The Tateyama Mountain Range in eastern Toyama Prefecture is comprised of many mountains rising more than 2,500 meters high. The treacherous peaks are home to Tateyama Shinko, a unique system of local religious beliefs. It is said that climbing the mountains is like a journey around heaven and hell. Welcome to the Tateyama Mountains, home to a close-knit community and alpine scenery dotted with sacred places.
From the four winds and the scent of the earth..., come the color of the seasons.
Exploring the four seasons of Japan.
A 14-meter high snow wall towers above the road.
This is the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, a world-renowned touring route that snakes between peaks up to 3000 meters high.
As of 2022, it has been open for more than 50 years and continues to attract tourists.
The Tateyama mountain range, which looms over the route, has for centuries been considered a sacred home of the gods.
It is said that climbing this mountain is like a journey around heaven and hell.
And the first hellish spot is right here.
Here in this depression
is a pond called Mikurigaike.
It used to be known as Hell's Pond.
In the local religion, people are submerged
into this freezing lake as a punishment.
Here is the pond.
You can see how people are
nearly drowning in the cold water.
This artwork depicts various scenes of heaven and hell spread throughout the Tateyama Mountains.
People believed that journeying around the various "hells" would wash away their sins and impurities, allowing them to go to heaven.
During the era of the samurai, devotees were attracted to the mountain from across the country.
Human beings can't understand
the power of nature.
It is not that we decide to live,
rather nature enables us to live.
A village at the base of the Tateyama Mountains continues to venerate these peaks, with believers moving between this world and the next.
I ask Enma to tell me how my
husband is doing in the next world.
I pray that Enma does not
send my husband down to hell.
Welcome to the Tateyama Mountains, home of a close-knit community and alpine scenery dotted with sacred places.
The Tateyama Mountain Range, in eastern Toyama Prefecture, is comprised of many mountains rising more than 2500 meters high.
The treacherous peaks are home to Tateyama Shinko, a unique system of local religious beliefs.
At the foot of the mountains is a small village that climbers in years past always used to visit.
The village of Ashikuraji is a small settlement with just over 270 residents.
It has long been a center of the Tateyama Shinko religion.
In samurai days, locals inns welcomed pilgrims coming to worship the mountains.
Here, we are looking straight ahead at Mt. Dainichi, a mountain said to represent the Buddha.
It's hard to imagine what it
used to look like around here.
Down the years, Saeki Minoru's ancestors ran one of the local inns.
The Saeki's, my family, provided
accommodation for travelers, so did the family on the
other side of the street.
The family next-door, and
even the next family down, who are both Saeki's too,
did the same.
The majority of people living in the village are descended from Saeki Ariyori, the monk who first established religious practice in the Tateyama Mountains around 1300 years ago.
Saeki Minoru, from a 400-year-old branch of the family, is a 54th generation Saeki.
He is proud to tell stories of Tateyama's religious history.
I remember seeing the mandala
when I was younger.
Of course it was frightening.
The devils were pulling out the
tongues of people who had lied.
We were told that if we lied
this would happen to us too.
There were also pictures of people in the
afterlife being crushed in a mortar and pestle.
This artwork, known as a Tateyama Mandala, was used by local people to spread the word about their religion.
Under the religion, punishments in the afterlife are determined by previous behavior.
The various diabolical trials take place in actual locations on the Tateyama mountains.
The relationship between the mountain and the afterlife is at the heart of the religion.
Local people eventually came to believe that the Amida Buddha's Western paradise is also on the mountain.
Ashikuraji was once home to 33 separate lodgings for travellers reaching the mountains.
All these inns have now closed down and only two inhabited houses remain.
This is the last of the Ashikuraji inns.
Every summer, in samurai times, up to 6,000 people from across the country would use Ashikuraji as a base for entering the mountains.
It was the inn owners who worked hard to encourage visits to Tateyama.
These owners, known as "shuto," were deep believers in the local religion.
During the winter, the shuto would travel around the country with their Buddhist images of hell, promoting Tateyama as a destination of pilgrimage.
These artworks help us understand
the teaching visually.
you can look and instantly figure it out!
You can see the Buddhinst hell,
the Buddhist paradise, the world of the Buddha,
and the natural world.
The mandala served as a pamphlet
From on high, Tateyama looks down on the village.
The mountain itself is unchanged from those days of pilgrimage.
When entering the mountains, pilgrims would require a guide known as a "chugo," who serves as a mediator between the human and other worlds.
Saeki Tomohiko, who was born in Ashikuraji, is descended from one of the chugo.
