An Interview with Yamabushi Daisaburo Sakamoto

I first encountered Daisaburo through his work at REBORN art festival in 2019. What follows is a mash up of a few interviews I've translated on his journey with Shugendo.

First printed in Asahi's "&M" column, 2019. Written by Ayumu Ishikawa, photographed by Kiyoyuki Shiramatsu. Translation by Jisho.

Daisaburo Sakamoto (坂本大三郎; 43 years old) previously lived in Tokyo where he worked as an illustrator. Sakamoto's interest in Shugendo was initially sparked through his desire to understand the birth of art and specifically performance art. Sakamoto learnt that historically Yamabushi were deeply involved in the spreading of culture and this started his journey to participating in the Aki-no-Mine Mountain-Training of Mt. Haguro's Shozen-in Temple and Daishobo Shinto Pilgrim Lodging (大聖坊) at the age of 30. This was when he discovered a strong relationship between the mountain-cultures of Shugendo and the creation of the arts.

Sakamoto is currently based in Yamagata prefecture where he lives at the foot of Mt. Gassan (湯殿山), one of the three sacred mountains of 'Dewa Sanzan' (出羽三山), renowned as training grounds for practitioners of Shugendo. His time is spent undertaking various activities as a Yamabushi, as an illustrator and running a small shop he opened (13o'clock). He has also published three books:

"Yamabushi and I",
"Yamabushi Note" and
"Mountain Pantheons: Tracing down its folklore and myth".

"Yamabushi are characterised by their practices on sacred mountains which have been sites of worship since ancient times, and are also referred to as 'gyoja' or 'shugenja'. Across history these people were involved in the lives of the common people as bearers of folk religion, holding festivals and bringing back a unique kind of wisdom from their travels back and forth between mountains and villages."

From the perspective of modern people living lives of convenience, it is hard to imagine the harsh practices of Shugendo. Mr. Sakamoto however hints that the wisdom and techniques of ancient Shugendo are still relevant, and contain essential knowledge which can help people live powerful lives in our current times.

"There’s also a shamanistic side to the Yamabushi, you know. The people who originally lived on the Japanese archipelago believed deities and spirits existed in nature. Yamabushi culture and the Shugendo religion came from an amalgamation of various beliefs like the Buddhism that was later brought to Japan, Shinto, and the way of Yin and Yang. Do you know the word “Hijiri”? It refers to someone who knows the workings of the sun, moon and stars, and in the past Yamabushi mountain ascetics were also called Hijiri. Since farming began, it had been vital to know the calendar in order to know when to sow seeds and harvest crops, so for a long time the Hijiri Yamabushi connected nature and people in a shamanistic way.

Yamabushi developed from the animist cultures of the Jomon period. When I discovered the Yamabushi were closely involved with traditional Japanese arts and accomplishments as well, for the first time I felt closer to the Yamabushi. I wanted to learn from Yamabushi culture how our ancestors living in the Japanese archipelago engaged with the object of their beliefs i.e. nature, and what customs, habits and culture this created. So ten years ago I headed for Haguro to learn.

There have been temples and shrines on Mount Haguro for about 1400 years. When you consider how many people have come and gone to the mountain over that time with so many different thoughts and feelings, it’s enough to make you shiver slightly. Incidentally, people come to the world of Yamabushi for a variety of reasons, so in the past it was taboo to ask someone why they became a Yamabushi. But whatever your situation may be, every one is the same on the mountain. It was thought that the mountain was another world beyond the control of the powers that be, so Yamabushi would hold their own funeral, and because they considered themselves deceased when they came to the mountain, nothing was made of their deeds in secular society."

From a conversation between Daisaburo Sakamoto and Food Artist Satoko Kobiyama

Processing things from the Mountain:

Mr. Sakamoto runs a shop named "13 O'clock" in Yamagata. 13 O'Clock specialises in slightly unusual items such as straw sandals, natural fibers, folk remedies, bear fur and items made from things found in the mountains.

"During Reborn Art Festival, where I participated as an artist, I also had folk-remedy-cordial available made from mountain-grapes. We're also currently looking into "beech-butter" made by crushing beechnuts collected from the mountains and bags made by knitting the bark of wild cherry trees."

For Mr. Sakamoto, creating objects from things harvested in the mountain is an important part of keeping alive the mountain culture which is disappearing under modern civilisation.

