Mythical founder of the Shugendπ order of syncretic practice in the seventh century and a powerful wizard. Also known as En-no-Ozunu and En-no-Ubasoku (an ubasoku is an unordained monk). He is supposed to have lived between 634 and 701, but there is no evidence of his existence aside from later writings. According to myth he lived as a hermit in the mountains of Katsuragi, on the border between the provinces of Kii and Yamato, where he meditated and practiced magic. He was able to coerce demons to do his bidding in mountains and water. He revered Buddhism and used the power of its spells to produce his magic.

He was powerful enough to call several deities and oni to him, commanding them to build a bridge between Mt. Katsuragi and Mt. Kimpu. The oracle deity Hitokotonushi-no-kami slandered the sage, saying he was plotting to usurp the emperor. En-no-Gyπja (En the Ascetic) was exiled, and he withdrew into the mountains to meditate. There he practiced the magical formula of Kojaku-π, the peacock king, which allowed him eventually to subdue and control Hitokotonushi. Due to his magic, the ascetic was able to fly and even reach heaven itself. He was accompanied by two demons he had subdued, and under their master’s direction they built bridges for pilgrims in the mountains. Among other feats, he is the Johnny Appleseed of Japan: He planted ten thousand cherry trees on Mt. Yoshino, and their blossoms may be enjoyed by visitors today.

On a visit to Shikoku he found a valley ravaged by a fiery serpent. Using his powers, he subdued the serpent and bound it to the earth. This magic lasted for over a century, until it had to be renewed by Kπbπ Daishi.

En-no-Gyπja is revered by the yamabushi (mountain ascetics, also called kebπzu, “hairy priests,” because they did not shave their heads as other Buddhist priests and monks do) as the founder of their order. The story of the sage’s control of the oracle deity may be an explanatory myth for the activities of the yamabushi as diviners, twined with a story that emphasizes the superiority of Buddhist over native Shintπ practices. For many Japanese throughout history, the importance of Buddhism was that it offered magical solution to daily distress and fears. The yamabushi—esoteric practitioners whose rituals were based largely on Shingon—were often the only visible religious presence in remote mountain villages. Their adherence to the teachings of this remote mythical leader gave the yamabushi a strong claim to practice magic and supernatural powers.



  • Earhart, H. Byron. 1970. A Religious Study of the Mount Haguro Sect of Shugendo. Tokyo: Sophia University Monumenta Nipponica. Nakamura, Kyoko Motomuchi. 1997. Miraculous Stories from the Japanese Buddhist Tradition: The Nihon Ryoki of the Monk Kyokai. New ed. Richmond, VA: Curzon Press.
  • Statler, Oliver. 1984. Japanese Pilgrimage. London: Picador.


Handbook of Japanese Mythology written by Michael Ashkenazi – Copyright © 2003 by Michael Ashkenazi