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Dewa Sanzan's Yamabushi Outfit: Shinbutsubunri strikes again!

Updated: Feb 25, 2020

The yamabushi's outfits are indeed very diverse and rich in symbolism. But it got even more complicated since the Dewa Sanzan's shugendô practice split into two factions: the Buddhist one, and the Shintoist one.

Even though their practice of the yamabushi trainings share a lot in common (it is not because a yamabushi group is led by a Shintoist shrine that they don't take part in Buddhist rituals!), each faction has its own clothing codes, so let's try to make everything clear for once.

Shiroshôzoku 白装束

This is the basics of the yamabushi outfit. Shiroshôzoku is traditionally a piece of clothing worn by Dead people for burial/funeral that is thought to make then enter the after-world and allow them to get reborn.

As the pilgrimage of Dewa Sanzan is accomplished in a purpose of spiritual "rebirth" (umarekawari 生まれ変わり), pilgrims wear the same clothes as the Dead to symbolize their virtual death and rebirth in the mountains' womb.

Outside the mineiri (mountain retreat) rituals, yamabushi usually only wear the shiroshôzoku. When the occasion is more formal, they put on their surii (checkered vest) on top of the shiroshôzoku and put on their ritual accessories.

Shiroshôzoku is compound of:

  • A white vest 白衣 : This allows the pilgrim to access the worlds between life and death

  • White hakama pants : White pants that the pilgrim has to tighten up below the knees

  • Kyahan 脚絆 calf covers: Those calves covers protect the naked leg skins from insect bites and snakes.

  • Hôkan 宝冠 headpiece: The "crown", this emblematic headpiece of Dewa Sanzan's shugendô pilgrim outfit represents the white membrane that envelops the fetus inside his mother's womb (jp: ena 胞衣). From a more practical point of view, the knots of the hôkan create a sort of cushion that protects the pilgrim's head's most critical spots (forehead, and the sides of the temples) from the shocks in case of collision or fall. This was also used as compression bandages when the pilgrim's comrades injured themselves in order to stop bleeding.

  • Kongôzue mountain stick 金剛杖 See below

  • Jikatabi sock-shoes 地下足袋 Those white shoes separated between the big toe and the others allow stability and a better grip for mountain climbing.

Tokin 頭巾

The tokin is the little black hat yamabushi wear on their forehead. It is in Buddhist practice the crown-symbol of the 5 wisdoms of Vairocana Buddha (jp: Dainichinyorai 大日如来) : Hôkaitaishôchi 法界体性智 "the wisdom of the essence", Daienkyôchi 大円鏡智 "the wisdom of reflection", Byôdôshôchi 平等性智 "the wisdom of equanimity", Myôkansatsuchi 妙観察智 "the wisdom of observation", Jôshosachi 成所作智 "the wisdom of perfect practice".

The 12 lines carved on it represent the 12 dependent origination: jûniin'en 十二因縁. They gather in an elevated center that symbolizes the unity they create when they form together. The tokin is painted black to represent the dark trouble caused by mumyô 無明, a Buddhist concept that could be translated as "ignorance" and that is at the base of each dependent origination. The six sections on the left of the hat represent the imprisonment in the reincarnation cycle between the six worlds (rokudô shujô no ruten 六道衆生の流転), and the six sections on the right represent the liberation from the reincarnation cycle between the six worlds (rokudô shujô no genmetsu 六道衆生の還滅). Thus, the tokin represents the ability of yamabushi to become Dainichinyorai through their training and to deliver themselves and others from their troubles (bonnô 煩悩) by enlightening them about the 12 dependent origination.

Some yamabushi pay attention to the direction they put their tokin on their head in: the dented opening of the tokin is oriented differently according the direction the yamabushi intends to take: upwards if he's climbing the mountain, downwards if he's going down the mountain.

Before the tokin was made in plastic and other toxic ingredients, it was painted with a bacteria-killing lacquer that was extremely useful to the yamabushi when they scooped water in the nature back in the day (nowadays the tokin is made with different ingredients, hence it lost its purpose).

Yamabushi affiliated to a Shintô shrine don't allow females to wear the tokin.

Yamabushi affiliated to a Buddhist shrine allow females to wear the tokin. Most Buddhist yamabushi usually wear a white clothe as a hair band under their tokin, while Shintoists wear it directly on their forehead.

