The Blessings Brought by Mount Hakusan:
The Blessings Brought by Mount Hakusan:
Hakusan National Park spans across four prefectures - Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, and Gifu. At its heart lies the Hakusan mountain range, which has long been the object of mountain worship. Known for its heavy snowfall, the mountains receive approximately 600 million tons of snow annually due to the northwestern seasonal winds. While winters are harsh, the melting snow provides abundant water that sustains the thriving life in the villages below. Let us embark on a journey climbing Mount Hakusan and experiencing the mountain life at its foothills, revealing the true essence of mountain worship.
- Yutaro Someya
- Hakusan National Park
Japan is home to many places referred to as "sacred mountains" or "spiritual mountains."
But why do people worship and, at the same time, awe mountains?
As we bowed our heads and climbed the stone steps one by one, we pondered this question during the final climb to the summit of Mount Ontake, the highest peak of the Hakusan mountain range.
We had hoped that we would find the answer to the question above at Hakusan National Park. Mount Hakusan is one of Japan's three sacred mountains, along with Mount Fuji and Mount Tateyama. It was founded over 1300 years ago by the Buddhist monk Taicho Daishi and flourished as a center of mountain worship through the Hakusan Shugendo during the Heian period.
Currently, there are designated routes that allow hikers to make a day trip to the summit of Mount Ontake, the highest peak of Hakusan. Many hikers visit the mountain, eager to enjoy its magnificent scenery. The route we took this time started from Bettodeai in Ishikawa Prefecture, passing through the Sabo-shindo, and headed for the 2,702-meter-high peak of Mount Ontake via the Nanryu-sanso.
After about two hours from the start, we arrived at Jinnosuke Shelter Hut. Unlike most other evacuation huts, this one is directly managed by the Ministry of the Environment. From there, if you take the right fork in the trail, you will find a pleasant path. After walking for about 20 minutes, Nanryu-sanso comes into view, which was located in a excellent location.
"The sunset view from the terrace on the second floor of the lodge is also amazing," said Yutaro Someya of the Ministry of the Environment, who accompanied us on our Mount Hakusan climb. The campsite is spacious, offering a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains, and they even have cottages that can be rented exclusively for groups. It feels like a mountain resort. Although our original purpose was to deepen our understanding of mountain worship, we have been completely carried away by the sheer fun of it all.
But the real challenge started from here. From Nanryu-sanso, we ascended the Tonbi Rock Course (Ishi-Tetsumei Road), which proved to be quite a demanding climb. However, the trail itself was surprisingly well-maintained.
"This area has been recently developed by the Ministry of the Environment. In fact, it is part of the Zenjodo road," Mr. Someya explained.
Zenjodo was a sacred path that people once walked during their pilgrimage to Mount Hakusan. There are three Zenjodo routes - Echizen-zenjodo, Kaga-zenjodo, and Mino-zenjodo. These routes were the spiritual paths for "Tohai," which was the act of climbing the mountain for worship.
"Even today, the local people at the foot of the mountain feelings strongly for Hakusan, and they are extremely supportive when it comes to maintaining the mountains. Some local contractors even help maintain the trail for little or no profit."
Indeed, it was a steep climb. All of the Zenjodo routes are known for their steep and challenging terrain. This is hardly surprising, considering that they were historically climbed as part of spiritual training. As we continued our ascent slowly and occasionally took breaks to catch our breath, we marveled at the vastness of the Hakusan mountain range. It is understandable why people in the past found divinity in this place.
"The people who worked on this trail said that 'Zenjodo is well-made as a path.' The path was carefully built along a stable area," said Mr. Someya. Indeed, despite the steep hills, the rocks we tread on provided a reassuring sense of stability.
As it was a weekday, there were not many climbers on that particular day. However, during the time when mountain worship was at its peak, the Mino-zenjodo route was bustling with so many worshippers that the phrase "a thousand people ascending, a thousand people descending, and a thousand people staying overnight" became popular.