Chugo had deep knowledge of the mountains.
Tomohiko's great grandfather Heizo was a legendary guide who reached the sharp peaks crowning Mt.Tsurugi.
The chugo's experience of operating in cold, inhospitable environments also proved useful in other areas.
Japan's first-ever expedition to Antarctica in 1956 included five Saeki's from Ashikuraji.
Can you see it?
What is this?
This is a thermal valley, the
volcanic activity is very strong.
Volcanic gas shoots skyward, and the smell of sulfur pervades the air.
We're up here looking down on the valley.
This part of the mandala
is where the hell is.
It's a frightening place as it's
the court of the demon Enma.
If someone has done wrong, he judges them as
an evildoer and sends them straight down to hell.
Pilgrims to Tateyama would progress around 136 of these religious sites on the mountain.
what I should change, and whether I'm causing hurt.
By looking at the various "hells" on this
mandala, I can reflect on my actions, consider what I should change,
whether I'm causing hurt.
It's like looking into a
mirror and seeing my soul.
Various gods and Buddhas are shown in
and around Mt. Jodo and Mt. Oyama.
The artwork surviving today
shows people meeting the gods.
I have met the gods and the
Buddha there six times myself.
Let's go this way.
The path leads towards Mt. Jodo, which is shown in the Tateyama mandala as a Buddhist paradise.
Along the path is a 300-year old mountain hut that's no longer in use, but still remains standing.
This is an extremely old building,
it is known as the Murodo hut.
It was built in 1726.
It is the oldest wooden
mountain hut in Japan, and is registered as an
important cultural property.
The Tateyama Mandala show pilgrims visiting the Murodo hut.
We can take a quick look inside.
Records show that once 200 people crammed in to spent the night here.
Near the summit, snow remains even in mid-June.
This journey is a day trip, but in samurai times, people would spend two days traveling around the mountain's sacred sites.
We've reached the top.
Take a look at the view. These
are the Tateyama Mountains.
The summit of Mt. Jodo is 2830 meters about sea level.
But why is the peak thought so sacred?
Can you see the black building straight
ahead there? It is on Mt.Oyama.
Normally, when people talk about climbing
Tateyama, they mean climbing Oyama.
If you face towards Oyama from here
then in the evening around sunset, the sun shines on your back and your own shadow
is projected onto the clouds in front of you.
That shadow, called a Brocken spectre,
has a rainbow-colored halo around it which in the past people
thought was a god or Buddha.
After walking through the hellish landscapes, emerging onto the peak is truly like paradise.
Tateyama is home to Japan's Shomyo waterfall, the highest waterfall in Japan which boasts a drop of 350 meters.
Water from melted snow flows down to forests and fields; providing its riches to communities at foot of the mountain.
The waterfall also appears in the mandala.
The sound of the flowing water resembles a Buddhist chant.
Near the waterfall, is a secret spot known only to local people.
Look at the color of these bamboo
shoots. They're delicious.
We call them Susutake.
Let's go and pick some.
The cooler air at 1,600 meters in altitude is ideal for various edible mountain plants.
See how much is growing here.
All this from just this one location.
This is Saeki Matsuo.
He has been coming to the mountains since his father brought him here as a child.
These are Asian royal ferns.
I won't take all of them.
If we remove everything,
the roots will wither.
We always leave two or three stalks, so that we
can enjoy the plant in the following year.
In Ashikuraji, people teach no one other than their own children where to find the mountain plants.
Matsuo owns a restaurant that sits alongside the road running down from the waterfall.
This is mountain asparagus.
This is "koshiabura," it's hard to find.
It's delicious as "tempura".
Matsuo carefully select young leaves and stalks to use in his dishes, preparing them on the same day he picks them.
The taste, which starts off somewhat bitter but gradually mellows, is very distinctive.
The harvest from the mountain is surprisingly soft, fresh and succulent.
With a fine taste and pleasing aroma, the food is heavenly too.
Many customers love the food so much they return to the restaurant every year.
The mountain plants all have a slight
bitter taste. I find it very delicious.
Alongside it famous food, the restaurant is also well-known because of Matsuo's father, 100-year-old Kameo.
Every day, he still fries the tempura.
Are you done?
You're 100, and you're amazing!
Kameo says that continuing to work is the secret to longevity.
I've never wanted to stop.
As an old man, I would
have nothing to do if I did.
I always eat the food
from the mountain.
Eat fresh food and exercise,
that's the best thing to do.
In Ashikuraji, there ia a bridge that connects this world to the next.
