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Seeking spirituality: A “Journey to Rebirth” at Dewa Sanzan

Seeking spirituality: A “Journey to Rebirth” at Dewa Sanzan

Nestled in Yamagata Prefecture’s northwestern Shо̄nai (庄内) region, Dewa Sanzan (出羽三山 Three Mountains of Dewa) is a mystical place of great importance for Shugendō (修験道), an ancient religion based on mountain worship that blends Buddhist and Shintō traditions. Mountains are considered especially sacred, with numerous mountains having dedicated shrines or temples on their peaks. For hundreds of years, believers have been embarking on religious pilgrimages in droves as a way of expressing their gratitude or for seeking enlightenment.

 

Made up of Mount Haguro (羽黒山 Haguro-san), Mount Gassan (月山 Gassan), and Mount Yudono (湯殿山 Yudono-san), the Three Mountains of Dewa represent the trinity of birth, death, and rebirth respectively. They also represent the present, past, and future, and it is believed that by going on a pilgrimage to visit these three sacred mountains, you can be reborn spiritually.

 

Yamabushi hiking up the mountain. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

Practitioners of Shugendō are known as yamabushi (山伏 ascetic mountain hermits), and you might see them around Dewa Sanzan going on this sacred pilgrimage, a “Journey to Rebirth”—praying for the present at Mount Haguro, the past at Mount Gassan, and the future at Mount Yudono. While casual hikers usually come decked out in proper hiking gear and sturdy shoes, yamabushi are usually dressed in plain white robes (白装束 shiroshōzoku) and straw sandals, and carry a wooden staff.

 

Dewa Sanzan is filled with spiritual wonder and beautiful trees. (Image credit: KrobkruengJAPAN)

 

Filled with spiritual wonder and incredible natural beauty, the mountains of Dewa Sanzan have been drawing visitors to its peaks for over 1,000 years, to train their minds, bodies, and souls. Even if you are not a Shugendō practitioner, you can still visit Dewa Sanzan to admire the scenery, appreciate the history, soak in the spiritual energy, and marvel at the ancient cedar forests.

 

There is a Japanese saying 「西の伊勢参り、東の奥参り」 (Nishi no Ise-mairi, Higashi no Oku-Mairi), which means “Pilgrimage to Ise in the west, and pilgrimage to the depths in the east”. “Ise” refers to Ise Grand Shrine in Western Japan, one of the most important Shintо̄ shrines in Japan, and “the depths” refer to Dewa Sanzan in Eastern Japan. In the past it was considered a life achievement to visit these two holy sites.

 

In this article, I will introduce the three mountains that make up Dewa Sanzan, and what you can expect on a trip here.

 

Mount Haguro: birth and the present

First up, we have Mount Haguro. Of the three mountains, Mount Haguro is the most-visited and probably the easiest to access, as it can be reached via a 40-minute bus ride from JR Tsuruoka Station (鶴岡駅). Standing at 414m, Mount Haguro is also the only one of the three mountains that can be visited all year round, as heavy snowfall make the other two inaccessible for most of the year.

 

Climb 2,446 steps to reach the top of Mount Haguro. (Image credit: KrobkruengJAPAN)

 

If you want to experience Mount Haguro in a more traditional way, you can even rent a set of shiroshōzoku (white robes) for about ¥3,000. Do note that advanced reservations of at least 3 days are required.

 

After getting off at the Zuishinmon (隋神門) bus stop, visitors will have to walk through a stunning forest lined with hundreds of towering cedar trees that are 300–600 years old, and climb 2,446 steps to reach the main shrine. The ascent to the main shrine spans 1.7km, and takes about 1–1.5 hours. Covered with an air of mystery, Mount Haguro’s enchanting cedar-lined path received three stars in the Michelin Green Guide Japan.

 

"Lucky" carving on a stone step. (Image credit: KrobkruengJAPAN)

 

If you are feeling lucky, try finding the carvings of cups and sake bottles on the stone steps as you make your way up. It is said that if you find all 33 carvings, your wish will be granted.

 

The wooden Five-Storey Pagoda in summer and in winter. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

Walk along the path for about 10 minutes, and you will reach the wooden Five-Storey Pagoda (五重塔 Gojūnotō), an iconic symbol of Mount Haguro and the oldest structure at Dewa Sanzan. A National Treasure (国宝 kokuhō) of Japan, the Five-Storey Pagoda is also said to be the oldest pagoda in the entire Tohoku region. Constructed entirely out of natural wood with no paint and no lacquer, this austere pagoda has withstood over six centuries of Yamagata’s harsh winters, and welcomes visitors as they set off on their journey.

