Dewa Sanzan was on my list since a long time, and luckily, this summer I had the opportunity to visit not only Mount Haguro, but walk the entire pilgrimage path. But this name may not ring you a bell, isn’t it? Well, Dewa Sanzan refers to the three sacred mountains of the Yamagata Prefecture. In their order, these are Mt. Haguro, representing the past, Mt. Gassan, representing the present and Mt. Yudono, representing the future. But don’t worry, you don’t need a religious background nor being a Buddhist to walk this path as it has much more to offer.
However, let me give you a short explanation about the religion practiced here, to better appreciate the place. “Shugendo is a religious movement that had developed with its ethos of religious practices in the mountains. It arouse out of the encounter of indigenous mountain beliefs with imported religious traditions of Buddhism and Taoism. It forms the basis of Japanese spiritual culture, which manifests a close relationship between human being, gods, and nature in the context of sacred mountains.” Therefore, is a syncretic religion, a fusion of existing practices and traditions, inspired by Buddhism, Taoism, local shamanistic and folk religions.
But leaving the religion aside, the true reason you should come here is to feel the authentic Japanese experience. As things hardly changed in the last 1000 years, there is a great opportunity to see the true Japan. The Japanese Cedar Tree Line, the Five Story Pagoda and the Sanjin Gosaiden are just a few examples that passed the test of time. Remaining still for hundreds of years, they are waiting for the new generations to come. So get yourself prepared and start your visit with Mount Haguro, which got 3 Stars by the Michelin Green Guide Japan in 2009 for its splendid pilgrim trail.
The history of the Mt. Haguro takes us back 1400 years ago. Prince Hachiko, the son of the 32nd Emperor Shushun, came to Mt. Haguro on the guidance of a three-legged crow. After obtaining enlightenment, he established a place here to practice Buddhism and worship the deities of these three mountains. That’s the reason why along your way you will find several places related to Prince Hachiko, including his tomb and a shrine dedicated to him.
Mt. Haguro represents the mountain of the past and it’s the first mountain to start the pilgrimage path with. It’s the most touristic because it’s easy accessible during all the seasons, comparing to Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono open just during the summer because of the heavy snow. But, if you start your visit from the Zuishin Gate till the top, you will have many opportunities to find yourself alone, enjoying the mountain by yourself even during a Golden Week. You just need to allocate a full day for this small mountain (414 meters only!) as it has lots to offer. I guarantee you won’t get bored even for a second. If ready, let’s visit Mount Haguro step by step!
Start your visit from the Zuishin Gate. Here you can get a map of Mount Haguro and most important a goshuin, the red stamp that certifies you visited the temple. There are also many charms and small souvenirs you can choose from. Once done, enter the gate, check out the hidden guardians and enter the sacred mountain. A beautiful cedar path is opening in front of you, leading to the heart of the mountain.
On your way, you will notice many small shrines. Each of them is dedicated to a different god and thanks to the English descriptions, you can get some precious insights. Don’t forget to make an offering (a 5¥ coin is considered the luckiest!) and ring the bell to make the God aware of your visit!
Soon after the shrines, you will notice a beautiful red bridge. And on its right, you will find a even more beautiful waterfall called Suga-No-Taki. It is a manmade waterfall, dating back to 400 years ago and constructed under Ten’yu Betto.
On your left, you will find an impressive 1000 year old Japanese cedar, called Jijsugi – Grandpa tree. Can you imagine how many generations passed by and how much the Grandpa would say if he could? What a lovely reminder of the grandeur and longevity of the natural world.
The Five Story Pagoda (Go-Jyu-No-Toh)
Walking the Ishi-Dan, you will encounter the Five Story Pagoda, one of Japan’s National Treasures. It was built between 931 and 937 by Taira no Masakado, a military commander (samurai) during the Heian period. A classical text says that Fujiwara no Ujie, a court noble, restored it in 1372. Inside it, there is a giant earthquake resistant damper pendulum, which privided inspiration even for the modern skyscrapers, including Japan’s Skytree.
However, you can’t remain unimpressed watching this structure of 29 meters high. This plain wood building roofed with shingles it’s beautiful from any angle, so take as many pictures as you can.
The Japanese Cedar tree line
Grandpa may have 1000 years old, but there are many more old trees around. From the Zuishin Gate till the top of the mountain, the 1.7 km path and its 2446 steps (called Ishi-Dan) are made by stone and lines with old cedar trees. It has been constructed by Ten-yu Betto in 1648, the 50th chief priest of Dewa Sanzan, and it took 13 years till completion. It has been designated a special natural monument and rated with 3 Michelin Stars in 2009, by the Michelin Green Guide of Japan.