"When people hear the word 'Yamabushi', they think about entering the mountain in which clothes, standing under waterfalls and praying. But the Yamabushi life is about more than these over religious aspects. I'm interested in the cultural role of Yamabushi which took the form of connecting and guiding people into the cosmology of the mountain. In modern times, Yamabushi for the most part are far removed from the everyday life of common people, but until the Edo period they served central roles in the community as doctors, herbalists, guides, counsellors, tending to all the daily needs of the people. Rites of passage, guiding people through sacred mountains, arranging lodging-places to stay, opening temple-schools to teach reading and writing, organising community festivities - these were all much more familiar to us than they are nowadays. There is a perception that the need for culture, ceremony and rites of passage has diminished in our modern society and that 'distance' between us, mountains and nature have grown further apart. Unless we protect and inherit these things they will disappear. Through my shop I'm experimenting with the potential to reduce this 'distance'.

Mountain Wisdom
When Mr. Sakamoto enters the mountain, he collects wild plants and sometimes eats frogs, snakes, and insects. It is a situation that we, who live in the city, cannot imagine, but it seems that Mr. Sakamoto has put into practice the wisdom of Shugendo-mountain-life.

"You can survive for about a week without food, but water is a necessity. There's all kinds of folk practices still alive, like wrapping a towel around the feet to absorb the morning due, methods of collecting water from branches and so on."

Beechnuts that Mr. Sakamoto picked from the mountains. Beech nuts are harvested only once every four to five years, and in the year of a good harvest, a nutritious bear gives birth during hibernation, and the following year the chances of encountering a bear with a child increase.

"Sadly there are many animals run over by cars in the mountain and their bodies are left on the road. I collect the fur of racoon-dogs which are used in the hisshiki (引敷) backside-pelt of the Yamabushi outfit. I take home skins and cure them. Fresh carcasses can also be used as food. Methods for picking beech nuts, methods for navigating mountain-terrain, methods for procuring water - this is all wisdom that survives in nature. The culture inherited by humanity's ancient ancestors is something we can reconnect with. So much of what constitutes ancient culture, which is seen as useless from the perspective of modern life, in my opinion is key for securing the wellbeing of our future."

There are important things that cannot be expressed in words.

The content of Shugendo training is prohibited to outsiders. This kind of secrecy is important.

"For example, one is forbidden from speaking about the sacred body (神体; shintai) of Mount Yudono. However by introducing the sacred chants, by talking about the natural scenery around the sacred body, and so on, it can convey in some way what is at the center. Why don't we talk about the center? The essence shifts the moment you try and put it into words. There's a danger that words may not be able to accurately express this essence. In our modern age, the importance of ambiguity and paradox are neglected and not valued. I think it's important that some corners of the world preserve the idea of "important things that are not to be expressed in words."

"Don’t you think forbidding talking is an important value? Since ancient times, talking around something when discussing something important, rather than talking about the heart of the matter, has been at the root of Japanese culture. The point is that no words can describe things with impeccable accuracy. The instant you describe Mount Yudono, something important crumbles away. People of old understood the nature of “don’t ask don’t tell” so they didn’t readily discuss things that were truly important. The quintessence of Japanese culture is spoken of without words.

There have been many instances when I’ve stopped understanding what on earth I should live by and believe in when that happens. I myself have also lived in Tokyo, and you can lead a full life there if you condense the mass of compelling information down to your own needs. But as the years went by I thought if I didn’t base myself in something more solid, something that didn’t change on a daily basis, I would eventually be unable to keep going. One of the solutions for me was the Yamabushi. The Yamabushi values that developed from the Jomon period onwards are the oldest values I can trace back. I thought that if you took these as a starting point for thinking about things, many things would become clear. By learning for a fact what being Yamabushi meant in the past and through experiencing the Yamabushi life for myself, I have managed to establish “nature” inside me where it is beyond the influence of the judgement of others.

And even more important is knowing there are various layers to reality. Everyday life would be untenable without rationality and functionality, but reality also includes layers of irrationality. As you know the heart doesn’t always make rational judgements. Perhaps life is made richer by listening to the voices in our hearts. But if we only said irrational things, we would no longer be able to interact with others. A sense of knowing you can’t ignore any of the layers is important, I think."

From a conversation between Daisaburo Sakamoto and Food Artist Satoko

Living with dignity without being completely swallowed by the system.

Mr. Sakamoto now makes a living by exhibiting his works as an artist at illustrator, writing, store management, and performing at art festivals. Underlying everything is curiosity, and the goal is to continue the quest for culture for as long as possible. Many people, whether they work for a company or freelance, experience the difficulty of "doing what they love." What makes Mr. Sakamoto continue?

