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2023.02 A Journey of Rebirth in the Sacred Dewa Sanzan Mountains [PR]

Dewa Sanzan, or the Three Mountains of Dewa, has been an important spiritual destination for more than 1,400 years. Located in Bandai-Asahi National Park in the Tohoku region of Honshu, this popular pilgrimage destination comprises Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono. Visiting these three sacred mountains is believed to refresh the body and mind, allowing you to be reborn as a new you.


Dewa Sanzan is designated a Japan Heritage site for its tangible cultural heritage, which includes ancient shrines, and its rich spiritual traditions. Embark on a journey to these fascinating mountains to experience the special cultural landscape of Dewa Sanzan and the beauty of the Bandai-Asahi National Park. Tsuruoka City in Yamagata Prefecture is the main gateway to Dewa Sanzan, and summer is the best season to visit because heavy snow in winter makes Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono inaccessible through into spring.


A rich tradition of mountain ascetism, known as Shugendo, has developed at Dewa Sanzan. It draws on ancient traditions of nature worship, and elements of Buddhism and Shinto, and involves austerities such as meditation and fasting. Shugendo has been practiced at Dewa Sanzan for more than 1,400 years, and practitioners of Shugendo are referred to as “yamabushi.” They associate Mt. Haguro with the present, Mt. Gassan with the past, and Mt. Yudono with the future. Visiting these three mountains is symbolic of rebirth, and completing a pilgrimage is believed to bring renewed vitality.


Three days are recommended for pilgrimages, and appropriate hiking gear is necessary. Undertake this unique experience, and discover what the journey may bring for you.


Hagurosan O-torii Gate and Mt. Gassan


Day 1: Mt. Haguro


Start at Mt. Haguro, a mountain to pray for happiness in the present. With a height of 414 meters, it is easily accessible, and also the only Dewa Sanzan mountain where visitors can worship in winter. Take a bus or taxi to Zuishinmon Gate, the main entrance to the sacred grounds of Dewa Sanzan. From there, you climb stone steps and follow a path lined with cedar trees. Walking among the 300- to 500-year-old cedar trees, your mind and body will be cleansed in the sacred air. Along the way, there is a five-story pagoda, the oldest of its kind in the Tohoku region. The current pagoda is a reconstruction dating back around 600 years, but the original was constructed in the 10th century. Other sights along the route include the Jijisugi (“Grandfather Cedar”), a giant 1000-year-old cedar with a circumference of 10 meters. The path and the cedar trees flanking it are rated 3 stars by the Michelin Green Guide Japan.


Spanning 2 km and with a total of 2,446 stone steps, the path up Mt. Haguro takes about 1 to 1.5 hours to walk. As you walk the path, look out for designs carved into the paving stones and steps. There are a total of 33 carvings, and finding all of them is supposed to make all your wishes come true. The path leads to Hagurosan Sanjin Gosaiden Shrine, at the top of the mountain. The shrine is dedicated to the deities of all three mountains, meaning you can worship the deities of Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono here as well. This is convenient in winter when the other mountains are inaccessible, or for visitors with less flexible schedules. There is also a bus to the summit, for access to Sanjin Gosaiden with less walking.


For lodging, go to Saikan, a former temple and worship site on Mt. Haguro, or to the Shukubo district in Toge, at the base of Mt. Haguro (see reservations information at the end of this article). Shukubo are lodgings for pilgrims. At night, cleanse yourself with Dewa Sanzan shojin ryori, a cuisine traditionally eaten by yamabushi as an act of purification. It uses seasonal ingredients from Dewa Sanzan and helps you prepare for the next day's climb. Mt. Haguro is a sanctuary for pilgrims, and it is the only place in the country where Shugendo ascetic traditions such as mineiri (peak rituals) remain largely unchanged since ancient times. The Aki-no-Mineiri (“autumn peak rituals”), in particular, attract many visitors to Mt. Haguro in fall.


Left: The path up Mt. Haguro lined with cedar trees. Right: Pilgrims dressed in white


Aki-no-Mineiri autumn peak rituals on Mt. Haguro


The five-story pagoda with the Jijisugi Grandfather Cedar in the foreground.


The pagoda dusted with snow in winter


A design carved into a paving stone


Hagurosan Sanjin Gosaiden Shrine


Dewa Sanzan shojin ryori at Saikan on Mt. Haguro


Day 2: Mt. Gassan


The next day, gear up for mountain climbing and head to Mt. Gassan, a mountain to pray for peace after death. From the bus stop in the city, it takes about one hour to reach the eighth station on Mt. Gassan. From there, look for the Midagahara route. The trail takes you through wetlands at an elevation of 1,400 meters. The alpine plants that grow here are beautiful, and from June to July, wildflowers bloom in large colonies.