Buddhist yamabushi ritual on top of Mt. Haguro (see the women wearing the exact same outfit as males) ©五十嵐丈

Surii 摺衣 (also : Suzukake 鈴懸)

Suzukake means: "the vest where the bell is attached". That name comes from the little bell yamabushi always wear with them when they enter the mountain and that represents the 6 elements of Buddhism 六大 (earth, water, fire, wind, void, consciousness). The bell symbolizes oneself's ability to become a Buddha.

The shrines' yamabushi will prefer referring to the vest as the surii, while the temples' ones will mostly use the term suzukake.

The checkered print (ishidatamimon 石畳紋) on the surii of Dewa Sanzan's yamabushi represents the Buddhist god Acala (jp: Fudômyôô 不動明王) that according Buddhist legends, sat on a rock waiting for immortality.

The lion pattern on the sleeves and on the back of the surii is called shishimoyô 獅子模様 and is said to protect the yamabushi from the wild nature's dangers and demons.

The surii exists in 5 colors that define the rank of the yamabushi that wears it.

Color chart of the surii

Dark Color : Black (black ink-dyed) or dark blue (vegetable dye)

This is the color of the regular practitioner. A brighter blue color is the color of the teaching master (kôgi 講義).

Yellow or brown

Yellow (or light brown) is the color of the kari 駈. The kari walks in the front line with the other special-colored yamabushi. He often holds the giant axe.


Purple is the color of the dôshi 道司 (or 導師). The dôshi walks in the front line with the other special-colored yamabushi, usually in front of everybody, in order to open up the way to the daisendatsu (the Chief Priest of Dewa Sanzan Shrine).


Green is the color of the kogi 小木. The kogi walks in the front line with the other special-colored yamabushi. He usually performs the fire/wood rituals before everybody.


Red is the color worn by the aka 亜加 (or 閼加 or 亞加). The aka walks in the front line with the other special-colored yamabushi. He usually performs the fire/wood rituals along with the kogi.

Futodasuki 太多須嬉

This picture shows the Chief Priest (gûji 宮司) of Dewa Sanzan Shrine wearing futodasuki, a little pouch worn on the stomach. It replaces the yuigesa (see below) and is worn only by Shintoist yamabushi that have accomplished the yamabushi trainings more than 3 times.

Its orange and white threads tangled together represent the duality of Yin & Yang, as well as the multiplicity of Japanese deities (kami 神). But to speak in more concrete terms, it mainly serves as a little bag where yamabushi can put their prayer-coins or little things they encounter on their way. On the part that dangles on the yamabushi's back, there is a mirror that acts as a shinkyô 神鏡 to worship the Shintô gods.

Note: On the picture on the left, the participant does not wear surii because he is the daisendatsu 大先達,

the most important person in the yamabushi parade's front line. His role is performed by the Chief Priest (gûji 宮司) of Dewa Sanzan shrine, thus, he is wearing his priest outfit which vest is called seijôe 清浄衣 ("the vest for purification").

Yuigesa 結架裟

The yuigesa is this necklace-like accessory on which 6 fur balls are attached. This is a Buddhist yamabushi only accessory. No Shintoist yamabushi will wear the yuigesa during his mineiri.

The yuigesa is worn in order to represent the ten realms of rebirth in Buddhism: hell, hungry demons' realm, the beasts realm, titans realm, humans realm, heaven, the learning realm, the realization realm, and the Bodhisattva realm.

That gives us 9 realms, right? The practitioner wearing the 9 realms around his neck himself represents the tenth realm: the realm of Buddha-hood.

The six fur balls represent the ropparamitsu 六波羅蜜 (the "six perfections") that are: generosity, virtue, patience, diligence, concentration and wisdom. This symbolizes the mission of salvation that bound yamabushi to the mortals just like a Buddha would do.

There is also another name of the yuigesa that is: fudôgesa 不動袈裟: "the necklace of Fudômyôô" (Acala).

Horagai 法螺貝 (Conch shell)

The conch shell is blown to announce the reading of sutras, to alert one's yamabushi comrades of one's presence, and also as an imitation of the shout of a lion.

When the lion shouts, the other animals stop making sounds, in fear of this powerful sound. When yamabushi blow their conch shells, the mortals' troubles (bonnô 煩悩) and the demons disappear the exact same way.

Buddhist yamabushi have 5 different ways of blowing theirs shells to tell the different teachings of Dainichinyorai;

  • "Leaving the temple" call 出寺: 発生道

  • "Entering somewhere" sign 入宿:十界隋類の説法

  • "Guidance" call 案内:八正道

  • "Answer" 応答:八正道

  • "Assemble" call 駈相:六波羅蜜

Kainoo 螺緒 and Hashirinawa 走縄

The kainoo rope serves to attach the horagai conch shell to the yamabushi's hips.