As you walk towards the top, try to find the 33 carvings hidden among the steps. It is said that if you find the all, your wished will come true! So give it a try and don’t forget the counting!
Ninosaka Chaya – The second tire coffee
Half way to the top, catch your breath at this small café and souvenir shop. The view from here is breathtaking. You can admire the Shonai Plains and on clear days even the Sea of Japan. And if you’re wondering about the frog, she was inside the shop playing around.
Before heading to the shrine, turn left and head to Saikan. Formerly a temple, this place is offering accommodation and Shojin-Ryori ascetic cuisine not only to the guests, but also for day trip visitors. The local Buddhist cuisine is unique to Mount Haguro. The ingredients are all gathered or farmed from the mountain itself and is reliant on weather, seasons and the bounty of the mountainside. To ensure you get a meal you should book in advance, but even without a reservation it is still feasible, especially if it’s outside the peak season.
Sanjin Gosaiden is the shrine that joins together the three deities of the Dewa mountains. The exact date of its original construction is unknown, because of the multiple fires that destroyed it along the years. However, the current building and shrine date back to 1818, at the time of the 75th Betto (the chief priest) Kakujun, rebuilt on the original shrine established by Prince Hachiko. Its dimensions are impressive: 28.2 meters high, 26 meters wide and 20 meters in depth and the most impressive of all the thatched roof of 2.1 meters thick.
Just near the big shrine there is another small one, a bit hidden to the back. On its right are thousands of offerings, a nice image to capture while there.
While continuing walking, you will find another line of small shrines, identical in design with the ones you saw at the beginning of the trail. There is one that really captured my attention with many pairs of shoes brought there – must probably offerings for healthy legs!
Bells are commonly found in temples and not in shrines. But this one shows the legacy of Buddhist temple practices which took place at this Shinto shrine even before the Meiji period. The current bell dates back to 1617, when it was rebuilt after a typhoon. As you can see, it is enormous (weighting 10 tons!), gaining the 3rd position for its size in Japan. Unfortunately, you can only hear its sound in the last day of each year. But only seeing it you add another national important cultural property on your list.
In front of the belfry you will see a peace monument. I’m not aware of its origins or story, but I felt happy only seeing it. It made me feel that no matter where we’re coming from, what are our believes or religion, we are all welcome here.
In front of the main shrine there is a big pond called Kagami-Ike (the mirror pond). In the early 20th century, the pond was drained for construction but over 600 of ornate, bronze mirrors, were discovered on its bottom. About 200 are kept today in the nearby Dewa Sanzan museum, while the others were offered to other museums across the world, including to the British Museum in London.
Wondering where these mirrors came from? In the past, people believed the pond was a place of worship and casted their wishes on the mirrors, then submerging them into the pond. And today, even if the mirrors were removed, the lake itself acts as a mirror for the main shrine, reflecting its beautiful image in it.
Dewa Sanzan Historical Museum
Open only between end of April – end of November, from 8.30am till 4.30pm (and closed on Thursdays except July and August), this beautiful museum is totally worth in a one hour visit. Built in 1970, it used to be located in front of the mirror pond, as a treasure house. Today, it houses and exhibits many national important assets such as statues, swords, documents and videos related to the ascetic practice and the Dewa Sanzan history. A great place to learn about the various festivals and traditions on the mountains for only 300¥ admission fee. No pictures are allowed inside!
If you have time, visit Ideha cultural museum as well – located at the base of the mountain. This museum acts as a facility for learning the history of the three mountains of Dewa.
Food & Drink
Apart from the delicious ascetic cuisine, stop by the small shops (near the bus stop) and buy some omiyage (gifts or souvenirs). Each shop is offering a drink, or better said a soup, for everybody to taste the mountain treasures.
If you want to spent the night on Mount Haguro, you’ll have to call and book in advance. As mentioned before, Saikan is probably the only choice you have, so don’t expect to big luxury. The rooms are traditional , with tatami, so you’ll sleep on the floor. But the scenery around is priceless, not mentioning of the quality time you can have apart from the modern world. On my list for the 2nd trip!
The easiest way to move around is with a private car, but you can also rely on public transportation. There are regular buses from Tsuruoka to Haguro mountain, for 840¥ one way. It takes about 1 hour from Tsuruoka train station until the mountain base (entrance of the Zuishin gate), or a bit more if you want to go straight to the shrine (on the top of the mountain).
Well, that’s it from my side. I hope you enjoyed the article and one day you’ll visit Mount Haguro by yourself. Meanwhile, get inspired from more articles across Japan and not only, here.
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