One of Japan's oldest pilgrimages, the National Heritage Site of Dewa Sanzan (“The Three Mountains of Dewa”) is a unique combination of Shintoism, Buddhism, Taosim, and mountain worship. Come to the mountain trails to connect with the mountain, history and yourself. Enjoy the scenery that inspires poets and artists with classic Japanese views.
BY Lori Ono
After passing through the large torii gate, the yamabushi guide blows the horn made from a conch shell. The sound suits the green forest, curling around tall cedars. It’s a call to the mountain spirits, but as the tone rolls through you, it inspires you to move forward. The journey to the top of Mount Haguro begins with a small descent—symbolic of passing through death before rising up. Other horns echo through the forest from other yamabushi leading their own groups. Sunlight filters through the leaves. The journey of 2,446 stone steps to the shrine encompassing the three gods of the Dewa Sanzan at the top of the mountain begins.
Nestled in the heart of Yamagata Prefecture, the Dewa Sanzan, also known as the Three Mountains of Dewa, comprises three mountains edging the southwest edge of the Shonai Plains. Certified as a National Heritage Site with four places rating stars in the Michelin Green Guide: Japan, this “power spot” is a must-visit in Japan. Experience for yourself the scenery that inspired part of haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s collection, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. For centuries, the pilgrimage through the three mountains has been a symbolic journey of rebirth. Mount Haguro represents the past, Mount Gassan the present and Mount Yudono is the future. The mountains of Yamagata have deep winter snows. From fall to spring, access to Mount Gassan and Yudono is closed. The three mountain deities are represented in the shrine on top of mount Haguro which is open year-round because of its lower altitude.
Tsuruoka, the gateway to the Dewa Sanzan, is an easy train ride from Tokyo, and the only UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in Japan because of heirloom vegetables like the turnips or soybeans found in the Shonai valley and sansai—any wild edible plant from the mountain. Gathering and eating food from the mountain is a deeply ingrained tradition and is an important part of a visit to the area.
In 592 Prince Hachiko, who is listed as a member of the Imperial family, established a shrine. Spirituality in this area reflects historical influences. Shinto, Buddhism, or mountain worship share the same search for meaning and questioning our place in the world. There are many varieties of Shinto in Japan. Here it is highly influenced by mountain worship culture. By going to the mountains, you show your commitment and acknowledge the importance of being present. The Buddhist history of the area also makes its mark. Kami and Buddha are the same entity. The graveyard at Haguro Shrine points to the Buddhist influence of the area, since Shinto shrines rarely include graveyards.
Yoshikazu Abe-Gonguji (vice-chief priest) at Dewa Sanzan Shrine hopes that visitors will feel a connection to the past through the area’s heritage. The nature people enjoy along the path is the result of centuries of harmony with the mountain. The scenery that feels mystical has been designed over the centuries to emphasize what people felt about this area. Many of the buildings, like the five-story pagoda and Sanjingo-saiden Shrine are impossible to build today. Along with the special building techniques, the buildings represent a human investment that is almost impossible to replicate today.
He says he feels privileged to be a steward of the past and preserve them for the future. The shrine and the community are finding new ways to appeal to people such as training female yamabushi, walking to Mount Yudono, connecting with those that want to do shugyo training, and appealing to people from abroad.
Yamabushi are mountain priests of Shugendo, which combines Shinto, esoteric Buddhism and mountain worship. Haguro Shugendo is practiced in Yamagata. They focus on the connection with nature as a way to know one’s self and ultimately to be of service to others. They are known for ascetic practices such as purification under waterfalls and trekking through the mountains in silence. To guide pilgrims through the mountains, you must be a yamabushi.
If you want to see a yamabushi festival, the last day of August is the Fire Festival dedicated to Prince Hachiko, the founder of religious worship in the area. In September, two yamabushi monks are chosen to do a 100-day purification ritual for the benefit of the community. The end, on December 31, is celebrated with the Shoreisai Festival.
Pilgrimage and shugyo training are two main experiences that have long established traditions. Like the difference between being a student and taking teacher training. Both have opportunities for growth and unique experience. The traditional pilgrimage of three mountains traditionally took two days. Now, the journey takes longer. The shrine offers registration for Shugendo training, but Yamabushido Project offers international visitors an easy way to register and take part in these experiences. Takeharu Kato of Megurun Inc. which provides the Yamabushido Project believes that, “living heritage is important, but it’s more valuable if it can contribute to modern life.” They focus on yamabushido experiences that rebuild the local community and makes it sustainable by prioritizing partnerships and relationships in the community. They can arrange solo or small private hikes, or even long stays in the area.
You are provided with the traditional clothing and walking stick. The most cost-efficient method is to join a scheduled tour. Currently, the next guided hikes are organized for 2022. Joining a tour is also a way to meet other travelers. When you get to the top of the mountain, you participate in a ceremony at the shrine and receive a token of a blessing. Your experience ends early enough in the day to return to Tokyo, but you will likely want to explore the area longer.