 

Grandpa Cedar Tree. (Image credit: KrobkruengJAPAN)

 

Just a short distance from the Five-Storey Pagoda is the Grandpa Cedar Tree (爺スギ Jiji-sugi), the oldest cedar tree on the mountain, which is thought to be over 1,000 years old. The Grandma Cedar Tree (婆スギ Baba-sugi), which used to stand next to it, was unfortunately heavily damaged and torn down by a typhoon in 1902.

 

Mochi snacks at Ni-no-zaka Chaya. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

Continue on up the steps past Ichi-no-zaka (一の坂), Ni-no-zaka (二の坂), and San-no-zaka (三の坂) before reaching the summit of Mount Haguro. If you are craving a short break or some snacks, stop by the Ni-no-zaka Teahouse (二の坂茶屋 Ni-no-zaka Chaya), for some chikara-mochi (力餅): rice cakes which come in three flavours—anko (餡子 sweet red bean paste), kinako (きなこ roasted soybean flour), and nattо̄ (納豆 fermented soybean). Eat the mochi to regain strength (chikara-mochi means “strength-giving mochi”!), drink a cup of matcha, and enjoy the view before continuing on the climb up Mount Haguro.

 

 

Dewa Jinja Sanjingо̄ Saiden enshrines deities from the three mountains. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

Keep on going and you will reach the summit of Mount Haguro, which is where the main shrine, Dewa Jinja Sanjingо̄ Saiden (出羽神社三神合祭殿), is located. Mount Haguro’s main shrine enshrines the deities from all three mountains of Dewa Sanzan, and is considered to be the most important shrine in the area.

 

Although it is unusual to have multiple gods enshrined in the same shrine, it is said that this was established at Mount Haguro due to pilgrims wishing to pay respects to the gods at Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono, which have restricted visiting seasons due to heavy snowfall in winter.

 

Mount Haguro’s main shrine. (Image credit: 山形県庁)

 

In front of the shrine is a pond known as “Mirror Pond” (鏡池 Kagami-ike), not because it has a reflective surface, but because in the past people used to throw bronze mirrors into the pond as offerings.

 

If you have physical difficulty climbing up the 2,446 steps, the bus from JR Tsuruoka Station also continues to the summit of Mount Haguro, so you can get off there instead of at Zuishinmon bus stop. However, if you are able-bodied, we highly recommend climbing up Mount Haguro to have a look at the Five-Storey Pagoda and to enjoy the ancient cedar forest.

 

Shojin ryori: dining on the blessings of nature

Shōjin ryōri. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

At Mount Haguro, there are temple lodgings (宿坊 shukubō) where you can stay overnight for a more spiritual experience.  But even if you are not staying overnight, you can still try out Dewa Sanzan's spiritual food, shōjin ryōri (精進料理 ascetic cuisine).

 

The concept for shōjin ryōri is taking the blessings of nature from the mountains in which the Gods reside, and eating them with gratitude. For hundreds of years, mountains have been revered for being the source of life-giving streams and rivers that provided water for survival, and food growing on the mountains are seen as blessings of nature. The ingredients of shōjin ryōri are also said to rid the body of toxins, and to give visitors energy to climb the mountains.

 

Fun fact: The unique history and tradition of shōjin ryōri helped Tsuruoka City to be designated as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in 2014.

 

Shōjin ryōri. (Video credit: Dewa Sanzan)

 

Mount Gassan: death and the past

Mount Gassan as seen from Yamagata City. (Image credit: 山形県庁)

 

Rising gracefully into the sky, at 1,984m Mount Gassan is the tallest of Dewa Sanzan’s three mountains. At the top of the mountain is Gassan Shrine (月山神社 Gassan Jinja), which enshrines Tsukiyomi-no-mikoto, the deity of the moon and the afterlife.

 

Summit of Mount Gassan. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

Symbolising death and the past, Mount Gassan is usually the second to be visited while on a pilgrimage to all three mountains. From the summit of Mount Haguro, there is a bus that goes to Mount Gassan’s 8th Station, which is where you will start the ascent to the summit of Mount Gassan. Alternatively, you can take a 1.5-hour bus ride from JR Tsuruoka Station to Mount Gassan’s 8th Station if you are skipping Mount Haguro.

