Trekking with Tengu

“Trekking with Tengu”: It sounds like a book that Gilderoy Lockhart, of Harry Potter fame, might have written if he had visited Japan. I was also aiming to write a book – in my case, the second Simon Grey book – and I wanted to learn more about these creatures that play such a prominent role in Japanese mythology. And the best place to find them, I thought, would be Mt. Takao, a mountain just west of Tokyo, said to be their home.

Tengu are a human-like, winged type of yokai. The lesser tengu have bird-like faces, while the greater tengu have human faces with long noses. They are notoriously proud and boastful, and in Japan, making a fist in front of your nose is a way of telling someone, “You’re acting like a tengu” – in other words, bragging or showing off. But the tengu’s high opinion of themselves is not unjustified: They are known to possess vast stores of secret knowledge about philosophy, medicine, and the martial arts. Some famous Japanese warriors, notably the twelfth-century general Minamoto no Yoshitsune, are said to have taken lessons from them.

Tengu have played various other roles in Japanese mythology besides supernatural drill instructors. Sometimes, they are portrayed as mischievous spirits who abduct human children. (The nineteenth-century scholar Hirata Atsutane met a boy who was reportedly kidnapped by tengu, and wrote a book based on extensive interviews with him.) Some Buddhists see them as tormentors, sent to test the resolve of practitioners by distracting them from their meditation. And some revere them as messengers of the gods, like angels in the West. It was this last group that I was interested in: the yamabushi.

Yamabushi on Mt. Takao

Yamabushi are practitioners of Shugendo, a religion that blends Buddhism and Shinto with a generous dash of tengu lore. The word “yamabushi” is often misinterpreted (even by Japanese people) as “mountain warrior.” The similarity with the word for “warrior” (bushi), along with the tengu’s legendary skill in martial arts, has created a popular image of yamabushi as ninja-like figures, living in secluded mountain temples and practicing the secret fighting arts they learned from their otherworldly mentors. However, the “bushi” of “yamabushi” is actually written with an entirely different character, meaning “to prostrate oneself”. In other words, yamabushi are “those who offer themselves to the mountains.” As one of them put it, “Going to the mountains means entering the body of Buddha.”

I signed up for a weekend course that offered a sample of the ascetic training the yamabushi undergo: chanting while climbing, meditating under waterfalls, and walking on hot coals. (Some of their more extreme practices, like bathing in a boiling cauldron or climbing a ladder made of sword blades, are only for initiates. I was perfectly happy to leave them to it.)

We assembled at a temple at the base of the mountain. After reciting a prayer – for peace in the world, safety on the trail, and a satisfying experience for all – the yamabushi blew their conch-shell horns, and we set off up the mountain. The shopkeepers at the trailhead bowed with folded hands as we passed by in a single-file line chanting “Rokkon-shojo!” (a prayer for purification of the “six elements” that make up the body: two eyes, two ears, tongue, and heart).

Our first stop was Biwa Falls, for the waterfall meditation. The yamabushi who met us there had a manner – not to mention a haircut – reminiscent of a Marine gunnery sergeant. First, he had us sprinkle ourselves generously with salt, which is often used for purification in Japanese rituals – but so much of it that even before I started, I felt I could call myself a seasoned practitioner.

As I waited my turn, I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into. I couldn’t see my fellow pilgrims as they took their turns under the waterfall, but I saw them as they staggered back, soaked and shivering. I could also hear their invocations of the Buddhist deity Daisho Fudo Myo-o, the Great Immovable One, shouted at the top of their lungs, and I could only imagine what Gunny must be doing to draw forth such volume:

“Sound off!”
Namu Daisho Fudo Myo-o!

My turn finally came. I have no idea how long I actually spent under the waterfall, only that it felt like much more than long enough. It was probably only a few minutes, and I felt sorry for Simon, who would have to endure it for much longer.

We continued up the trail, past little wayside shrines and the occasional sign warning, “Caution: Tengu,” until we arrived at our lodgings at Yakuouin Temple, on top of the mountain. A giant tengu mask watched over the room where we were to spend the night. This prompted me to ask one of the yamabushi about tengu.

“Do you know of anyone who’s seen a real one?” I asked.

He shook his head. “This mountain is known for flying squirrels,” he said. “It could be that someone saw one once and thought it was a tengu.”

As evening fell, we gathered in the great hall for the ceremony of goma (purification by fire). Under the watchful eye of tengu statues, the chief priest kindled a fire in the middle of the temple, and to the accompaniment of chanted sutras, burned a stack of gomagi (wooden tablets on which visitors had written prayer requests). As the flames and sparks soared higher, and the chanting grew ever faster, to the point where the voluminous sleeves of the monk beating time on the huge drum were flailing so wildly that he looked like a tengu himself, I felt that if these mystical creatures really did live on this mountain, we could hardly fail to attract their attention.

The next morning, I was so stiff all over that I felt I could challenge Daisho Fudo Myo-o for the title of “Immovable One.” As we were preparing to head back down, I asked another of the yamabushi about tengu.

“Do you know anyone who’s seen one?”

She hesitated. “Well…not personally.”

But something about her hesitation, and the expression on her face, prompted me to inquire further: “Do you believe in them?”

She paused again, then nodded. “Yes. Yes, I do.”

After a meal of shojin-ryori (vegan Buddhist cooking), we headed back down the mountain (in silence this time; perhaps the yamabushi judged us to have already been sufficiently purified). Our last stop was at a field near the base of the mountain for the saito-goma ceremony, a smaller version of Mt. Takao’s great annual firewalking festival. For this ritual, a mound of logs, branches and gomagi are set alight in a great bonfire, and when the flames die down, pilgrims walk barefoot across the coals. (By the time the ordinary participants have their turn, the coals have cooled to a manageable degree, but I had to admire the yamabushi who went first. Their years of ascetic discipline must have given them tremendous strength of soul – or at least sole.)

Yamabushi walking on coals at Firewalking Festival

At last, we returned to the temple where we had started, and went our separate ways, but I was still no closer to encountering a tengu. Before I left, I decided to seize my final chance to talk to a yamabushi.

“Do you know of anyone who’s seen tengu?” I asked.

He looked at me wide-eyed and drew in a breath, as though I had reminded him of something remarkable. “Well, there is a story,” he said. “Make of it what you will.” And he told me:

In the fourteenth century, Shungen Daitoku, a famous monk from Kyoto, came to Mt. Takao to perform a secret ritual that involved burning 8,000 gomagi. According to legend, at the height of the ceremony, he saw a vision of a “long-nosed inin” widely believed to be a tengu, specifically Izuna Daigongen, the guardian deity whose statue had pride of place in the temple’s inner sanctum.

The word inin is made up of the characters for “different” and “person”. In this case, it was interpreted to mean “something different from a person,” i.e. “something not human.” But at the time, it could equally well have been read as “a different person,” i.e. a foreigner. So, the yamabushi concluded, perhaps it really was a tengu from another realm that Shungen Daitoku saw in his vision. “Or perhaps,” he went on to say, “it was an ordinary person from another country…like you.”

That took me aback. I had come to Mt. Takao in search of tengu – but if I hadn’t found any, maybe it was because I was the thing I was searching for. As I boarded the train home, a poem came to me to summarize the experience (with apologies to Gelett Burgess):

I’ve never seen a tengu (real),
Perhaps I’ll never see one.
But still, I cannot help but feel
I’d rather see than be one.

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