- Real and Imagined: The Peak of Gold in Heian Japan by Heather Blair
Shugendō 修験道, literally the “Path to Supernatural Powers through Ascetic Practice,” has been an important component of Japanese religion and culture in general from at least the thirteenth through the nineteenth centuries, and it is still practiced today in various forms. Commonly defined as Japanese “mountain religion,” its impact goes well beyond ascetic practices on mountains carried out by individuals or groups of practitioners called shugenja 修験者 (lit. Shugendō practitioners) or yamabushi 山伏 (those who hide in the mountains). This [End Page 502] impact is, not simply because a large number of mountains all over the Japanese archipelago were Shugendō sites, but also and especially because yamabushi groups were closely related to regional communities, to which they offered various types of religious rituals and secular services, such as selling medicines and various commodities. Yamabushi were also responsible for the diffusion of doctrines, tales, performances, and rituals across vast areas of Japan, along both land and sea routes.
After a number of seminal works published during the 1970s and early 1980s by Byron Earhart, Carmen Blacker, Paul Swanson, and Allan Grapard,1 a period of relative lack of interest in Shugendō ensued, but in recent years it has become one of the most productive research subjects among Western scholars of Japanese religion.2 Most authors tend to focus on the Yoshino-Ōmine-Kinpusen 吉野大峰金峰山 mountain range (south of Nara) as the alleged original place of Shugendō. In addition to cultic sites from the Nara period (710–794), this mountain range is where the legendary founder of Shugendō, En no Ozunu 役小角, better known as En no Gyōja 役行者 (fl. second half of the seventh century), practiced austerities; later, these mountains became an important pilgrimage site, initially for aristocrats and later also for commoners. Influential Japanese scholars such as Gorai Shigeru 五来重 and Miyake Hitoshi 宮家準 have chosen to emphasize continuity between ancient practices and present-day Shugendō.3 [End Page 503]
Heather Blair’s book is a very welcome contribution, as it develops its treatment of Mount Kinpusen—the Peak of Gold in the subtitle—in novel and stimulating ways by focusing on diversity in ritual use of and institutional changes on the mountain and diversity in its cults, which eventually resulted in the establishment of a full-fledged Shugendō institution there. Blair does so by following cultural geographer Edward Soja, among others, in positing a threefold spatial and epistemological distinction in Kinpusen as “real,” existing in a specific geographical space; as “imagined,” a space constructed and described discursively by various agents, mostly from outside the mountain itself; and as “real-and-imagined,” existing as a place with its own social and institutional organizations.
Blair also challenges received ideas of historical, unbroken continuity of the religious system on Kinpusen by focusing on the existence of significant differences in both ritual attitudes toward the mountain and the structure of its monastic institutions over the course of the Heian period (794–1185) and immediately after. She examines three moments of rupture—one around the beginning of the tenth century, another toward the beginning of the twelfth century, and a third one during the thirteenth century (the latter related to the formation of Shugendō as an independent institution on the mountain). Blair has chosen to focus primarily on Heian-period sources as a way to highlight different and shifting attitudes toward the threefold space she conceptualizes for Kinpusen, because she thinks that the mountain really became an important cultic site at that time and that the ritual treatment of Kinpusen in subsequent periods was quite different. In stressing this perspective, Blair is quite original, especially because many Japanese authors prefer to focus on medieval and early modern sources and to project them back onto the past (Nara and Heian periods) in their quest for continuities.
The structure of the book closely follows the author’s methodological perspective. After a brief, but dense and methodologically rewarding, introduction, part 1, “The Mountain Imagined,” presents various discursive regimes that contributed to the...