flowering vine in its courtyard. The Fuji Festival is held here each May, when the lavender clusters of flowers measuring over 1.5 meters in length are in full bloom.
The famous essayist, folk-tale collector, and journalist Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904; also known as Yakumo Koizumi) depicted an Obon festival dance held at this temple in his book Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. A stone monument engraved by Hearn’s great-grandson Bon Koizumi stands in the temple precincts.
Founded by the famous Zen Buddhist priest Genno Shinsho in 1357, this is the oldest Soto-sect temple in the Sannin region (encompassing Shimane, Tottori, and parts of Yamaguchi prefectures). Visitors can view the special gate used by imperial messengers, the renowned earth walls, and a votive tablet engraved by Emperor Go-Komatsu (1377-1433), Japan’s 100th emperor.
This shrine is dedicated to the Nawa clan. Nagatoshi Nawa, the most famous member of the family, was a 14th-century lord who fought to re-establish the reign of exiled Emperor Go-Daigo. The path leading to the shrine is lined with cherry trees, and it spring viewing parties come to walk along the tunnel of blossoms.
This shrine stands at the base of a sacred ancient pine tree.
Okoshikake-no-Iwa (Crouching Rock)
Legend has it that Emperor Godaigo rested on this rock after he escaped from the Oki Islands, to which he had been exiled, in the 14th century.
The Origin of Mt.Daisen
There are many stories of how Mount Daisen came into being. All appear within the creation legends of Japan, but in that world of myriad gods, even the myths fight one another. Who knows which is true?
The ancient records of the Izumo region’s culture and geography (called Izumo Fudoki) tell one version of how Japan came into being. According to that story, one of the gods wanted to make the country larger, so he stood on the shore and used a rope and stake to pull a bit of land from across the sea over towards Japan. The rope he used became the Yumigahama Penninsula (also called Yomigahama) and the stake became Mt. Daisen. In that legend, Daisen is called Hinokaminotake, or “the fire god’s mountain.” It seems that as the story was passed down through later generations, the name changed to Okamitake, or “mountain of the great god,” which is close to its current name, meaning “great mountain.”
But why was Daisen called the fire god’s mountain? Some say it is the fire god Kagutsuchinomikoto who is worshiped there, the last-born child of Izanami, mother of myriads gods and the one who caused her to die in anguished childbirth. But each scholar seems to have his own explanation of the mountain’s name, and none knows the truth for sure. In any case, throughout Japan high mountains are thought to be the abodes of the gods and have long been worshiped as sacred places. Perhaps it is their sublime majesty, or their inapproachability, or their unearthly glow at sunrise and sunset. Whatever the reason, whoever gazes at Mt. Daisen or climbs to its heart cannot help but feel it is a mystic place.
Mt. Daisen is famous as the abode of karasu (crow) tengu, a mythical creature which blends the features of humans and birds. Some say local villagers spun stories of tengu when in reality they had merely seen the ascetic mountain hermits who wandered Daisen’s remote valleys and peaks. Others say tales of the tengu were invented by the mountain ascetics themselves as a way to scare commoners away from the depths of the holy mountain. In either case, even today Daisen boasts an abundance of entertaining tales about the tengus and their magical powers.
In early May, when the huge old wisteria at Ju-un Temple is in full bloom, the Fuji (wisteria) Festival is held on temple grounds. Participants can sample rice cakes and watch a tea ceremony beneath the fragrant vines. May is also the month for the Miyuki (or Mikoshi Gyoko) procession at Daisen Temple, a traditional Buddhist ceremony said to date back to the Heian era (794-1185). The temple’s elaborate portable shrines are paraded through the streets on the shoulders of men dressed all in white. Children in traditional attire and adults dressed as priest-warriors join the parade as well.
Summer on Mt Daisen officially begins on the first weekend in June, when priests from Daisen Shrine preside over rituals to pray for an accident-free mountain climbing season. The fire ceremony that takes place on this weekend is the shrine’s central summer event. In the evening, about 2,000 participants kindle torches in a sacred fire at the shrine, then descend the pilgrimage road through the woods, torches a blazing wave of fire (in the past the procession went in reverse, with deeply religious participants carrying their torches up the mountainside to the shrine). A daytime ceremony is also held at the mountain summit.
When the forests turn their fall colors in late October or early November, the town of Daisen holds an Autumn Colors Festival. Events includes a fire ceremony at Daisen Temple in which priests carry sacred lanterns, a photography contest, and in some years the Daisen Warrior Priest Drum Performance.
On the 23rd of December, a ceremony is held to mark the opening of the ski season. Along with a ritual to pray for a safe ski season, there are ski demonstrations, mochi (rice cake)-making events, and free lift passes for all participants.
16 competition categories mean everyone can join in this mid-May run along the Nawa Sakura Course
Daisen Highland Cross-Country Event
Participants come from all over Japan to join in this event held each July at the Gouenzan Ski grounds, 750 meters above sea level.
Hamanasu (Rugosa Rose) Cycling
This annual October race offers two routes along the Daisen foothills: a 15-kilometer beginner’s course and a more challenging 30-kilometer hill course. After you’ve worked up an appetite cycling, join the crowd for BBQ beef from a local ranch and a free dip in the Nakayama Hot Spring.
Skiing in Masquerade
Every hear about 20 teams participate in this festival on the Daisen ski slopes. Events include races, synchronized skiing, and performances.
Sea to Summit
This challenging triathlon starts with a 6km kayak race in the Sea of Japan, continues with a 23.5 km bike ride through the rich Daisen foothills, and finishes with a 4.5 km hike to the peak of the mountain. Hosted by outdoor-equipment company Mont-Bell, the race got started several years ago as a way to take advantage of Daisen’s unique beach-to-summit landscape. It’s now spread to several other parts of Japan and looks set to become an annual tradition in Daisen. The event is held in May, with registration from February 5 through March 10. Entry fees are 15,000 yen for individual participants and 9,000 yen if you’re part of a group. See www.seatosummit.jp