We continued our climb slowly for another two hours. Suddenly, a cluster of large buildings came into view. It was the Hakusan Murodo, with five lodging facilities, shops, and even a medical clinic, serving as the central hub for current Mount Hakusan climbing activities. If we were to turn back the clock about a thousand years, this was once a place where many ascetic practitioners underwent training. Nowadays, a splendid torii gate stands, leading to the Hakusan Okumiya Shrine.
After bowing in front of the torii gate, we began the final ascent to Mount Ontake. Step by step, we climbed the stone steps. Although the summit was visible, it still seemed quite a distance away. It took about forty minutes, but it felt much longer. As we reached the top, sweat dripping down our faces, we were welcomed by the Okumiya Shrine.
It is a mountain that fills you with a profound sense of accomplishment. Even on a one-day trip, you can experience such an overwhelming feeling of achievement. Just imagine how those who spent days walking the much harsher ancient Zenjodo trail must have felt. It must have been an almost divine experience. Furthermore, there were likely far more casualties from avalanches, landslides, and falls compared to today. There must have been a deep sense of awe in facing those dangers.
Being here, the term "mountain worship" resonated with us more than ever before.
After reaching the summit, we began our descent while enjoying touring around the ponds. There are various volcanic lakes of different sizes here, and designated courses take you around them. Among them are the Emerald Green Suigaike Pond and the perennial snowfield known as Senjyagaike, which never melts throughout the year. Legend has it that during the time when Taicho Daishi found Mount Hakusan, he sealed away many poisonous snakes in this pond.
In addition to these volcanic lakes, there are scree slopes, highland marshes, winding trails, and shrines. Hakusan seems to embody the rich essence of Japanese mountains in a unique way. It leaves you with a desire to walk even further next time.
On our way down, I could not help but glance back and once again notice the immense size of the mountain. Along with a sense of accomplishment for having climbed it, the memories of the scenery from the summit flashed back into my mind.
The moment when climbers raised their heads and broke into smiles upon reaching the mountain top after enduring the challenging ascent. Many of them naturally paid their respects at the Okumiya Shrine.
Though there may be only a few climbers today who ascend the mountain for religious reasons, there is still something deeply awe-inspiring that remains in Mount Hakusan. It's not about grand gestures of gratitude, but rather an innate feeling that compels you to bow your head and offer your prayers spontaneously.
In that moment, I felt like I caught a glimpse of the "true" face of mountain worship.
Why do people revere mountains in the first place?
As we felt that what we saw through the climb was not enough, the following day, we decided to explore the foothills of the mountain. Our destination was a place called Itoshiro, a village of about 100 houses and 250 residents.
We chose Itoshiro because the beautiful stream we saw during our climb on Mount Hakusan had left a lasting impression.
"That stream flows towards the village of Itoshiro," Mr. Someya explained.
Mount Hakusan, located in a heavy snowfall region, is said to have earned its name (written as "white mountain" in kanji) from how it glistens in white snow during the winter. Naturally, as spring arrives, the abundant melting snow flows down the foothills.
Hakusan is one of the largest water sources in Japan. The Tedori River in Ishikawa Prefecture, the Kuzuryu River in Gifu and Fukui Prefecture, the Nagara River which stretched from Gifu and Aichi prefectures, and Shou River in Fukui Prefecture. The flow of these river directly connects to the blessings of water. Thus, Mount Hakusan, as the source of all of these rivers, has long been greatly appreciated by the surrounding communities.
Itoshiro is situated on the Gifu Prefecture side. From Shiramine on the Ishikawa Prefecture side, where we stayed, it takes over two hours by car to drive around Mount Hakusan. However, in terms of straight-line distance, you can say that the villages are located next to each other.
Along the way, we stopped by Amidagataki Waterfall in Shirotori-cho, Gujo City. It is a majestic waterfall with a 60-meter drop, and you can get right up close to the basin. In the past, worshippers heading to Mount Hakusan would stop here to purify themselves. The backside of the falls was also used as a training ground, and even now, there are enshrined statues of Bodhisattvas.
Upon reaching the village of Itoshiro, we met Onishi Takuya, who moved here in 2017.
He said, 'When I first came here, I felt that wherever I went, I could sense the presence of water."
