Dewa Sanzan refers to the three sacred mountains of Yamagata Prefecture. In their order, these are Mt. Haguro, representing the past (or death), Mt. Gas-san, representing the present (or birth) and Mt. Yudono, representing the future (or re-birth). The entire mountain area is well known as a center of Shugendo, a folk religion based on mountain worship, which combines the current traditions of Buddhism and Shintoism. Here, practitioners (called yamabushi), perform feats of endurance as a means of transcending the physical world. If you’re interested to know more about the religion and Shugendo practice (Sokushinbutsu) please go to the article Visit Sakata. You will find more details under Kaikoji temple section.
If you decide to visit Dewa Sanzan, you will notice the information are mainly about Mount Haguro, as it’s the most touristic. When you’ll try to look for details on Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono, there is almost nothing available. That’s why I do hope this article will make your planning easier if you’re thinking to make the full trip. To avoid repeating myself, please refer to Visit Mount Haguro article for the details, as here I will continue the story focusing on the other two sacred mountains, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono. Without further due, let’s visit Dewa Sanzan together!
There are two important things you should know before planning your trip. The first one is that Mount Haguro is far away from the Mount Gassan and Yudono, which are relatively close to each other. And the second one which is a consequence of the previous fact, that you won’t be able to visit the Dewa Sanzan (literally meaning the 3 mountains of Dewa, san = three, san/zan = mountain) in one day, so you’ll need at least two full days.
Mount Gassan is the highest mountain between the three, with a height of 1984 meters. The only way to reach its summit and visit its shrine is by trekking during the summer months (June to September). For the rest of the year is closed because of the heavy snow – and you’ll better understand this while hiking, as you can see the snow even during summer!
The most common way to start hiking Mount Gassan is from the 8th Station. That’s where the bus will leave you and you can’t miss the stop as it’s the last station. Here you have the chance to buy some water, snacks and souvenirs and very important – use the bathroom! Bare in mind that your next opportunity is at the 9th station, in about 2 hours from here.
Unfortunately, there are no English maps, so grab one in Japanese as it can still be useful. Try to mark the names for the Gassan summit, Gassan shrine and Yudono shrine, as you’ll have to guide yourself on the trail based on these inscriptions. The signs are only in Japanese, which added a layer of complexity for the overall trekking. I had to always ask the people around if I’m heading in the right direction (and weren’t many on the way!), especially on the way down to Yudono where are several trails heading to different places. So a better preparation will bring you more piece of mind and less chances to get yourself lost.
Beginning of the trail
Once you’re ready, follow the small road behind the station. In just a few minutes you will arrive to a big wooden panel with a map. Everything is in Japanese, but basically you have two paths to chose from. The one on the right is the shorter one, taking you straight to the summit. The one on the left is a bit longer, but it has a connection with the road to the summit too. Especially during good weather, people come and walk around this area to admire the variety of plants and flowers – as not everybody wants to reach the summit!
From here, you’ll start walking towards the 9th station. The path is very well indicated and marked even with ropes, so you can’t get lost or take a wrong turn. It is well delimited and you’ll always have rocky stones to step on or even small paths made by wood – it really looks like a walk in a park. However, the difficulty of this road comes from the fact that is widely exposed to sun, wind, rain, with no trees around. And unfortunately at this attitude the chances to get a good weather overall are low. But of course, if you are lucky and you get good weather, you can enjoy a spectacular 360 view.
As mentioning before, many people come here to enjoy the nature. The marshland is reach in wild alpine flower fields, so it’s truly a pleasure to come here and admire the beauty of nature. If that’s something of your interest, allow some extra time and walk the full circle path at the beginning of the trail. The area has been created in this regard.
After about 1.5-2 hours, you will arrive at the 9th station, located at 1743 meter. As this is a private location, you’ll have to purchase a drink or a souvenir in order to stay inside. I do recommend the miso soup and the non-alcohol sake (rice drink), are both very delicious! They have also many nice souvenirs, included the wooden sticks with the station stamp (so get the big stick to add an extra stamp at the Gassan shrine and one at the Yudono shrine). They also have pins to engrave the date of your visit on the back (similar on the ones on Fuji-san if you’ve already been there). Once ready, head to your next stop, Gassan summit!
Mt. Gassan Summit
At some point you will notice two roads: one taking you further up, and one following the main road. Take the one up as it will lead you to the summit – only a 5-10 minutes detour. Once on top, you will find several signs marking the mountain summit. Pick one of the wooden signs and get your picture taken before heading down to the main road.
Mt. Gassan Shrine
From here, there is only a short walk until the Gassan shrine, about 10-15 minutes. Enter the gate and look for shelter on your right. You can get some rest here, while admiring the wooden rabbit (the symbol of the mountain) and getting your wooden stamp.
In order to enter the main shrine, you’ll have to participate in a purification process. Once you pay the 500¥ entrance fee, the priest will explain you what to do. Basically, he will recite a prayer and then handle to you a paper doll. You’ll have to take the paper and symbolically touch your body with it to wipe your sins, then putting it in water, for everything being washed away. I am not Buddhist, but I need to confess that this process was a great experience even for me as a Christian.
Once purified, you’ll be able to go inside and pray to the main shrine – where no photos are allowed. There will be a small building on your left, from where you can buy charms unique to this shrine, so ask the stuff for details. You can also get here the shrine stamp (goshuin), which is pretty amazing comparing to the other temples & shrines, as it’s on a double paper (same principle for all the 3 shrines of the Dewa Sanzan, so a great collection to have).
After you exit the shrine and head towards Yudono-san, you will find a shelter on your left, providing food and souvenirs. So if you’re looking for a place to recover the energy, that’s the best place you have. Once ready, follow the path to Yudono shrine, for about 2.5 to 3 hours.
