"Immortal Wishes" is a powerful ethnographic rendering of religious rituals and ascetic practices at the Akakura Mountain Shrine in northern Japan. Inspired by a vision of a dragon arising out of Akakura Mountain, a peasant woman founded the Shinto sect in 1921. Since then, worshippers, predominantly women, have come to the shrine to participate in what can be years, or even decades, of a regimen of shugyo (disciplined practice), which often involves arduous physical tasks including treks up the mountainside. Ellen Schattschneider argues that the ascetic discipline and rituals at Akakura Mountain Shrine are generated by a complex set of social and historical tensions, some of which reflect the uneasy status of the surrounding area within the modern nation's industrial and postindustrial economies.Yet, Schattschneider explains, spiritual practice at the Akakura shrine is also motivated by the efforts of women and men to comprehend and manage contradictory obligations and desires related to personal health, family, and work. Schattschneider participated in shugyo herself, and "Immortal Wishes" is full of details drawn from conversations, events, climbs, interviews, and outings.
She relates the histories of the practice and individual practitioners, annual rituals, various steps and elements involved in specific shugyo, the exchanges of offerings, legendary dreams, and the conflicted issues of succession raised by the founder's death. In describing how personal loss and travail are transposed onto the mountain landscape as spiritual transcendence is sought through worship and practical labor, Schattschneider reveals the deeply embodied nature of a religion physically labored at with a subtlety and intensity as sensual as it is spiritual.