It’s a little-known fact that Japan is a country of many religious beliefs. But the Japanese people pride themselves on belonging to such a religiously diverse place that accepts and propagates syncretism. That said, you would be hard-pressed to witness the presence of multiple belief systems in modern-day Japan, but move towards the off-the-beaten-track regions in the Land of the Rising Sun, and you will surely see it all.
Simply put, as you move along the country’s lush green terrains and mountainous landscapes, you see remarkable natural beauty along with a glimpse into the culturally and religiously rich Japan. And so, visiting the relatively older parts of the island nation, where breathtaking sceneries and old towns rest unspoiled, takes you back in time to ancient Japan. And a journey through the Dewa Sanzan Pilgrimage trail is perhaps the most comprehensive resource to discover the past firsthand.
Dewa Sanzan is an umbrella name given to three sacred mountains; Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan, and Mount Yudono, which have remained a holy site of dedicated mountain worshippers for centuries.
If you want a slice of quintessential Japan in all its natural and spiritual glory, traversing through the holy Dewa Sanzan trail in Yamagata Prefecture should be on your list. Trekking up the winding pathway is not as challenging as hiking through the many other courses in the North of Japan. With that said, getting to the sacred location to begin the pilgrimage is tricky as transportation facilities are a bit scarce in the area. But you don’t have to worry about planning your trip to the Dewa Sanzan because we are here to help you with it. Here is a detailed guide on the spiritually stimulating and revitalizing journey along the time-honored trail.
Nestled in the north of Japan over the majestic Shonai Plain in Yamagata Prefecture, Dewa Sanzan is the collective name given to the three holy mountains of Haguro, Gassan, and Yudono. Mountain worshippers have climbed the three peaks throughout many past centuries in hopes of finding inner peace and spiritual elevation.
The complete excursion in which one visits all three holy sites is regarded as the Dewa Sanzan Pilgrimage, which the devout believers take to be reborn spiritually.
Legend has it that a long time ago, people who climbed the trio of mountains would come back feeling refreshed and free of all worldly worries. When the climbers continued to return revitalized, the Dewa Sanzan pilgrimage became a widely practiced ritual. To this day, people seeking spiritual rebirth make their way to Yamagata Prefecture to get away from materialistic desires. However, that’s not the only reason why one should head to the holy destination.
Like most of Japan’s countryside regions, Dewa Sanzan is rife with exquisite natural features, making the famous pilgrimage immensely appealing to those who like being around nature. If you are one of them, you would absolutely relish traversing the Dewa Sanzan trails through thick cedar forests and lofty mountains.
The standard itinerary of the Dena Sanzan pilgrimage starts at Mount Haguro, the lowest of the three peaks. Let’s go over the complete tour in detail to understand what each part entails.
Mount Haguro is the first stop of the Dewa Sanzan Pilgrimage. Travelers coming from different parts of Japan arrive at the Tsurukuo Station, which is the closest to the holy Dewa Sanzan town. Buses run from Tsurukuo to Mount Haguro regularly; however, transportation from Mount Haguro to Mount Gassan and Yudono is sparse.
Board a bus for a forty-minute long ride to the first stop of your trip, Zuishinmon, which is the gateway to the mountainous region. From this point, you will start your hike towards the first peak on the Dewa Sanzan Pilgrimage, Mount Haguro.
However, if you want to make the first stretch of your journey entirely on the bus, don't exit at Zuishinmon and complete the sixty-minute ride to the 414m high summit. Either way, you will reach the mountain peak quite easily, as it is not too steeply elevated.
Once at the top, you can choose to rest at one of the age-old temple lodges - shukubo - or move on to the next mountains. We’d suggest you stay the night at a shukubo to experience the complete yamabushi-monk lifestyle.
The temple homes are well-preserved inns where hundreds of monks have stayed on their journeys of rebirth. The typical yamabushi regimen at a shukubo involves changing into the traditional attire, a Hakui white jacket or Shiroshozoku white garments with a shrine necklace, as well as eating an ascetic meal known as Shojin Ryori. The following day, the master running the lodge will send you off for your spiritually stirring trek towards Mounts Gassan and Yudono.
After leaving the shukubo, move towards Zuishinmon and take the famous 2,446 step stone-stairway down the winding cedar-lined trail. After walking awhile, you will come across the Haraigawa River, which monks use for purification purposes. You can take a dip into the holy water body or tread along the path to explore the famous monuments on the mountain; the most noteworthy of them all is the five-story Pagoda.
Mount Haguro’s five-story Pagoda is the only standing Buddhist structure in Japan that hasn't been varnished or retouched, which is why it now seems a part of the dense forest. The trail starts to elevate from the Pagoda and takes you to Sanjingosaiden, the place where all three (of the Dewa Sanzan) deities are enshrined.
The sacred mountains are believed to be home to Kamis- Japanese gods, which are buried in shrines atop all three summits. However, since only Mount Haguro remains open year-round, the gods on the other two peaks are transferred to the lowest summit in months when Mounts Gassan and Yudono are closed due to heavy snowfall.
After paying homage to the mountain deities, make your way towards Zuishinmon by following the trail back towards the Shukubo village. At the Zuishinmon gates, you will have to take a bus to Mount Gassan, which is a 55-minute long ride.
But keep in mind that the bus service remains functional only in July and August. And in September, it only operates on the weekends. So you want to plan your trip accordingly if you wish to use public transportation. Otherwise, you can rent a car and drive to Mount Gassan.