"When I was young I worked part time in customer service and struggled to say "irashaimase" (いらっしゃいませ; welcome to the store) with a smile on my face. In my twenties I thought I'd become an office worker, but I noticed that I wasn't really cut out for that kind of work and struggled to get hired. From there, I had to shift and think creatively. My job is pretty niche (laughs). I don't earn much money but hope that in pursuing these interests, I'll be able to have a positive impact on society and influence peoples perspectives."

It can be said that paradoxically, it is difficult to discern matters clearly in the present age despite the fact that information and communication are available at the touch of a button. Mr. Sakamoto's words, which add his own unique experiences to the long-held wisdom of Yamabushi, conveys something of the importance of this way of thinking.

Sakamoto's Book, "Yamabushi Note"

The following is taken from the preface of Sakamoto's book, "Yamabushi Note".  From this and a snapshot of the chapters we can get an overview of Sakamoto's way of thinking. Translated by Jisho:

Preface to Yamabushi Note:
The Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa (出羽三山) are located in Tohoku in Yamagata prefecture. One day I was travelling in the deepest place of the mountain near a village-site named Hijiori (肘折), a path that has been long forgotten. There are no roads here, and the area is completely surrounded by Beech-nut forest. In this place it's not uncommon to come across bears. Rocks in the area are completely covered by moss and the gaps in between the foliage make it seem like the sunlight hangs on the branches like thread, making the vegetation a bright shining green colour. It is in this kind of atmosphere that one can get a sense of the mono, or spirits of the place. I call this area the 'Spirit-Pass' (精霊の道). Traversing through the 'Spirit-Pass' one arrives at a sacred site named 'oike' which in the past many pilgrims and worshipers visited. Nobody visits there now, and it has an atmosphere as if time were frozen. This area, 'oike' features a lake with no streams or channels flowing into it. The amount of water is always the same, however. It is a mysterious place that is said to connect with a water source deep within the earth. The lake is perfectly round, like a mirror. As the echoing of my conch shell rang out i stared into the surface which reflected the surrounded scenery perfectly.

Yamabushi are said to practice in order to obtain genriki (験力), or 'spiritual power', however this concept is of no concern to me. Encountering the culture of Yamabushi, I had the desire to see into how those in ancient times lived, and the ways in which nature was negotiated with throughout history. I believe that through Shugendo, we can see a glimpse into the origin of culture. Through practicing, we can grasp culture in a three dimensional way, as opposed to the single plane of the present. Compared to decades ago, our lives have become more convenient and materially richer. On the other hand, non-synthetic life is gradually being removed from our everyday realities. I believe this leads to a poverty of the heart, and that there is lots to be learnt from the existence of Yamabushi.

Chapter Listing:

The Genealogy of Yamabushi
Respecting our Natural World: How do we live?
The Boundary Between Nature and Humanity
Creating Passages between Nature and People
Life and Death: Yamabushi and the Meiji Restoration
Wonders of Existence
Shamans and the Sun
The Power of Words
The Universe
The Quality of Our Consciousness
Yamabushi and Mountain Mythology

Art and 'Things'
The Heart that Dwells in 'Things'
'Things' and Japan
Other Power Thought
Thoughts Appear in 'Things'
Places with No Relationships
Monocultures and Images of Darkness
Lost Wisdom
The Heart of Connection
Eating Nature: People live by eating other lives
The Rich Diets of the Jomon Period

The Influence of Zen and Buddhist Diet
The Circulation of Life
Matagi Culture
Food and Circulation
Reading Nature
Predicting Weather
Predicting Animal Behaviour
Exploring Mineral Sources
Festivities and Sexual Relations
Sex, Life and Death
Body, Festival and Nature
Nature Alive in the Body
Gongen-Mai and Dances Which Connect with Divinity
Performing Arts
Bon Dances which convey Jomon Culture
Nature and Festivals

See also:

The bodily senses we should trust in today

Reborn Art Festival

A Spiritual Pilgrimage to Shōnai, Japan

Daisaburo's latest book on Mountain Deitiy.

A day of pilgrimage with Sakamoto

A trip to Yoshino with Sakamoto

13 O'Clock Shop

Yamagata Travel Bureau: Sakamoto

Article on Sakamoto's Shop

An Interview with Daisaburo Sakamoto