The hashirinawa is a dangling rope which "ties" the yamabushi's mumyô (ignorance) tight.

Kensakikyahan 剣先脚絆

The kyahan is a sort of protection sheet that covers the yamabushi's calves. It is thought that its purpose was to protect the yamabushi's bare legs from insect and snake bites.

The name of this piece of clothing literally means: "calf cover in the shape of a sword", in reference to the pointed shape of the cover.

Some calve covers are flat, hence, they are simply called "kyahan".

Kongôzue 金剛杖

The kongôzue mountain stick is usually pointy at the end and squarish at its base.

The 4 sides of the kongôzue stick's base represent the four virtues: resolution hosshin 発心, training shugyô 修行, devotion bodai 菩提, and Buddhahood nehan 涅槃. Every time a yamabushi strikes his stick on the ground, he wakes up the four virtues at his feet.

Katabako 形箱 and Oi 笈

Katabako is a little rectangular package that yamabushi put on top of their oi bag. It represents the Mandala of the Two Realms (Diamond realm and Womb realm). It is wrapped in a bright-colored cover to symbolize the fetus wrapped in its membrane.

Oi is a big wooden bag that is used to transport all the items and tools necessary to accomplish all the yamabushi rituals.

It also symbolizes the mother womb, containing the child that waits to be born on this realm.

So... Now, would you be able to differentiate a Shintoist yamabushi from a Buddhist ?

Let's sum up a bit:

  • Female wearing the same outfit as men? Buddhists

  • White cloth beneath the tokin? Buddhists

  • Yuigesa fur balls around the neck and fur around the hips? Buddhists

  • Futodasuki pouch around the neck and mirror in the back? Shintoists

Special case: The Female Yamabushi: The Miko 神子

Female yamabushi that are affiliated to a shrine are called miko 神子, but they are not to be mistaken with the Shinto shrines servants' miko that writes differently (巫女). It is a very new concept that was born during 20th century in order to allow women to practice the yamabushi training that used to be forbidden to females for more than 1400 years. At the dawn of the 21st century, the priests in charge of Dewa Sanzan shrine on top of Mt. Haguro decided to make the nyoninkinsei 女人禁制 ("interdiction of women") end as they considered it was contrary to the essence of shugendô that precisely encourages self-abandonment to reach pure unconditional love and entire understanding of Others. Gender discrimination was contradictory to this doctrine. During the Second World War, the women followed the same training as men, but in 1993, a completely "women only" program: the miko training program was launched for the first time.

As you can notice on the several pictures present on this page, the females' outfit is different from the males'.

The miko don't wear the tokin hat: they wear the "crown" (hôkan 宝冠) that is originally included in the Dewa Sanzan shiroshôzoku 白装束 and that symbolizes the connection with the gods through the little "ears" tucked inside the crown. Their surii is colored with safflower (benibana 紅花) hence the orange color. They wear a white hakama, as well as kyahan 脚絆 calf-covers, kainoo 貝緒 ropes and kongôzue 金剛杖 stick just like male yamabushi.

The miko that are in the front line during the miko trainings are usually veterans and are the only ones allowed to hold the horagai 法螺貝 conch shell, the giant axe, flags, the oi 笈 bags, etc.

A Miko apprentice from Hungary


  1. 島津弘海+北村皆雄「千年の修験羽黒山伏の世界」、新宿書房、2005年(p.24-32)

  2. 伊藤武「出羽三山」、みちのく書房、1993年 (p.191-230, p.253)

  3. 人とまつり、第四回『出羽三山柴燈護摩』 p.32-35, online download: https://www.f-ric.co.jp/fs/200710/32-35.pdf

  4. 戸川安章『羽黒修験の峰入り』(in 峰入りー修験道の本質を求めて)、千歳グループ開発センター、1994年 (p.105-112)

  5. 岩鼻通明、「出羽三山—山岳信仰の歴史を歩く」、岩波新書、2017年(p.111)

Pictures owned by Tsuruoka City Office, Jo Igarashi and Haguro Tourist Association

DEGAM Tsuruoka Tourism Bureau (General Incorporated Association)

Adresse: 3-1 Suehiromachi, MARICA East Building, 2nd floor, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0015, JAPAN

TEL: (+81) 0235-26-1218

E-mail: tsuruoka@degam.jp

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