Nunobashi Kanjoe Festival, Tateyama, Japan

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Half an hour before sunrise, it’s pitch black and I’m climbing up the side of Mount Tateyama. The air is thin, at 3000m, and I’m struggling with my breathing.

This is one of the three holy mountains of Japan, after Mounts Fuji and Haku, and there’s a temple at the top. If I get there I’m going to be granted salvation and gain a spot in Sukhavati, Japanese paradise. After all, on my way up, I’ve survived a walk through hell, a valley of extreme volcanic activity, belching stinking sulphurous gases.

Nunobashi Kanjoe in Tateyama

I’m lucky to be a man as women were not allowed on the mountain until 1869 – those who tried to climb were turned into cedar trees as it’s said that the female goddess was jealous. Their only way to salvation was to take part in the sacred ritual of Nunobashi Kanjoe, literally “Purification on the Cloth Bridge” in the town of Tateyama. This was practised in the Edo Period, from 1603 to 1868, then fell out of favour, until it was revived in 1996. It only happens every three years and I’m lucky to be here at the right time.

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

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

The day starts with Buddhist monks chanting sutras in the Enmado, temple to the god of death, asking for protection for the women. They’re gathering outside, clad in white kimonos, and once they enter, start to pray for forgiveness of their sins. The chanting continues and monks pass incense ash from the shrine to the women who wipe it across their chests as purification.

I notice they’re not all Japanese and there’s a smattering of European and Chinese faces among the 110 women. Apparently they’ve applied via the internet and there’s no requisite to be Buddhist. Rather it’s seen as an opportunity to meet your true self and analyse what’s in your heart but places are limited.

Woman: Don’t look down

As they leave the temple, for the next phase of the ceremony, they don conical straw hats and are blindfolded. The hill down to the bridge is steep and uneven and not easy to negotiate when you can’t see. However, the women mustn’t look down while they’re crossing the bridge, or they’ll catch sight of demons who will drag them into the river. The procession is led by musicians playing Gagaku court music, and the monks at the front throw lotus petal purification papers into the air, clearing the way to the other world.

The bridge has been laid with three strips of white cloth, and when the women reach the centre, they’re met by monks coming from the other side. Their purpose is to guide the participants into the afterlife and they lead them over the bridge though the graveyard. Their destination is the Ubado temple, dedicated to Uba, the protector of women. It’s shuttered and dark inside and the monks lead the women in chanting and praying. Originally they would be shedding their past selves and asking for admittance to paradise. These days they ask for guidance in the future and beg for a new start.

It’s strangely moving and one or two of the women go into some sort of trance and begin to babble, others are weeping uncontrollably. Suddenly the shutters are opened, flooding the place with light, to reveal the three peaks of Tateyama through the plate glass window. This is the view of paradise and they’re allowed to take off their blindfolds. The monks bless the participants with holy water from the mountain and spiritual cleansing is complete.

When they leave the temple, they’re allowed to take off their blindfolds and hats and return the way they came. They’re now reborn into the human world as new people with new souls. The entire ceremony is a ritual enactment of death and rebirth and won’t take place again until three years have passed.

Feeling inspired, in need of salvation myself, I set off for the holy mountain. These days you don’t need to walk all the way. Instead, I take a cable car and then a coach, all part of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, to Murodo. The top of the mountain is clearly visible, topped by a temple, with its lower slopes a riot of bracken, turning glorious shades of brown as autumn approaches. A paved causeway leads uphill to the lodge at 2700m where I catch the last rays of sunlight before settling in for the night.

Stairway to heaven

Next morning, it’s up at 4am to climb the steep rocky path to the summit, my path lit dimly by the light of my head torch. This is the stairway to heaven and the idea is to get there for the sunrise. The first light of the new day gradually reveals the mountains around me and, in the far distance, I can just make out the conical shape of Mount Fuji. Looking up, at shrine on the peak, I see a solitary monk bowing to the sun. He’s there to greet me with a blessing, a sutra and a life-giving splash of sake. Forget about the beaches of Bali – this is the closest I’ll get to paradise.

Fact File

The next Nunobashi Kanjoe festival will take place in September 2020.

GET THERE: It’s a two hour bullet train ride from Tokyo to Toyama, then a 25 minute bus or taxi journey to Tateyama.

STAY: The Tateyama Kokusai Hotel makes a comfortable base in Tateyama.

NEED TO KNOW: The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is open from May to November but it’s wise to take a guide if you’re going to climb the mountain.