because it's there
The sacred places and pilgrimage traditions of Japan have been conditioned by geographical and topographical features as much as by religious and cultural factors. Over 80% of the Japanese country- side is hilly or mountainous terrain. This physical condition gave birth in ancient times to a unique and enduring tradition of religious beliefs and practices focused on mountains. While never systematized, this tradition was so wide spread that Japanese scholars have termed it sangaku shinko, meaning 'mountain beliefs' or 'mountain creed'.
Sangaku shinko should not however, be thought of in the narrow sense of mountain worship, but rather understood to have a broader meaning which includes the mythology, folk beliefs, rituals, shamanistic practices, and shrine structures that are associated with the religious use of particular mountains.
H. Byron Earhart, a scholar of Japanese religion, writes that "Most of the mountains whose sacred character is attested by archaeological evidence are also prominent in the earliest written records of Japan. In these writ- ings mountains play a religious role in the cosmogony and theogony of the formal mythology and are prominent as dwelling places of the gods, as burial sites, and as sacred sites of great beauty. In the two court compilations which represent the earliest writings in Japan, mountains appear in almost every imaginable religious guise". 1
in the west, needless to say, the dynamic is different. in the eastern depictions of even their holiest mountain, it hides, it doesn't loom. it sneaks into the picture rather than dominating it. even when the portrait is of that mountain particularly, one must work to find it. one would be hard pressed to find an alternate display. in paintings, the west's mountain's are bullies, and like any bully, they're 'asking for it.' 'take me down,' they seem to challenge.
and in the west we only very rarely find the mountains themselves sacred. 2 we worship 'on the mountain,' or, ' at the mountain,' or 'in the mountains,' ... but that's different. perhaps the western opinion of god is that she's blatantly before you, whereas in the east one must search, and then to find?
and then perhaps also the societal imperatives about individuality come into play? self, or group? is part of the japanese pattern of asymmetry simply another way of indicating the sweep, not the center?
Shingon in particular, founded by the sage Kukai (774-835), placed emphasis on sacred mountains as the ideal sites for religious prac- tice and the attainment of Bud- dhahood. Ascents of the mount- ains were conceived of as metaphorical ascents on the path of spiritual enlightenment, with each stage in the climb representing a stage in the passage through the realms of existence formulated by Buddhism.
During the Heian period (793-1185) Buddhist temples were increasingly built on the sides and summits of many Shinto sacred mountains. It was believed that the native Shinto kami of these mountains were in reality manifestations of Buddhist divinities thus pilgrimage to the mountains was believed to bring favors from both the Shinto and Buddhist divinities simultaneously. 1
am i suggesting that there is not meant to be an aspect of holiness in these western images of mountains? no, not at all. nor do i mean to suggest that every japanese printmaker was a saint (or whatever). these western prints and paintings were all completed in the wake of the wall of japan's influence. i'm just saying that i find these all very interesting questions, ones which i hope you will help to explore.