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Archaeologists Are Looking for Roots of Religious Faith on Mt. Fuji

Posted in News  by antiques

archaeologists-look-for-roots-of-religious-faith-on-mt-fujiAn excavation project is under way on Mt. Fuji, searching for the roots of religious faith involving this national symbol.

A three-year enterprise begun in fiscal 2009 by Yamanashi Prefecture’s Archaeological Cultural Properties Center, the project is seeking to find out when Mt. Fuji became a place of worship for laypeople as well as priests.

Climbing Mt. Fuji to perform religious devotions is known to have become popular among laypeople living near the capital during the Edo period (1603-1867). However, items recently unearthed on the mountain suggest such “climber-worshippers” may have established a base there much earlier.

Excavation began last year at Fuji Omuro Sengen Jinja shrine in Fuji Kawaguchikomachi, Yamanashi Prefecture, located at the second station from the Fuji Yoshida entrance to Mt. Fuji.

Legend has it that contributions to build the shrine began to be solicited in 699, making it the oldest shrine near the mountain.

The property was refurbished in the Keicho era (1596-1615), and little is known about the shrine and how it was used before that period.

Last year, the excavation team worked around the altar and at the back of the shrine grounds. Near the altar, archaeologists found kanei tsuho, coins used in the Edo period, and within the grounds they found about 40 toraisen, foreign coins used before the Edo period.

They did not find a cornerstone or nails in the back of the shrine grounds, or traces of a building, indicating no large structure was built. However, their research discovered that land was prepared to construct something in an area along an old thoroughfare.

“Some sort of religious facility–a small building like a hokora (small-scale shrine)–might have been there,” said Kazuhiro Hosaka, an official at the center.

“We shouldn’t make a conclusion based just on toraisen, but it’s highly likely it was built in the medieval era or earlier,” Hosaka said.

The earliest document in existence that refers to a religious facility at Mt. Fuji’s second station is a 1475 land deed for the area. A 1500 entry in the chronicle Katsuyamaki says that in addition to monks undergoing religious training on the mountain, laypeople had begun climbing it to worship.

“It’s hard to believe monks carried money when they went on the mountain. Whether it was for donations or something else, laypeople must have brought the coins,” said Hidekazu Sakazume, an archaeologist and professor emeritus at Rissho University.

An expert in ancient coins, Sakazume hailed the findings.

“[The coins] are evidence the second station may have served as a religious base for laypeople in the medieval era,” he said.

In the Edo period, a religious group called Fujiko became popular among laypeople. People gathered to climb Mt. Fuji to worship, led by priests called oshi.

Fujiko extended its influence in the late Edo period by linking its ideology to the belief that the Emperor should rule the nation. The bakufu government repeatedly banned the group.

Advocates are aiming to have Mt. Fuji registered as a World Heritage Site in fiscal 2012 or later. A member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites at an international conference has advised them to focus on the religious and artistic aspects of the mountain when seeking registration.

The latest findings are certain to reinforce the religious connection between the Japanese people and Mt. Fuji.

The center plans to continue its research this year, and hopes are high its research will solve a number of mysteries. —

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