Mount Ōmine (1,719m) is strongly associated with the Yamabushi, mountain ascetic hermits practising the Shugendō, an ascetic religion of oneness between Man and Nature. At least since the Heian period Mount Ōmine-san has served as a retreat for them to practice on their ascetic and shamanistic rites. Shugendō is an atypical religion blending aspects of Buddhism with prehistoric shamanism. The Kumano region, in the southern part of the Kii Peninsula, displays a similar syncretism between Buddhism and Shintoism.
The monastery at Mount Ōmine, Ōminesan-ji (大峯山寺), was established in the 8th century by En no Gyōja (役行者), founder of the Shugendō. The practicioners of Shugendō are supposed to go through challenging and rigorous ritualistic tests of courage and devotion known as shugyō (修行). There are three shugyō on Mount Ōmine:
- Kane Kake Iwa (鐘掛け岩 ; "The Hanging Stone"): ascend a 20m craggy summit with the help of a chain and swinging over a overhanging rock blocking the top.
- Nishi no Nozuki (西の除き ; "The Insight from the West"): novices are held head-first over a 65m-tall cliff and forced to to admit their shortcomings and swear to follow the social and religious rules.
- Byōdō Iwa (平等岩 ; "The Rock of Equality") : climbing a sheer rock tower overlooking a deep precipice.
Note that Mount Ōmine is officially known as Mount Sanjō (山上ヶ岳, Sanjō-ga-take ; lit. "Mountaintop peak"), and will be indicated as such on most maps. Other summits part of the Ōmine-san mountain range include the Inamura-ga-take (稲村ヶ岳 - 1,726m), 2km south-west, known as the Women's Ōmine, and the Hachikyō-ga-take (八経ヶ岳 - 1,915m), 10 km south-west, which the the highest peak in the Kansai region.
Women banned from Ōmine-san
From the 10th century, Ōmine-san assumed the status of most sacred mountain in Japan. It was devoted to the practice of ascetism, in which men are supposed to abstain from worldly pleasures, including sex or even lust. As a result, the whole pilgrimage route to Ōmine-san became prohibited to women since the late 13th century. The ban was not lifted until the 1960's and some particular places are still off-limit to the weaker sex. This is the case of Ōminesan-ji Temple, which as four gates with bilingual signs explicitly forbidding passage to women.
Women have long been considered impure by many religions (including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam) because of the stains of menstruations. This caused a controversy in 2004 when the Yoshino-Ōmine region was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Amnesty International objected to the UNESCO, requesting them to drop Ōmine-san from the World Heritage list on basis that their ban on women was a violation of human rights. The UNESCO head office in Paris disregarded the admonition, explaining that they did not require or guarantee that all sites have unrestricted access.
The UNESCO's decision is understandable when one considers that traditions are part of what needs to be preserved at a heritage site. Furthermore, Ōmine-san was not the first UNESCO site to bar access to women; this was already the case of Mount Athos in Greece, while Kakadu National Park in Australia has areas that are accessible only to initiated men and others only accessible to women.
In old times, females were proscribed to ascend the majority of sacred mountains in Japan, including Mount Fuji and Kyōto's Mount Hiei. The Meiji government lifted most of the bans in 1872 in an attempt to please Westerners and appear more modern.
Several sacred mountains in Japan still maintain a ban on women. Mount Ushiro in Okayama Prefecture applies a permanent ban, like Mount Ōmine, while others such as Mount Ishizuchi in Shikoku ban women only certain days of the year.
How to get there
The gateway to Mount Ōmine is Yoshino (吉野). Coming from Nara (1h15min, ￥860), you will need to take first the JR Sakurai line to Kōriyama (郡山), change to the Kintetsu Kushihara line to Kushihara-jingū-mae (橿原神宮前), and transfer one last time to the Kintetsu Yoshino line. From Kyōto (2h10min, ￥1,200) take the Kintetsu Kyōto line, and transfer at Kushihara-jingū-mae to the Kintetsu Yoshino line. From Ōsaka, the easiest way to to leave from Ōsaka-Abenobashi Station (大阪阿部野橋), adjacent to Tennōji Station, from where you can get a direct train to Yoshino on the Kintetsu line.
The hike from Yoshino to Mt Ōmine is about 30km long and requires careful advance preparations. You can shorten this to 9 km by leaving from the village of Dorogawa Onsen (洞川温泉). The ascend starts from Kimpu-jinja Shrine and takes about 3 hours to the summit. To get to Dorogawa, you should first get to Shimoichiguchi (下市口) Station on the Kintetsu Yoshino line (16min/￥270 from Yoshino ; 34min/￥370 from Kashihara-jingū-mae), then catch a Nara Kōtsū bus to Dorogawa (about 2 hours, ￥1300).
Note that Mount Ōmine is only accessible from 1st May to 30th September.