From Midagahara, it takes about three hours to reach Gassan Shrine, which is located at the summit of this 1,984-meter-high mountain dedicated to the dead. Standing atop the mountain, you may experience emotions of gratitude for this world or feel the insignificance of human beings. On a clear day, the distant mountains, and sometimes the Sea of Japan, are visible.


It takes about 3 hours (around 8 km) to reach Mt. Yudono by along a ridgeline path. The route is for intermediate hikers as it occasionally involves tricky sections, that require you to use ladders. Stay overnight at the Sanrojo (closed in winter) on Mt. Yudono and prepare to visit  Yudonosan Shrine the next day.


Note that the route from Mt. Gassan is only available in summer, typically from July 1 to the end of August, but always check before visiting.  (See the link at the end of this article or contact Shoko Travel for up-to-date information on the climbing season). If you find the traverse too challenging, consider returning to Tsuruoka City where you can arrange a cab or rental car to visit Yudonosan Shrine the following day.


The beautiful wetlands of Midagahara


Day lilies in bloom


Seasonal blooms include black lily (top-left,) avens (top-right,) showy orchis (bottom-left,)and skunk cabbage (bottom-right).


Gassan Shrine at the summit of Mt. Gassan


View from Mt. Gassan


Day 3: Mt. Yudono


The last day involves a visit to the main shrine (hongu) of Yudonosan Shrine, which is located halfway up 1,504-meter-high Mt. Yudono. It takes about 30 minutes on foot from the Sanrojo, however buses also operate. Mt. Yudono is one of the three most sacred mountains in Japan and is considered a hallowed place by yamabushi, for it is here that they are reborn after completing their ascetic rituals on Mt. Haguro and Mt. Gassan. Mt. Yudono is considered a land of deities. Since ancient times, measures have been put in place to preserve the sanctity of the site. These include being forbidden to speak or ask about Mt. Yudono, or erect man-made structures on the sacred ground. As such, there is no shrine pavilion at the hongu, and photography is prohibited.


At the hongu, visitors go barefoot to take in the warmth of the ground. They absorb the energy from the mountain through the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet. With feelings of awe for nature and its overwhelming life force, people of all walks of life have prayed on this mountain for spiritual rebirth.


The sacred mountain grounds are also a site for takigyo, ascetic practices held under waterfalls. There are many rocky outcrops with waterfalls large and small, and the grueling ascetic rituals performed under them are said to be symbolic of the pains of childbirth. Otaki is one such waterfall where takigyo are performed.


Note that there is no regular public transportation from Yudonosan Shrine to Tsuruoka, so you will need to reserve a taxi for your return journey. You can also visit Mt. Yudono by cab from Tsuruoka if you prefer not to hike via Mt Haguro and Mt. Gassan. Another interesting way to approach the mountain is to take a cab to Tamugimata, where you can pick up and walk the Rokujurigoe-kaido, an ancient road (closed in winter). Mt. Yudono is typically accessible from around April 29 to November 3.


O-torii gate of Yudonosan Shrine


An ascetic performing takigyo at Otaki waterfall


A section of the Rokujurigoe-kaido


How to get there


Your Dewa Sanzan journey begins from Tsuruoka. By air, it takes about 1 hour from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Shonai Airport in Yamagata Prefecture.  From Shonai Airport to Tsuruoka Station is about a 20-minute ride on the Shonai Airport Bus. By land, it takes about 2 hours from Tokyo to Niigata Station on the JR Joetsu Shinkansen Line, and about 1 hour and 50 minutes from Niigata Station to Tsuruoka Station on the Inaho limited express train. To reach Mt. Haguro, take the local bus to the Haguro Zuishinmon stop (approx. 36 minutes). The bus ride to the summit of Mt. Haguro takes about 57 minutes. Refer to the links at the end of this article for access by highway bus or car from all over Japan, and for access and tours within the Dewa Sanzan area.


Related Links


Official Website TSURUOKA



Facebook  Tsuruoka: Land of Dewa



STAY YAMAGATA The official tourism website of Yamagata,Japan



Japan Heritage Site Three Mountains of Dewa



YouTube Japan Heritage Site Three Mountains of Dewa




Access to Tsuruoka



Transportation Information for the Dewa Sanzan Area



Haguro Tourist Association



Sightseeing Bus Routes Haguro-Gassan Line



Hiking Map Mt. Haguro



Hiking Map Mt. Gassan & Mt. Yudono



Mt. Yudono Sanrojo



Shoko Travel



Megurun Inc.






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