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Have You Ever Heard of the Japanese Superman?

Wonder Japan

Japan In-depth

Have You Ever Heard of the Japanese Superman?The flying shaman En-no-Gyoja of Mt. Yoshino, Japan's supreme cherry blossom spot

Yoshino in Nara Prefecture has been famous since ancient times as Japan's number one cherry blossom viewing spot. When I visited Mt. Yoshino in mid-April, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. The whole mountain was covered with them. The cherries of Yoshino are slightly different from the standard cherry trees (Someiyoshino, or Prunus yedoensis) that you see all over Japan.
They are called Yamazakura (Prunus jamasakura) and grow leaves at the same time as the flowers, which are an elegant, faint pink. The cherries of Yoshino are sacred trees, and have been carefully cultivated all over the mountain. Every year in mid-April they present one of the most magnificent sights of Japan.

The cherry blossom has become the emblematic flower of Japanese traditional culture. The famous 12th century poet Saigyo Hoshi, who lived on Mt. Yoshino, loved cherry blossoms to the extend that he proclaimed that he wanted to die beneath a cherry tree. Today's Japanese too still love their cherry blossoms. Their blooming signals the end of winter and bring the feeling of openness of spring, but the way they rapidly burst into blossom soon to scatter again is also often compared to the fleetingness of human life itself.

Climbing past inns and souvenir shops, I enter a restaurant along the path and have a meal of Kakinoha-zushi, the local specialty. This is a very tasty kind of pressed sushi made with salted mackerel wrapped in persimmon leaves.

Midway up the mountain, I come to a giant temple gate. This is Zaoudou. At the center of the gloomy main hall stands a huge, black, strange-looking statue of Zaou Gongen, who makes a terrifying impression.

Further in, I come across an image of a mysterious old man called En-no-Gyoja (or En-no-Ozuno) flanked by two grotesque dwarves named Zenki and Kouki.
En-no-Gyoja was a 7th century Japanese mountain wizard. Old Chinese mythology is full of such mountain wizards who can fly, live on pine needles, never grow old and have other supernatural powers acquired through long ascetic practice in seclusion deep in the mountains. Such stories were transmitted to Japan along with a wide range of other aspects of Chinese culture. En-no-Gyoja too was such an ascetic, who was believed to possess supernatural powers. Among other things, he is said to have spanned a bridge through the air from his home on Mt. Katsuragi to Mt. Yoshino, and flown from Izu-Oshima island to the top of Mt. Fuji. It was supposedly also he who discovered Zaou Gongen.

Zaou Gongen is a Buddha made in Japan. Buddhism originated in India and came to Japan via China, but the Japanese soon started customizing the traditional Buddhas and adapt them to their own culture. Zaou Gongen is believed to be a fusion of three other Japanese deities and Buddhas, but En-no-Gyoja made him the main god of the ascetic Shugendo sect.

Ever since, the region of steep mountains between Zaoudou and Kumano 200 km to the south has been considered the birthplace of this unique Japanese mountain religion. You can still find several places for harsh training along that way, such as Nishi-no-nozoki, where disciples were suspended in mid-air over a precipitous cliff.

In Shugendo, the mountain is regarded as the mother. A disciple dies in order be reborn from the mountain. Ways of living with nature and learning from nature are at the very basis of Japanese culture. Shugendo spread from Yoshino all over the country. In the Tohoku region, for example, there is a famous ski and hot spring resort named Zao, which also takes its name from Zaou Gongen. Perhaps Zaou Gongen can be thought of as the stern father figure who sees off the disciples as they set out for their training – and to be reborn by Mother Nature.

From Osaka: Approx. 1 h 20 min by express train from Kintetsu Abenobashi Station to Yoshino.
From Kyoto: Approx. 1 h 40 min by express train from Kintetsu Kyoto Station via Kashihara-jingumae to Yoshino.
From Nagoya: Approx. 3 h 30 min by express train from Kintetsu Nagoya Station via Yamato-yagi and Kashihara-jingumae to Yoshino.


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