Peaking at 5,640 feet, Mount 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 ninth 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 worldly concerns below.
And that means leaving women behind, as well.
Women are not welcome on Mount 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" that demarcates where the men-only turf begins.
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 Mount Fuji. Across the mountain-ripped Japanese landscape, only Mount 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 U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, declared the entire Mount Kii range -- which encompasses the men-only pocket of Mount Omine -- a World Heritage site.
The United Nations said the sacred sites and pilgrimage routes across the mountain range reflected Japan's fusion of Shinto and Buddhist spirituality, and that universal access was not a requirement for World Heritage status. The decision dismayed Japanese women's groups that had lobbied the Japanese government and the United Nations against enshrining what they see as discrimination on Mount Omine.