There are springs everywhere, and if you trace them back to their source, they all lead to Mount Hakusan. Local residents regularly carry water containers like plastic tanks for daily use. The irrigation channels have been well-maintained for a long time, allowing nutrient-rich water from the mountain to pour into the fields. The beautiful Itoshiro River is home to many Yamame (Japanese Trout), attracting numerous anglers. The fact that there are traces of human habitation since the Jomon period shows just how special this area is.
The village of Shirotori has started an exciting new initiative recently
- small-scale hydroelectric power generation. Akihide Hirano, the central figure of this project, moved to Shirotori in 2011.
"I did not come here particularly because of Hakusan Worship. I just thought that it would be possible to generate hydroelectric power here, since there is an abundant supply of water here."
Itoshiro, being a secluded area deep in the mountains, took a while to receive public electricity. Therefore, in 1923, the village built a hydroelectric power plant, and they supplied their own electricity until around 1955. Historically, it was a place that was completely self-sufficient in terms of energy.
"In this community, you can see the connections in clothing, food, and housing. You can also see the connections of life handed down from our ancestors. We also know where the water that is the source of all this comes from. Generating electricity with water is not just about using the physical properties of water to generate power, but it's more akin to harnessing energy from nature, similar to how we obtain crops from the land."
This way of obtaining energy, which could be called a modern updated version of the blessings of the mountain, is very Hakusan Worship-like belief. Now, the electricity generated there is bringing a certain amount of wealth to Itoshiro.
While talking about this, a group of lively women in a truck came bustling in. They were from "Itoshiro Yohinten," a store owned by Mr. Hirano's wife, Kaori. The back of the truck was filled with chestnut shells that they had picked up, which they say will be used to dye their clothes.
Itoshiro Yohinten created a variety of clothing based on traditional garments that have been passed down in this area. They have also revived a traditional local workwear called "tatsuke" with a modern twist, and they are now a popular store that attracts people from all over the country.
In addition, they are involved in collecting interviews with local residents and publishing picture books inspired by local folktales. Despite having many new residents, like Mr. Hirano, who moved here, there's always a deep respect for the local people who have been living in Itoshiro for generations.
"We can only inherit a small part of what this place has to offer, but we aim to preserve and pass on the local perspective and natural understanding of the people who have lived here for so long," says Mr. Hirano.
There are no convenience stores here, and only a few vending machines. However, delicious water springs up everywhere, and crops grow abundantly. Despite being a village of only 250 people, it is said that its abundance could easily support a population of 1000. While walking through the village, we came across two cabbages casually placed at someone's doorstep - they were shared by the neighbors.
In such scenery, we felt as if we caught a glimpse of Japan's past.
"Being surrounded by a bountiful yet demanding natural environment is what makes Itoshiro special, fostering strong connections among its people. It's a place where trusting in one another makes life easier," says Mr. Onishi, who guided us through Itoshiro.
His words made me realize a different form of richness compared to urban life.
The way of life here has thrived due to the abundant blessings from Mount Hakusan. However, of course, the winters are filled with deep snow, and there are many harsh aspects. Shoveling snow after a heavy snowfall is a big job for the whole family. Some residents were repeatedly advised by long-time locals to experience the winter first and then decide if they could truly live here.
白山山頂で思わず手を合わせてしまう感覚が山岳信仰の“素”だとしたら、白山が山麓の暮らしにもたらす豊かさや厳しさは When people instinctively pray while standing at Mount Hakusan's summit, it reflects the core essence of mountain worship. On the other hand, the abundance and challenges that Mount Hakusan bestows upon life in the foothills may be seen as the practical or logical aspect of this mountain worship. It is understandable how the people who lived here in the past felt they were sustained by the mountain and ultimately by the divine. That sentiment is still carried on in Itoshiro. Probably, mountain worship did not have an initial intention; it likely emerged naturally over the years through their way of life. Mountain worship is about showing reverence to the cycle of nature. In an age where everything is easily attainable through exchange for money, it may be time to reevaluate the value of this ancient practice.
If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of flowing water somewhere nearby. And just ahead, the majestic yet austere sight of the Mount Hakusan range glows in the evening sun.