Though not required, the one-day hike is best started by staying at a pilgrim lodge (shukubo) the night before. Your meals and the morning shinto ritual performed at the shukubo purify you before your climb. Since you will already be in Toge, there is less stress about being on time.
Yamabushido Project hopes to create the opportunity for life changing moments provided by shugyo training. There are two types of training to choose from. One is more physically intense while one is more of a spiritual challenge. If you are looking for a life changing experience, this might be for you.
Everyone is welcome to explore on their own. The area has many signs explaining the significance of the locations. The stairs are quite steep and footing can be uneven. Renting a walking stick for JPY 100 (USD1) from the Ideha Cultural Museum across from the start of the stone path can make your trip a little safer. The trip up the mountain can be done in two hours depending on how long you spend at the shrines and stop for a break. Ni-no-saka Chaya Teahouse (The Teahouse on the Second Slope) is a welcome respite when climbing the mountain. After visiting the shrine and the museum, you have the option to wait for the bus or to return down the steps.
Shukubo are lodgings for pilgrims, usually at temples or shrines, but you don’t have to be a pilgrim to stay there. The accommodation tends to be ascetic, and traditional tatami style. They are famous for shojin ryori—ascetic (typically) vegetarian food. The shukubo in Toge have an official status that has been passed down through the family for generations. Pilgrimages saw their height of popularity during the Edo period (1603-1868). Toge once had over 300 shukubo to house these travelers. Different territories of Japan were assigned specific places to stay, developing long standing relationships between regions and their assigned accommodation. It gave pilgrims a sense of connection to stay at the same place as their forebearers and to see the family name registered.
Now there are less than 30 shukubo in the area. With the decline of popularity of pilgrimages and visitors losing track of their historically assigned lodging, the shukubo are developing ways to maintain their traditions while also appealing to modern visitors.
The pilgrim lodges are the closest place to stay for your climb on Mount Haguro. They have Japanese style accommodation with tatami and futon. Many of the shukubo have Wi-Fi, or TV in the room, but the shrine on the first floor is still central to the building. Private rooms are available and you can confirm about amenities with your lodging of choice. One thing that has not changed is the importance of the meal.
Don’t miss this delicious, integral part of the Dewa Sanzan experience. Shojin ryori is traditional Buddhist fare and usually vegetarian. The actual style varies by location but it’s usually simple food and is considered part of purifying the body. A unique aspect of shojin ryori in Dewa Sanzan is the addition of fish to the meal. Fish is accepted if it has been presented to the gods and because the shukubo are not Buddhist. Let your shukubo know if you need a strict vegetarian diet when making reservations.
According to Master Chef Ito of Saikan, “shojin” means effort. Each shukubo uses locally sourced food and sustainable methods of harvesting from the mountains. The various mountain vegetables often need special preparation to preserve them over the winter months or to make them easier to digest. Each shukubo has their own recipes which are closely guarded secrets. The signature dish of shojin ryori is goma dofu (sesame tofu). Consuming food gathered from the mountain is like receiving a gift from the mountain and an important element of mountain worship.
Tsuruoka is your gateway to the Dewa Sanzan. From Tsuruoka Station take the Haguro-Gassan Bus run by Shonai Kotsu (bus stop #2 in front of the station). Get off at Sakurakoji if staying in one of the nearby shukubo in Toge. Continue to Haguro Sancho to see the shrine. You can also take this bus to Mount Gassan. Bring coins or small bills to pay your fare. This bus does not take IC cards.
The most practical and sustainable way to get to Tsuruoka from Tokyo is by train. Take the Joetsu Shinkansen to Niigata City. Transfer to the Inaho bound for Sakata and ride along the coast of the Japan Sea. Get off at Tsuruoka Station to take the bus to the mountains. Plan for a 5-hour trip, though the total travel time and price varies depending on the type of shinkansen (express or local) and the ticket class.
The overnight bus from Tokyo Station Bus Terminal to Tsuruoka is the cheapest way to get to Tsuruoka and saves on the cost of a hotel. Highway bus tickets cost around JPY 8,000 – JPY 12,000 depending on bus class and seat grade.
Flights from Haneda to the closest airport, Shonai Airport take a little over an hour. A 30-minute Airport limousine ride takes you to Tsuruoka. There are only three flights per day and ticket prices range from the price of a train ticket to costing much more.
This website about Dewa Sanzan and the Haguro Tourist Association have lots of information so you can make the most of your stay. Whether you want to challenge your body and mind or prefer a more relaxed sightseeing experience, the people and Dewa Sanzan wait to share the treasures of their home and the bounty of the mountain with you.
I’m a Canadian writer and photographer based in Tokyo. I love helping people enjoy their time in Japan.