From the all three mountains of Dewa, Mount Yudono was always considered a mysterious mountain, where worshippers had to undergo a rigorous religious purification before setting foot on the mountain. It was believed that on Mount Haguro worshippers were given the divine virtues of the benefits gained in this world through observance of Buddhist teachings, while the deity of Mount Gassan allowed them to experience death in the next world, and the great benevolence of the deity of Mount Yudono provided new life and rebirth.
Actually, you will often hear about Mount Yudono as the sacred mountain that one is neither to talk nor hear of what happens inside the shrine. However, despite its mystery and secrecy, Mount Yudono shrine can be easily accessible with a car via a toll road. The traditional route is steep and more difficult, leading the visitors down from Mount Gassan.
So, if you’re coming from Mount Gassan, prepare for a challenging descending. You will start with a very rocky portion, which is rather dangerous while raining, as it becomes very slippery. However, once you pass this portion you will be welcomed by a lush forest and nature all around. Be careful of bears and wear a bell with you on the road.
After a long descending, you will arrive to a challenging portion, so be prepared. There will be several stairs that you’ll have to use to descend the mountain. Consider this point as it may be an issue if you are afraid of the heights (luckily, I had no problems, but one of my friends had). This portion may slow you down a bit, especially if it’s raining. But take your time and avoid slippering, safe is a priority!
Once you’re done with the stairs, you will continue descending till a small river – so prepare to get a bit wet. Slowly, you’ll start seeing in the distance the parking. It will be such a good relief after the long trekking!
Mt. Yudono Shrine
The Yudono Shrine is considered the rear shrine to Dewa Sanzan. It is located in the Bonji River valley and it’s considered a sacred ground in shugendo (mountain asceticism). It is a sphere of purity and mystery of which those who enter are admonished not to speak.
In order to enter the shrine, same as on the Mt. Gassan, you’ll have to pass through a purification process (for a 500¥). You’ll have to first remove your shoes. Bare foot, a priest will undergo a purification ritual for you and you will be handed a talisman and a small paper doll (hitogana) – same as on Mount Gassan. At the end of the purification you’ll have to wipe away the physical impurities with the paper doll and blow out a breath. Then, you’ll have to send the paper doll floating down the mountains stream flowing at your feet. Now, you’ll be ready to enter.
Once you enter on your right, you’ll notice a big feet bath. Worshippers can soak their feet in the hot water flowing from the rock, in which the deities reside, in order to receive the divine spirit of the gods. This sacred hot water space has been created to celebrate the 1400 years since Mt. Yudono foundation as a site of worship.
Comparing to the other shrines, here you will see no altar, no building. The Yudono shrine consist of a large brown rock, from which hot water spring forth. It is thought to be where divine spirits reside. This shrine enshrines the deities of Oyamatsumi no Mikoto, Onamuchi no Mikoto and Sukanahikona no Mikoto. What is great is that you can actually climb the rock and enjoy the hot water passing through your feet. If you’re lucky enough, you can even see the priest holding prayers in front of the shrine, which is quite fascinating to experience. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside. If you’re coming for a day trip, ensure you visit during the opening hours 8.15am-16.40pm, closed from November till April.
Iwakuyo Memories Rite
To the left of the shrine you can see a large rock known as iwakuyo. It is a rock for saying prayers for the repose of spirits. It is called Yudonosan Reisaijo, the site ceremonies honoring ancestors. Worshippers use water to wet a paper representing the spirits that has the names of their ancestors written on it and affix it to the rock. When the writing on the paper has faded with time, it is deemed that the spirits of the deceased have been cleansed of impurities and ascended the mountain.
If you’d like to spend the night in the area, you can find accommodation at Shojin Ryori. If not, you can stop by and experience the ascetic cuisine. Wild mountain vegetables, mushroom, freshwater fish, are prepared under unique customs that have been passes down generations after generations. Call and book in advance to secure a meal!
I personally underestimated the weather up there, so avoid my mistakes. Literally, the weather was changing every few seconds: from sunny to cloudy to rain. So get a warm jacket, long trousers, good boots and waterproof / windproof clothes. This will save you from lots of pain.
Food & Drink
I strongly recommend you to purchase your drinks and food from the city, as the options on the mountains are limited. And apart from the fact that are limited, are also more expensive. In case you are running low, you can of course purchase some from the Gassan 8th, 9th station and summit or from the shops around Yudono shrine.
Visiting Dewa Sanzan by public transportation requires some preparation as the options are limited. But of course, is the best option if you’re planning to head towards Mount Gassan and then returning from Mount Yudono. In this case, you’ll have to take the bus from Tsuruoka train station around 6am. This will pass by Mount Haguro, then heading towards the 8th station of Mount Gassan. This trip will cost you 2140¥. On the way back, you’ll have to catch the last bus from Yudono to Tsuruoka station, which is around 5pm. Be careful as the bus stop is near the great Torii gate, and not near the parking close to the shrine. This will cost you another 3000¥. So, as you can see, this is not a cheap trekking to do!
The other option you have is to rent a car and visit each of the mountains and shrines independently. You can drive to Mount Gassan 8th station and enjoy a 5-6 hours of trekking for a return trip. Then, you can continue on the road till Yudono Shrine. The parking is only 200 meters away from the shrine. Of course, this route won’t give you the chance to experience the full trekking, but it can be a good option especially if you’re with kids.
Well, that’s it from my side. I hope you enjoyed the article and one day you’ll visit Dewa Sanzan by yourself. Meanwhile, get inspired from more articles across Japan and not only, here.
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