things in this world that do not bend to my will are the floods of the
River Kamo, the dice in the game of sugoroku, and the Sohei of Hiei'.
Wise words indeed from the Emperor's father, who had born witness to
these warrior priests descending from their mountain retreats,
overthrowing the government and pressing their demands upon the ruling
families by force. In the Sengoku (Warring States) Era, the Sohei
(priests in military uniform) underwent rigorous training in martial
arts whilst they lived and prayed at Enryakuji. Because they became a powerful force in opposition to the
government, Oda Nobunaga stormed their mountain hideout and burned down
all the buildings to end their strangle-hold on the city.
As a teenager I read an account of the warrior Kumagai during the Heike Wars. He mentioned the huge forces of Sohei monks that would be mustered on one side or the other before battle. Such was their influence and strength that even famed generals would trek up to the mountain temples to try and persuade the Sohei to join with them. My imagination was sparked enough for me to remember it when I came to Japan, but the journey is not quite as simple as all that, and it was only today that I got to stand amongst the trees and halls in which the Sohei trained.
The journey to Enryakuji is quite stunning, gob-smacking when you consider that our hour and a half of cable-cars, rope-ways, forest paths and roads, would have meant a day trek for the monks when they descended to Heian-kyo (Kyoto). The mountain looks over the city, dwarfing the range of other hills, forests, mountains and valleys around it. As the old rope-way creaked and moaned up its course, the city vanished far below as if we were flying. Another trip across a gorge and Kyoto was so far below that it was difficult to even make out. I have never been so high up in Japan before and it made me smile with glee.
Without a car, Enryakuji is not easily reached. Because of the time consumed in getting there, through forests and down rocky paths, it is not really an ideal honeypot for tourists, and there were far fewer people than I expected. Because of confusing signposts, we rather up-liftingly stumbled upon the temple a good half a kilometre before we expected to. On surmounting yet another remarkably steep, stone stairway set in the mountainside, we stepped out into a burst of vermillion. It was worth the sweat and exhaustion.
The priest Saicho spent 7 years of spiritual training on Mt. Hiei as a hermit. After these difficult years he lay the first foundations of Enryakuji in 792. Emperor Kanmu feared that evil spirits would infiltrate his new city from the North-East, the direction of their abode. Saicho (himself Chinese), constructed Enryakuji as a spiritual fort, protecting the city below, whilst remaining outside the Emperor's jurisdiction. Women as well as the police-force of the Emperor were forbidden entrance to Hiei, leading to a mass migration of criminals to Enryakuji. Such was the influx of 'un-welcomes', that the priests were forced to take up arms to protect themselves.
At the end of the Heian Era, there were about 3000 temples scattered on the slopes of the mountain. Following the attack by Nobunaga, only 3 pagodas and 120 tatchu (minor temples) were rebuilt and now remain. The Komponchudo Hall, rebuilt in 1642, contains a small row of flames burning before the altar, called Kiezu-no-Tomyo (the light that never goes out). It is said to have been kept alight since the temple was founded over a thousand years ago.
As I write this I am tired after the long journey, but happy that I got to see where all these religious men took up arms against the corruption and decay within the Imperial city, and had the gall to do something about it (even if it was for their own greedy purposes). The Sohei were more impressive than the untrained ranks of the armies at the time, and continue to inspire tales and stories of great daring in present day Japan.