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  • Emplacing a Pilgrimage: the Ōyama Cult and Regional Religion in Early Modern Japan
  • Mark Ravina
Emplacing a Pilgrimage: the Ōyama Cult and Regional Religion in Early Modern Japan, By Barbara Ambros. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008. Pp. xvi + 330. $39.95.

This is an engaging and valuable study of a single religious site over four centuries. Ambros examines the transformation of the mountain cult at Ōyama (Kanazawa prefecture) from the 1400s through the 1880s. The highlights of this transformation, such as the forcible separation of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples (shinbutsu bunri) in the 1860s and 1870s, will be familiar to Japan specialists. But, going further, Ambros skillfully balances the two faces of a local case study: the confirmation of national trends, and the exploration of local exceptions to those trends. The result is a thoughtful study, rich in detail, but keyed to broader issues and questions, such as the political and economic dimensions of religious practice. [End Page 567]

Ambros deftly situates her work within a wide array of secondary scholarship. She notes, for example, Alan Grapard’s argument that Japanese religious practice shifted from geognosis to geopiety during the interval between the middle ages and the early modern era. Geognosis involved place-based esoteric, mystical, and soteriological knowledge, while geopiety involved more secular beliefs and practices directed towards a space. Geognosis was reserved for trained religious specialists, such as ascetics, while geopiety was available to a general public.1 Ambros argues that Ōyama follows this general trajectory, although the practices in the early modern period remained clearly devotional (p. 23). She also engages the work of Helen Hardacre, Sarah Thal, and Nam-lin Hur,2 as well as the theoretical perspectives of Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and Michel Foucault.

The structure of the book is essentially chronological, and Ambros begins with the ancient and medieval history of the mountain. According to medieval accounts, such as Ōyamadera engi, the monk Rōben 良弁 (689–773) established a temple at Ōyama in 755. Ambros questions the historicity of this account, but recognizes that the mountain was unquestionably an active religious site from at least the tenth century. The Engi shiki (927) corroborates the presence of Afuri Shrine 阿夫利神社 on the mountain in the 800s, and Ōyamadera is mentioned in the Azumi kagami. Forces from Ōyamadera fought with the Ashikaga in the 1490s and later allied themselves with the Hōjō. In the medieval era, Ōyama served largely as an ascetic mountain retreat, associated with Maitreiya and Fudō, and shared by celibate monks and mountain ascetics (yamabushi). There was a rough sense of spatial hierarchy on the mountain, with the summit as the most sacred, but boundaries were defined only loosely.

Under the Tokugawa regime, these fluid boundaries became more sharply defined. In 1605, the Tokugawa regime forced Ōyama’s yamabushi [End Page 568] to resettle at the foot of the mountain and sponsored the reconstruction of the Shingon temple complex on the main slope. These acts established a clear distinction between independent ritual specialists (oshi御師) and the religious institutions sponsored by the bakufu. This distinction also led to restrictions on women’s access to the mountain, since the upper reaches was now reserved for celibate monks (p. 45). Thus, in the early modern period the spatial hierarchy on Ōyama reflected “social and religious hierarchies with its distinct spaces reserved for the divine (Sekison 石尊 and Fudō on the central slope), the Shingon clergy (on the central slope below the divine), and by [sic] the oshi and villagers (in the periphery of the mountain’s base)” (p. 52).

Both Ōyamadera and the oshi thrived within this hierarchy. Under Tokugawa rule, the Shingon temple at Ōyama was transformed from a site of mountain asceticism to a Kogi Shingon 古義真言 training monastery (p. 57). Through its affiliation with the Tokugawa regime, the main temple, Hachidaibō 八大坊, was able to rebuild and expand its physical complex and increase its authority over the mountain. In the early 1700s, for example, the Hachidaibō abbot compiled a register specifying which subtemples could perform the fire ritual (goma 護摩) for parishioners of which oshi or the guests of which inns. Although this arrangement reflected the increased authority of Hachidaibō, growing pilgrimage...


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