Hike Yamagata's mystical mountains on a pilgrimage to rebirth
Yamagata Prefecture is home to three scenic and culturally important mountains, Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono, known collectively as the Dewa Sanzan . Revered as the homes of the gods, the tradition of Japanese nature worship remains alive in these mountains. According to the Shugendo ascetic faith that developed here, the pilgrimage through these mountains is a journey through the present, past, and into the future.
- The wooden pagoda near the base of Mt. Haguro, a National Treasure said to have been built in 937
- Sweeping vistas from the shrine on the summit of Mt. Gassan
- The fiery Shoreisai festival held at the top of Mt. Haguro on New Year's Eve
How to Get There
Tsuruoka Station is the nearest transport hub for the Dewa Sanzan mountains. Buses run regularly to Mt. Haguro, where connections to Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono are possible in peak season.
For Mt. Haguro, take the Shonai Kotsu bus and alight at Zuishinmon (40-minutes) if you plan on hiking the mountain. If not, you can ride the bus all the way to the summit (60-minutes).
Buses operate from the summit of Mt. Haguro and serve the 8th Station on Mt. Gassan regularly during July and August, and only on weekends during September. The journey takes 55-minutes.
Mt. Yudono is not accessible by public transport on weekdays throughout the year. Buses from the summit of Mt. Haguro serve Mt. Yudono on weekends during peak season only. Hiking from the bus stop on Mt. Gassan is possible and will take around six hours.
Mt. Gassan is the tallest of the three mountains at 1984 meters
Mt. Haguro is the only mountain accessible year-round
The Dewa Sanzan mountains are one of the spiritual homes of Shugendo, a form of religious syncretism that places importance on ascetic practices
Everything begins at Mt. Haguro, the mountain of the present that fulfills the worldly needs of living people. In addition to being the most easily accessible of the three peaks, the trail from the base is well-marked and winds through cedar forests. About ten minutes into the hike, you will come across a five-storied pagoda dating to 937—a registered National Treasure—and a teahouse slightly further along the trail. If you would like to learn about Shugendo and the area's history and religious value, call in at the Ideha Museum near the trailhead before beginning your hike.
After passing the pagoda, you will begin a gentle ascent up a flight of 2,446 shallow stone steps. Although easy to walk, it is important to wear comfortable shoes with non-slip soles, especially after it has been raining. Expect the journey to the shrine on the summit to take around an hour.
Mt. Gassan, the tallest mountain (1,984 meters), is the mountain of the past where spirits of the deceased are said to dwell in peace. The climb to the top begins at the 8th Station, accessible by bus from the summit of Mt. Haguro between July and September. It's a relatively easy ascent through rolling plains and shouldn't take more than three hours to the top. From the shrine at the summit, you will be rewarded with sweeping vistas of the surrounding area.
The road to rebirth
Mt. Yudono is the most sacred and mysterious of the three mountains, where hot springs gush forth from between red boulders, symbolizing the birth of new life and the future. The trail to Mt. Yudono from the summit of Mt. Gassan is the most challenging of the trails, involving steel ladders at times. It is, however, also arguably the most scenic, passing through dense forest and past waterfalls where Shugendo practitioners conduct spiritual training. Expect it to take around three or four hours to reach the shrine of rebirth atop Mt. Yudono.
Festivals and events
Numerous events and festivals are held throughout the year at the Dewa Sanzan Shrine atop Mt. Haguro. These include the Flower Festival on July 14 and 15 which features portable shrine processions, music, and other performances, but it is the fiery Shoreisai festival on New Year's Eve that steals the show. Amid the snow, teams compete to drag and then burn flaming straw effigies of a menacing demon at their prescribed spots. The festival is the reenactment of a legend and is said to date back more than a millennium.
After visiting the Dewa Sanzan mountains consider taking the Uetsu Main Line along the coast from Tsuruoka to Akita , around two hours by express train. Alternatively, you can go south along the coast to Niigata , where ferry connections to Sado Island are possible. If you want to explore the Pacific East Coast, take a train from Tsuruoka to Sendai .