In the mountains of Nikko, just a short train trip from the modern, glittering megacity of Tokyo, a handful of monks still practice a millennia-old tradition known as shugendo, a form of meditation via endurance-testing communion with nature.

These are the yamabushi, mountain monks for whom a dip in a thundering, ice-cold waterfall and a sopping-wet stroll up a mountain are just another day’s work.

On a recent trip to Nikko, we were treated to a demonstration of shugendo by two local monks. It started out with some meditation on the riverbank, accompanied by chanting and blowing of their horagai conch-shell trumpets. Salt and sake were used to purify the area.


Next the senior monk stripped down to a simpler robe, while his apprentice donned a loincloth and happi jacket. Together they headed off to the foot of Makkura Falls, sure-footed in their woven sandals. Meanwhile, we audience members struggled along in our high-tech, waterproof hiking boots, trying to get close enough to see without breaking our necks.


▼It’d be a sin to keep those legs under wraps. Amirite, ladies?!


The falls, which are about 30 meters high and 10 meters wide, are very pretty, but that much water hitting you from that high would be quite painful. And keep in mind this is late October, when the temperatures in this area drop below freezing at night. The water was extremely cold. However, according to our hosts, this ritual is performed even in winter.




At the base, the senior monk waded in while the junior one let off some conch blasts. The senior monk gestured in several directions, then began gesticulating wildly while yelling in a booming voice over the noise of the falls.


He bowed to the falls and then waded in.


He stood under the pounding water for almost a minute, then stepped out and bowed to the falls again. The two monks turned and calmly climbed out of the pool and headed back to the river. We clambered down from the slippery rocks to the side of the falls, trying not to be left behind.

Still in his dripping robes, the senior yamabushi thanked us for coming and gathered up his things. Apparently impervious to the cold or the discomfort of their sopping robes and sandals, the two monks headed off on a trail to the top of the mountain! That hike too was part of their devotions, it seems.

Our group, meanwhile, climbed back on the bus for coffee and cheesecake.

▼Thanks for making me feel like a soft, lazy hedonist, guys. Enjoy your hypothermia hike.


Video © RocketNews24
Photos © Scott Fukuyama, used with permission