Long ago, all pilgrims coming to Tateyama crossed the Nuno bridge.
The side of the bridge by the village belongs to this world.
On the other side of the bridge is the mountainous realm of the gods.
In those days, women were for bidden from entering the mountains.
Instead of entering the mountains, women ceremonially crossed the bridge as a prayer to reach paradise in the afterlife.
The Nuno Bridge is another location included in the mandala.
Before crossing the bridge, female pilgrims would enter a small building where they confessed their sins to the demon Enma.
In the hall is a statue of Enma said to be around seven or eight hundred years old.
Enma is a demon who judges human beings.
Confessing before Enma reduces the burden of sin.
Enma enjoys offerings
of traditional foods.
We bring boiled dishes, also beans.
After making the offering, we
all eat the offering together.
This is a video from spring 1970 of a Buddhist ceremony held in the Hall of Enma to venerate the villagers' ancestors.
In Ashikuraji, the men worked in the mountains, leaving the women to prepare various ceremonies to pray for peace at home and in community.
After the ceremony, attendees gather together to eat, talk and enjoy each other's company.
These occasions were important social events for the local women.
Saeki Teruyo is responsible for looking after the hall and organizing the various events it hosts.
When we were children, we
were always being told that Enma would pull our tongues
out of we told lies.
The word for dad in our dialect
was "akattotta" or "red father", a reference to the red demon Enma.
I felt like I needed some energy.
While fathers were compared to Enma, another local deity was considered a mother figure.
These statues, in the form of an old woman, are statues of Onba.
Onba, a human representation of Mt. Dainichi, has been the object of veneration for thousands of years.
Onba is a benevolent god who pours favor on human beings.
As woman were traditionally not allowed to climb the mountain, Onba would help guide them to Buddhist paradise.
Onba came here to Ashikura
with food and clothing, that is why she is really
important to local women.
Teruyo was born and grew up in Ashikuraji.
She started taking responsibility for the Hall of Enma as it happened to be next to her husband's house.
This mountain asparagus was picked this
morning. See how delicious it looks.
The mountain asparagus is a present from a friend.
Teruyo's husband used to go into the mountains to gather the plants but he died three years ago.
Whether clearing leaves in the fall or shoveling snow in winter, Namio always helped his wife take care of the hall.
He had cancer. In just
eight months he was gone.
Even after her husband's passing, Teruyo still thinks of him all the time.
I ask Enma "how's my husband doing?
"Don't send him to hell."
I say,"Send him to paradise instead."
Teruyo completes her morning routine by saying her prayers to the mother figure Onba, the goddess of Mt. Dainichi.
From my point of view, it feels like she's
protecting me. From there to here, directly.
The mountain is watching over Ashikuraji.
In Ashikuraji, after residents die, their souls remain in the mountains.
The peak is wonderful today.
The scenery is fantastic.
It energizes me.
Saeki Tomohiko, who led the way to Mt. Jodo, has, since the summer of 2021, been helping children feeling down during the pandemic by taking them to the mountains.
Can you see that?
From the top of the mountain,
you can see the sea.
The mountains run all the way
towards the Noto Peninsula.
It looks like you can dive from
the mountains into the sea!
Ever since the Tateyama Shinko religion emerged, people have travelled into the mountains.
And just three years ago, the first-ever female guide joined their ranks.
This is Sakai Megumi.
It can be so hot like summer
as the foot of the mountain, while still being a silvery white
world on top of the mountain.
That's what's incredible about Tateyama.
In early July, Tomohiko and Megumi set out to climb Oyama, Tateyama's main peak.
Tomohiko and Megumi recently became husband and wife, marrying in June 2021.
This is their first trip to the shrine on the mountain top since their wedding, and they have a special reason for making the climb.
Saeki Ariyori, the monk who established the mountains as a place of worship, is said to have climbed the mountain at the age of sixteen.
That is why young people in Toyama today climb the mountain as an initiation into adulthood.
As chugo, or mountain guides, Tomohiko and Megumi are both committed to passing down the local culture.
This region was once called Ecchu.
The tradition in Ecchu was to climb
Tateyama to become an adult, and that tradition is still part of
the culture in Toyama today.
That is why we are organizing
the mountain climbing challenge.
This might be a little presumptuous, but we hope this event become as big as
the ritual initiation climb was in year's past.
The sacred sites of Tateyama are an opportunity for the living to examine their life and reflect on their conduct.
On this mountain, which takes believers to hell and to heaven, the summer passes by in a flash.