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Spend 5 Days in a Japanese Forest Training Your Mind Like a Samurai

What would you do if you had to trade speaking, bathing, and texting for hiking through forests and jumping over fire, but you were promised you'd come out of it totally renewed?


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This is not your average digital detox — it's a tradition practiced by Japanese mountain hermits known as Yamabushi for 1,300 years that is still helping people detach from physical and emotional desires and discover their inner strength today.

The Yamabushi were revered during the Samurai period in Japan as they helped train the warriors and were believed to have supernatural powers. They survived living in the forests by hiking for days, eating whatever they found, and continuously pushing their mental and physical strength.

During the five-day Yamabushido program created by Megurun Inc., a Shonai-based company, non-Japanese speakers are invited to train with a 13th-generation, 70-plus-year-old Yamabushi, Master Hoshino and his disciples, while staying at his pilgrimage house in Yamagata prefecture. The area is surrounded by mountains and the Sea of Japan and is known for the color-changing lake, Goshiki Numa, the temple of Yama-dera carved into a mountain, and the illusion of snow monsters formed by snow-covered trees.

The consent form comes with fair warning: “Yamabushi undertake training in harsh alpine conditions, walking over 10 miles per day. Your Yamabushidō experience will likely include hiking during the night, meditating under icy cold waterfalls, jumping over fire, and being enclosed in a smoky room.” Still, nothing can prepare you for the surreal experience of discovering the inner strength you never knew you had.

Each morning, we woke up at the crack of dawn to the sound of a shell horn, dressed ourselves in layers of thick white cotton known as shiroshōzoku to symbolize the walking dead, and quickly gulped down a bowl of miso soup, steamed rice, and pickle. By 5 a.m., we'd head out in white canvas shoes with wooden sticks in our hands to hike all day through the three sacred mountains of Dewa Senzan.

Along the way, we would chant and bow in front of shrines, practicing Shugendō, a belief system that incorporates pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Shinto, Taoism, and esoteric Buddhism. Even when it rained through the dense cedar forest, we took brisk steps onto thousands of slippery stone steps, focusing inward, and silencing our minds. The only word we were permitted to speak was “uketamō" — "I humbly accept with an open heart" — in response to commands from our master. We had to be up for any challenge, no questions asked.

In the evening, we practiced Zen meditation, chanted the Lotus Sutra, and allowed the smoke of burning incense to fill our lungs and eyes. After a meager dinner, the men and women would disperse to sleep in separate communal rooms on tatami mats at the Daishobo pilgrimage lodge.

The hardest part for me was not being able to reach out for my cellphone, brush my teeth, or wash my face the moment I woke up in the morning. We were told we had to disconnect from our usual human habits to rebirth and find enlightenment.

On the last day, we chanted while icy cold water from Mount Yudono hit our bare skin like icicles. This was truly a test of "mind over matter" that I struggled with, but the master recognized my efforts and awarded me a graduation paddle. We celebrated with an authentic Japanese lunch as he told us his observations from witnessing our transition.

“You must be in the moment, feel more, and think less,” Master Hoshino told me. “When we are born, we only have basic human feelings. But when we grow up and adapt to modern lifestyle, we are easily distracted and lose our inner instincts.”

I already felt more focused and ready to conquer the world.

While Yamabushi training used to be the secret of samurais, solitary retreats have now become popular among overworked Japanese businessmen and women who want to disconnect from their busy lives and find peace in nature.

Yamabushido’s full immersion training programs are offered only three times during the summer. They have 13 less intense weekend retreats from June through October.

Learn more about how to experience the authentic yamabushido practice here.


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