 

Wetland near Mount Gassan's 8th Station. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Although the hike up Mount Gassan has very little tree cover, it instead features a vast expanse of wetlands and offers beautiful views. However, be careful of exposure to strong winds, UV rays, and rainfall, as there is no protection against the elements.

 

Hiking course near Mount Gassan's 8th Station. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション会)

 

Visitors who come to Mount Gassan do so not just to visit Gassan Shrine, but also to take in and enjoy the scenery. Mount Gassan is one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains (百名山 Hyakumeizan), and near the 8th Station, at an altitude of around 1,400m, there is a 60-minute circular hiking course for you to get up close to the flora and fauna of the verdant Midagahara Wetland.

 

A wooden boardwalk makes the hike easier, and there are over 130 species of alpine plants here. At this elevation, you can even see a sea of clouds (雲海 unkai) if the conditions are right!

 

Midahara Shrine. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

At the centre of the hiking course is the Midahara Shrine (御田原神社 Midahara Jinja), which serves as the middle shrine (中之宮 nakanomiya) for Gassan Shrine. One of the first things you might notice is the large rabbit statue. “Gassan” literally means “moon mountain”, and rabbits have long been regarded as messengers of Mount Gassan and spirits of the moon.

 

Gassan Shrine on the summit of Mount Gassan. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

Of Dewa Sanzan’s three mountains, Mount Gassan has the most physically gruelling hike up, but it is still doable for anyone of average fitness. Gassan Shrine, located on the summit of Mount Gassan, is approximately a 3-hour ascent from the 8th Station. Due to the region’s high snowfall, the shrine is only accessible to visitors in the summer months, between July and mid-September.

 

Before entering Gassan Shrine, do note that the shrine requires all visitors to participate in a short purification rite, and photography is strictly prohibited at the shrine. While at Gassan Shrine, visitors usually take the time to reflect on their life and pray for a peaceful transition into the future.

 

Ski season at Mount Gassan lasts until July. (Image credit: 山形県庁)

 

Fun fact: Heavy snowfall covers the peak of Mount Gassan with snow for most of the year, much to the chagrin of visitors to Gassan Shrine. On the other hand, the high snowfall is welcomed by skiers, as on other side of Mount Gassan is a ski resort, the Gassan Ski Resort (月山スキー場 Gassan Sukījо̄), where you can go skiing even in July!

 

Mount Yudono: rebirth and the future

Hiking from Mount Gassan to Mount Yudono. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

Completing the mountain trio is the 1,504m-high Mount Yudono, which is usually the final leg of the “Journey to Rebirth”. Going on foot from Gassan Shrine, it is about a steep 3-hour descent to Mount Yudono that involves some sections of ladders and steep stone steps.

 

As with Gassan Shrine, a short purification ritual must be done before you will be allowed entry into Yudonosan Shrine, and photography is also forbidden. Due to heavy snowfall, Yudonosan Shrine is only open from late-April to early-November, and the hike from Mount Yudono to Mount Gassan is only permitted between July and October.

 

The approach to Yudonosan Shrine, near the Senninzawa parking lot. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

Alternatively, if you are only visiting Yudonosan Shrine (湯殿山神社 Yudonosan Jinja), it is about an hour's ride from JR Tsuruoka Station; you can take a taxi (~¥10,000) or drive to reach the Senninzawa parking lot (仙人沢駐車場 Sen'ninzawa Chūshajо̄). From the parking lot, Yudonosan Shrine is about a 30-minute walk. A shuttle bus (¥200, 5-minute ride) operates between Senninzawa parking lot and the shrine from late April to early November.

 

Mount Yudono is often considered to be the most secretive and sacred of Dewa Sanzan’s three mountains. Other than the ban on photography and videos, for centuries just speaking of a trip to Mount Yudono in great detail was taboo, and even today there is pressure to keep what happens on your visit to yourself, in order to preserve the sanctity of the atmosphere.

 

Living Buddhas

Dainichibo and Churenji, two temples near Mount Yudono that enshrine living Buddhas. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

In the past, Buddhist monks came to Mount Yudono seeking to achieve enlightenment or become a living Buddha (即身仏 sokushinbutsu), where one would give their body as an offering to save the masses suffering from famine and disease. Monks undertaking the path to becoming sokushinbutsu often viewed it as a sacrifice for their communities in times of hardship.

 

Considered one of the more extreme practices of Shugendо̄, the process of becoming sokushinbutsu involved stripping the body of fat through ascetic discipline and a restrictive 1,000–5,000-day diet of only mountain plants, nuts, and seeds. Near the end, the monks would seal themselves in an underground tomb with nothing but a bell and an air vent, and remain in a meditative state chanting mantras until death.

