MT. OMINE, Japan — At 5 a.m. on a summer day already sticky with humidity, three dozen ascetic priests known as yamabushi -- "those who lie down in the mountains" -- have gathered at the foot of this mountain in southern Japan to pray before climbing its sacred slopes.
Peaking at 5,640 feet, Mt. Omine is far from the highest mountain in Japan. But the yamabushi who follow the Japanese religion of Shugendo and other pilgrims have been climbing it since the 9th century, drawn by a belief that the two-hour ascent up its rocky trails will help them touch the spiritual world above, while leaving their earthly concerns below.
And that means leaving women behind, as well.
Women are not welcome on Mt. Omine. Never have been. For 1,300 years, only men have been allowed to huff and puff the rutted paths leading to the Buddhist temple at the top.
With a final clap to draw the attention of the mountain's spirit, the yamabushi pass without pause through the "Off Limits to Women Gate."
The barrier is hardly imposing, little more than a stumpy marker forged from three old logs. But in a culture where conformity rules and few dare to cross its invisible lines, the gate is a psychological maze of barbed wire.
The ban's logic is rooted in sex. The yamabushi and, later, trainee Buddhist priests on the mountain were supposed to be engaged in a test of strict self-denial -- at least until they came down to avail themselves of the numerous brothels awaiting them at the bottom. Women on the mountain would be a distraction.
"We still believe this, that the mountain is only for men," says Kosho Okada, a 34-year-old Buddhist monk who is deputy to the chief priest at the Ominesanji Temple that crowns the mountain. "We have been protecting this mountain for some time now, and we are going to defend its tradition."
The gender ban persists despite an 1872 Japanese government decree that struck down ancient conventions keeping women off many of the country's mountains -- including national icon Mt. Fuji. Across the mountain-ripped Japanese landscape, only Mt. Omine has ignored that order, its uniqueness nurtured by generations of like-minded monks and municipal officials who insist they are defending tradition, not discriminating against women.
The locals can now point to a 21st century endorsement of their views, from an unlikely source. This summer, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the entire Mt. Kii range -- which encompasses Mt. Omine -- a World Heritage site.
The U.N. says that the sacred sites and pilgrimage routes across the mountain range reflect Japan's fusion of Shinto and Buddhist spirituality, and that universal access is not a requirement for World Heritage status. The decision dismayed Japanese women's groups that had lobbied the government and the U.N. against enshrining what they see as discrimination on Mt. Omine.
"UNESCO didn't even seem to think this was an issue," says Junko Minamoto, 57, of the Institute of Human Rights Studies at Kansai University. Minamoto says her interest in the mountain was stirred by her academic study of Buddhism, which alerted her to what she saw as the religion's enduring bias against women and its tenets requiring women to obey men.
The ban on allowing women up Mt. Omine symbolizes that second-class status, says Minamoto, who campaigned against World Heritage status for the mountain and managed to get some national media attention for the cause.
But she also ran into a backlash, especially in the towns and villages around the mountain.
"It is really, really difficult to argue for women's rights in Japan," the soft-spoken lecturer says. "The Japanese have an allergic reaction to feminist issues. I don't think Japanese women think about things that affect them."
There is virtually no sign of sympathy for her crusade in Dorokawa, the one-street town at the base of Mt. Omine where local businesses are wondering whether the U.N. designation will usher in a tourist boom.
"This is a convention, a custom we have kept for 1,300 years, and we are happy the U.N. has decided to help us preserve and recognize it," says Genichi Masutani, head of an innkeepers association and the local official most identified with the push for World Heritage status.
Dorokawa, where tour buses scrape past one another in low gear as they ferry climbers to and from the mountain, has the air of a place sprucing itself up for better times. Masutani proudly shows off the new trinkets he has for sale: World Heritage site key chains and World Heritage site bells that hang from a climber's hip and tinkle to ward off bears. He offers a visitor a special edition Kirin beer celebrating the UNESCO designation.
The innkeeper is a friendly 46-year-old who seems to know everyone in town. They, in turn, associate him with the local campaign to keep Mt. Omine's slopes women-free.