Locals Climb World Heritage Yakushima Island Mountains to Worship

By Daisuke Tomita / Yomiuri Shimbun Photographer
Mountain worshippers put their hands together in prayer at a small shrine near the peak.

YAKUSHIMA ISLAND, Kagoshima — Step by step, I walk the mountain path, in gratitude for the natural blessings bestowed upon us, reverence for the long ages that have unspooled here, and my own involvement in the process. As I ascend the mountain, a multitude of thoughts about its grandeur occupy my mind and I find myself wondering, will the mountain embrace me today?

Passing through the lush green forest in early summer, I reached the boundary of the woods and beheld a breathtaking expanse of rugged mountain terrain adorned with shrubs and colossal rocks. This sacred place is believed to be the dwelling place of deities. As the fog and clouds cleared, the revered mountains of Yakushima’s inner Okudake range emerged. These mountains have served as a sanctuary for the people of Yakushima since time immemorial.

For about 500 years, an annual mountain-climbing event for local representatives to pray for the peace of local communities and to express their gratitude to the mountain gods has been held. The mountains visible from the village, known as Maedake, and those at the island’s center, known as Okudake, hold significance, as each local community venerates its respective mountain deity.

Following World War II, the tradition of mountain worship was disrupted, but with the area’s registration as a World Natural Heritage site around 30 years ago, there was a resurgence of interest in revitalizing this cultural practice. Nowadays, many local communities are resuming the tradition.

The Miyanoura community, whose mountain deity is Mt. Miyanoura, the highest peak in Kyushu and a part of the Okudake range, resumed biannual mountain climbing for worship in 2005 following a hiatus of about 50 years. Kenshin Watanabe, a 44-year-old local guide, joined the worshippers’ ascent two years later and has since participated in the event 20 times.

“The more I visit, the stronger my attachment grows to my community and my love for the mountains,” said Watanabe, dressed in white with a conical hat, as he bowed his head at a small shrine on the summit of Mt. Miyanoura this year.

“I hope young people will continue the tradition,” Watanabe added.

The summit of Mt. Miyanoura is situated 8 kilometers away, and its challenging mountain path poses a formidable climb. Adverse weather conditions, including rain and strong winds, often prevail. However, undeterred, the pilgrims bear the collective wishes of many on their shoulders. With each deliberate step, they engage in silent conversations with the mountains and themselves, firmly believing that the practice of mountain worship will reinforce the connection between the island’s inhabitants and the mountains, thus enriching their lives.