 

Three years and three months after the bell stopped ringing, the body would be removed from the tomb and enshrined as a living Buddha. The last known living Buddha was enshrined in 1903, and sokushinbutsu is now banned as it is considered a form of suicide. There are over a dozen living Buddhas in Japan, but a large proportion of them are located around Mount Yudono.

 

Yamabushi training experience

If you are just a tourist visiting Dewa Sanzan, you do not need to visit all three mountains in this order, or all three in one trip. You are free to visit the mountains as you like. However, due to high snowfall, do note that the summits of Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono are closed for most of the year, with Mount Gassan only open between July and mid-September, and Mount Yudono only open between late April and early November.

 

Yamabushi training. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

If you are looking for a special experience, or if you want to gain a deeper understanding about Dewa Sanzan and the ways of the yamabushi, you can try out a yamabushi training experience.

 

Yamabushi training is about becoming one with Nature—absorbing Nature’s energy, feeling how Nature and humans coexist, and reflecting on yourself and your life. Most people participate in yamabushi training for self-development and self-discovery, and yamabushi training has recently been gaining popularity among younger people.

 

Waterfall meditation, a yamabushi ritual. (Image credit: 庄内観光コンベンション協会)

 

Traditionally, yamabushi rituals have been shrouded in secrecy, with training experiences available only at specific times of the year, and mainly for Japanese participants only. However, recently they have been opening up, and nowadays you can find many special training programs year-round, with varying levels of commitment and durations. For yamabushi experiences with English guidance, you can check out this site or this site.

 

Getting there

Exterior of JR Tsuruoka Station.  (Image credit: Piccolist / CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

All three mountains of Dewa Sanzan can be reached by bus or taxi from JR Tsuruoka Station (鶴岡駅), the closest train station to Dewa Sanzan.

 

From Tokyo:

  • If you’re coming from JR Tо̄kyо̄ Station (東京駅), take a bullet train ride (1 hour 40 minutes) on the Jōetsu Shinkansen to JR Niigata Station (新潟駅) and transfer to the Limited Express Inaho. JR Tsuruoka Station is about a 2-hour ride away.

From Akita:

  • If you’re coming from other parts of Tohoku, JR Tsuruoka Station can be accessed from either Akita or Yamagata. From JR Akita Station (秋田駅), JR Tsuruoka Station is 1 hour 50 minutes away by the Limited Express Inaho.

From Yamagata:

  • From JR Yamagata Station (山形駅), take the Yamagata Shinkansen (45 minutes) to JR Shinjō Station (新庄駅), then transfer to the JR Rikū West Line (陸羽西線) to JR Amarume Station (50 minutes). JR Tsuruoka Station is a 15-minute ride on the JR Uetsu Main Line from JR Amarume Station (余目駅).

 

KAIRI Joyful Train

The KAIRI running along the Sea of Japan. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are travelling to Tsuruoka from Niigata on a weekend, check out the KAIRI, the newest Joyful Train which focuses on the local gastronomy of the Niigata and Shonai Regions, as well as the breathtaking views of the Sea of Japan that it passes by on the JR Uetsu Main Line. 

 

The KAIRI’s meal package (right) and pre-order bento (left) from Niigata to Tsuruoka. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Undoubtedly, most people ride the KAIRI for the gastronomic experience, as the exquisite dishes are sure to tempt your taste buds. Even if you are not taking the dining package in Car 4, pre-order bentо̄ (弁当 lunch boxes) are available for all passengers who want a taste of what the KAIRI has to offer!

 

For a more detailed write-up on this train, check out this article. For more information, check the train’s website here. A one-way train fare for the KAIRI costs ¥3,480 for Niigata to Tsuruoka. However, rides are free if you are utilising a rail pass like the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area).

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting Dewa Sanzan from Tokyo or Niigata, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains and Joyful Trains) in the valid area for any 5 days of your choice within a 14-day period. At only ¥17,310 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Tsuruoka (~¥27,000), and the 5 days do not have to be consecutive.

  

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting Dewa Sanzan from another part of Tohoku, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains and Joyful Trains) in the valid area for any 5 days of your choice within a 14-day period. At only ¥19,350 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Tsuruoka (~¥27,000), and the 5 days do not have to be consecutive.

 

Header image credit: KrobkruengJAPAN

 

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