The bus ride from Mount Haguro ends at the 8th station on Mount Gassan. The trail from this point ongets a lot more exciting as travelers go through Midagahara Marshlands and pass by the Busshoike Lake.
The tallest of the three summits, Mount Gassan, is dedicated to the past life. After saying farewell to their pleasure-seeking self on Mount Haguro, hikers go through the rugged trail to reach the 1948m high peak. Along the way, the views that unfold before them are magical, to say the least.
The trek on Mount Gassan offers an interrupted view of the Sea of Japan on the west, Mount Chokoi on the north, and inland Yamagata on the east. This part of the Dewa Sanzan Pilgrimage brings travelers face-to-face with the most splendid natural scenes.
If the route mentioned above doesn't seem thrilling enough for you, you can choose an alternative way from Shizu Onsen. To get to the summit, board the Gassan ski lift from the onsen. But a word of advice, only attempt to conquer this course if you aren't afraid of some sharp turns and twists.
Another route runs to Mount Gassan via the ski lift, but it begins at Mount Yudono. It's better suited for those who start their pilgrimage from mount Yudono. Generally, those with sufficient hiking experience under their belt take on the risky route.
Since Mount Gassan and Yudono both are covered in layers of snow during the chilly season, they remain closed for visitors during the winter months. If you want to make the complete pilgrimage, you should wait for summertime because only then can you visit the other two peaks. Otherwise, you can trek up to Mount Haguro during wintertime and meet the Dewa Sanzan gods at Sanjingosaiden.
Mount Yudono is the most sacred of the trifecta and is also known as Okunoin, the Shrine in the Depths. The mantra of this 1504m high summit is, “Don’t ask, don’t talk!” People who visit the holy location are to stay quiet and perform rituals as told by the master. And once they get off the peak, they are not to speak of what they saw or did on top.
Rumor has it that a consecrated object is enshrined atop Mount Yudono that remains a mystery as no one knows what it is. We cannot let you in on what this point of the Dewa Sanzan Pilgrimage holds, but we can guide you on how you can get there.
Trekking to Mount Yudono is possible from Mount Gassan, but it's a lesser-taken path and requires some hiking experience. If you don't have that, perhaps you should opt for the alternative route involving public transportation.
To get to Mount Yudono, you can board a bus from Mount Haguro, but sadly the said service only operates during the peak season, and that too on the weekends. So, if you go any other time of the year, you will not have access to public transport.
If you want to live through an authentic monk lifestyle, you should definitely plan your next trip to Yamagata Prefecture in the North of Japan. The Dewa Sanzan Pilgrimage will take you to a fairylike land full of mesmerizing sceneries enveloped in a mystic aura.
As noted above, in the Shugendo school of thought, people who successfully scale the sacred peaks of Haguro, Gassan, and Yudono, are believed to be reborn (or spiritually awakened) as Dewa Sanzan is the abode of divine deities. But the Shugendo faith is not the reason behind the supposed association between the journey to Dewa Sanzan and spiritual rebirth; almost all religions that have reigned in the region have had the same connection.
For over 1200 years, mountain worshippers have flocked to Northern Japan to visit the Kamis (gods in Japanese religions) and be reborn spiritually, under different belief systems. That is, although Dewa Sanzan is now associated with the Shugendo religion, it wasn’t so since the beginning. People from religious groups visited the holy location for spiritual awakening throughout the years.
To better understand the current belief system in the sacred town, let’s go quickly go over the religious narrative throughout centuries.
Back in the day, the inhabitants of the Dewa Sanzan region followed animism. Animists worship nature, believing that all-natural elements are possessed. For a long time, animism captured the hearts of the people of Dewa Sanzan before the Shinto belief system carved its way out from the animistic theology. According to this new school of thought, the spirits possessing nature, or Kamis, made mountains their abode, making Dewa Sanzan the ultimate destination to gain salvation and start life anew.
However, Shintoism hasn’t been the only religion on the sacred mountains ever since; around the 8th century, two Buddhist sects: Shingon and Tendo, arrived in the region. Fast forward to the mid-1600s; the Japanese government tried to expel Buddhism from their state, forcing many religious houses to convert into Shintoism. However, Buddhism didn't completely go away and eventually amalgamated with all the mountain religions, forming the syncretic faith, Shugendo. The denomination settled in Dewa Sanzan is called Haguro Shugendo.
The fundamental doctrine of all mountain belief systems is worshiping nature and presenting oneself to it to gain spiritual elevation. Shugendo works on the same principle, but the philosophy it revolves around is known as Uketamo.
Uketamo, which loosely translates to 'I accept,' is the foundation of the Haguro Shugendo belief system. People training to become Haguro Shugendo monks-or yamabushiscallout ‘Uketamo' to declare their servitude to nature. They say it to refresh their pledge to leave behind the worldly, materialistic desires amid nature and practice asceticism.
In short, Haguro Shogendo believers go through rigorous yamabushi training on the three peaks to present themselves to nature, turning away from materialism.
Due to the spiritual significance of the Dewa Sanzan trifecta, it carries an unbelievably calming ambiance, drawing people from all over Japan to recharge the body and mind. Besides the spiritual awakening it offers, the holy town has the most captivating sceneries for those who love to be around nature. This means, even if you are not into Dewa Sanzan’s religious prominence, you can trek up there to enjoy the stunning landscapes.