Nunobashi Kanjoe Festival

Tateyama, Japan

About 30 minutes before the sun rises, it’s dark and I’m ascending up the side of Mount Tateyama. I’m struggling with my breathing while air is thin, at 3000m.

After Mounts Fuji and Haku, this is one of the three holy mountains of Japan, and there’s a temple at the top. I’m going to be granted salvation and gain a spot in Sukhavati, Japanese paradise if I reach there.  After all the hardship, on my way up, I’ve survived a walk through hell, a valley of severe volcanic activity, belching stinking sulfurous gases, it isn’t as easy as sprinting on the oval.

Nunobashi Kanjoe in Tateyama

I would say lucky me to be a man as women were not allowed on the mountain until 1869 – those who attempt to climb were turned into cedar trees as it’s said that the female goddess was resentful. To take part in the sacred ritual of Nunobashi Kanjoe, was their only method of salvation, literally “Purification on the Cloth Bridge” in the town of Tateyama. From 1603 to 1868 the years this was practiced also termed as Edo Period, then fell out of favor, until it was revived in 1996. It was my luck to be here at the right time because it only happens every three years.

The red Nunobashi Bridge which spans Sanzu-no-kawa, the Buddhist equivalent of the River Styx, is the centerpiece of the ceremony. It was believed this connects the material human world to the supernatural home of the gods.

To chant in the Enmado, You don’t have to be Buddhist

Buddhist monks chanting sutras in the Enmado, temple to the god of death, is how the day begins with requesting for protection for the women. Clad in white kimonos, they assemble outside ,and once they enter, start to pray for the pardon of their sins. The monks place incense ash from the shrine to the women who wipe it across their chests as purification while chanting continues.

As observed, the gathering is not all Japanese and there’s a smattering of European and Chinese faces among the 110 women. Evidently, these people applied via the internet and it’s not required to be Buddhist. Rather it’s regarded as a chance to meet your true self and evaluate what’s in your heart but places are tight.

Woman: Don’t look downward

They put on conical straw hats and are blindfolded as they leave the temple, is the next phase of the ceremony. When you can’t see, the hill down to the bridge is precipitous and uneven and not easy to negotiate. However, while they’re crossing the bridge, the women mustn’t look down, or they’ll seize sight of demons who will pull them into the river. Led by musicians playing Gagaku court music during the procession, and lotus petal purification papers are thrown by monks at the front into the air, opening the way to the other world.