This is part of a 5-part series on the Dewa Sanzan which includes 3 diary entries and travel information.
August 7, 2015.
It’s been a week since I finished the Ohenro, but I’m already back.
I rise when the sky is still ashen, at 5am. Here, in the northern prefecture of Yamagata, the morning air is crisp, almost chilly.
Today, I’ll see the Dewa Sanzan. They are one of the holiest centres of Shugendo, right up there with Mount Koya for Shingon Buddhism.
In the darkness of the ryokan, I pack my half-empty bag and snack on a biscuit for breakfast. Last night, I’d phoned this place while on the last bus coming to Haguroaramachi, the town whose lifeblood is to house visitors going to Haguro-san. Arriving after 7pm, the ryokan wouldn’t have time to prepare my dinner. Leaving so early, they wouldn’t be able to serve me breakfast either. Both are fine: it’s what I’m used to from walking Shikoku.
The man who’d received me last night had furrowed his brow when I said I wanted to do all three mountains today. Taking out a simplified map, he explained the bus routes and times between the three mountains. There is I a bus from Tsuruoka’s train station to Haguro-san, which then continues to Gassan four times a day. There is a separate bus that goes between Tsuruoka train station and Yudono-san, which does not pass this town.
I had originally planned to walk between all three mountains and find lodging somewhere in between. I proposed the idea to the ryrokan owner and he gave me a horrified look. No-one walks the full route anymore. There is no route save the paved one.
After settling my bill, I slip out onto the quiet morning. The street is lined with dignified temple inns with their dark wooden walls and slanted tile roofs. Some of them have lanterns, many have banner flags. The tourism that sustains these places remains camouflaged under the well-preserved buildings and manicured trees.
Most places have at least a few cars parked. This should be peak season for them since Gassan and Yudono-san are fully open only in July and August. I suppose the pilgrims, mixed with the hikers and tourists, aren’t in as much of a rush as the walking ones in Shikoku.
At the end of the road I see the Nio-mon marking the entrance to Haguro-san’s sacred site. This one is called the Zuishin-mon (隨神門). The Dewa Sanzan are holy sites for Shugendo, an ascetic religion that merges Buddhism and Shintoism. However, as a religion, it was forced to align itself with Buddhism in the Edo period and banned altogether in the Meiji Era as backward and unmodern. The gates, the pagoda, and certainly the temple, will show traces of its shifting associations in history.
On the other side of the road to the gate, I see an open snack and souvenir shop. Bingo, any food will do. I need sustenance for my full day of walking. I pick up mochi and snacks. My research tells me that there is nothing between the second and third mountains; I have to stock up here before I ascend into the alpine terrain.
Mosquitoes. They are about the only things I despise after a month on Shikoku. I hate their incessant whirling that shatters the peace in the scenery. I’d rather they just bite and get a move on. Maybe they’re stuck in my sweat. The gnats are hovering in front of my eyes again.
With them around, I don’t linger anywhere long. Soon after going through the gates, I cross a bridge over a gurgling stream and see the mysterious pagoda in it’s regal, solitary glory. There is only a mom with two kids and an elderly couple.
Rising early always pays off. The places return to the natural beauty that made them famous. These are tranquil, unadulterated morning hours.
I continue on, up the 2446 steps to the Haguro’s Shrine. I’m walking through the holy halls of cedars, 500 in total, 300-600 years old.
If not for the bus, I would stop and bask here until the trickle of visitors begins. Thanks to the bus, I will remember this beauty and accomplish a brisk walk.
I’m using my henro pace, a sprightly morning bounce. I know if I slow down even a little, I will stop. That’s what happens when climbing stairs, and the trees are intoxicating. The air here is thick with the breath of a sleeping, benign, giant. I’ve entered Totoro’s layer, as the rest of the world beyond is just waking up.
A week break since my last walk in Shikoku hasn’t dulled my speed. In fact, the rest has allowed my muscles to finally recover. My pent up energy is finally let loose as I climb the first incline, then the second, then the third, pausing only the check out the landmarks and commit turns to memory: cedar, damp bushes, and earth.
They said it would take an hour, but all too soon, I see the red torii (Shinto gate) above me. The light of dawn bursting from behind almost obliterates it. I hesitate, not wanting this to end so soon.
I keep going, walking into the day.
Once past the gates, I see the clearing. The expansive complex is spread over a clearing amongst the tall trees on the hill. I walk past two smaller shrines. The elements have reduced it to natural wood, which is just as well. The wooden and metal dragons and fierce warriors will be ready to fly off the posts once their restoration is complete. Such places feel more authentic.
I continue on to the Main Hall, which takes me aback with its size. Visitors need to heave up the steep steps to where the three deities for Haguro-san, Gassan, and Yudono-san are enshrined for year-round worship. Inside, a priest is performing a private ritual for three private visitors. The hall basks in the morning glow and gentle birdsong, at ease. Later, its red pillars and gold-guiled hall will assume a more steely air as the temple braces itself against the daily throngs that ravage popular places.
The pond facing the hall is a sheet of gold punctured with lily pads. There is the massive cast iron bell in the middle, surrounding shrines hidden on the far side underneath the trees. There is also an office building with a cafe.
I circle the grounds, absorbing the thick morning quiet, broken only by the occasional low call in the trees. Finally, I exit via the humungous Main Gate with its various wash basins.
Between the temple complex and the carparks there is museum, an area with food stalls, and a canteen.
I sit in the empty parking lot. The sun’s climbed high enough to spread over the opening in the trees here. There’s no food, yet. It’s too early for business hours. I make due with drinks from the vending machines. They are lifesavers. I hope the sugar content will last me through the day.
I’m waiting for the bus to the next mountain, Gassan. I let time slip by staring down at another, shaded, parking lot, trying to imagine it filling up with people filing out neatly from the coach buses.
My bus pulls up the slope, so I go to the washroom before boarding.
It’s no to 7:30, but I’m on my way to the second mountain.
For more information on reaching Haguro-san and Gassan, please check my Dewa Sanzan information post.