This is part of a 5-part series on the Dewa Sanzan which includes diary entries and travel information.
The bus ride winds down the hill from Haguro-san and picks up visitors staying at a mountain lodge. From there, it traverses wild grassland sprinkled with haphazard shrubs before climbing Gassan.
Gassan, just shy of 2000 metres, is a long ride away. We enter deep forests and loop around winding roads for a while. The glimpses of the hills sliding down are spectacular. The morning clouds cast shadows that illuminate the surrounding green ridges. Even the treeline changes. It begins with a dense mix and much overgrowth on the forest bed. Gradually, the hardwoods that look like birch take over. The evergreens at the higher altitudes are stalky, squat, and solitary. Their colour palette is reduced to shades of dark grey wrapped in swirling fog.
The bus heads to the 8th ‘station’, where the paved car road ends. Modern-day pilgrims start their ascent to the shrine at the summit. A serious hiker can begin at the base and go up all 10 stations. Even the 2 stations that I’ll do today will take me at least 2 hours.
At the bus terminus, even the trees are gone. The place is frigid. It is a desolate parking lot with winds swirling a cloudy abyss below and impenetrable grey curtain above.
There’s an outpost store and restaurant. I’m saved. I pick up a bag of sweets – fried dough coated in sugar. Dollar per calorie, it will carry me further than paying twice the price for a small bowl of noodles.
I pay at the counter, use the toilet, grab a free map that shows the major stops along the route (photo in my Dewa Sanzan Information post). The only thing left is to climb the flight of stairs leading to the trailhead.
The first segment is a wetland, which has its own mini-loop for flower enthusiasts. The dreary fog and gentle alpine slopes take me by surprise. In retrospect, it is typical vegetation for this altitude, around 1600 metres above sea level. It is typical weather, too.
I’m grateful for the boardwalk, which makes it possible to hike with runners rather than waterproof hiking boots. There are a fair number of hikers going as individuals and small groups. Most of them are well prepared and keep a brisk pace even if they stop often to take photos. I follow as best as I can to keep a good speed.
I have about 5 hours to get from here to the base of Yudono-san, the last shrine, where I need to catch the last bus out. Even though it seems like plenty of time, mountains have a way of throwing plenty of surprises to slow you down.
The first landmark is the outpost at the 9th Station. Despite glass, lights, and modern walls, it feels like a fossil clinging to the mountain.
The ashen fog hurling through condenses into chilly beads on my exposed skin as I stand at the pond (仏生池) in front of the hut. There is a small deity with coins on his lap.
I duck under the entrance and see a handful of people sitting in the raised wooden area, sipping tea. Without insulation, it’s too cold. Plus, the few light refreshments on offer are too expensive. I move on.
Even just a few paces down, the cabin becomes a grey spectre. The grasses trace undulating lines into the mist, but I cannot see down a slope nor up the subtle inclines. It feels like I’m on the edge of the world.
The boardwalk eventually gives way to an older route with large, irregular rocks encased in dirt packed over the centuries. These then yield to a path of small loose stones. How many generations did it take to lay these stones? Where did they come from? What hands intentionally, patiently hauled and laid them here? Who were they doing this for? For themselves? For disciples? Pilgrims? It seems, even those who left earthly pursuits behind need to come back down to once in a while. Or, pehaps we are following the footsteps of other laymen simply curious about the inscrutable secrets that mountains hold.
I work around countless boulders, out of place giants settled on these lush green hills with thistles, blue bells, and wild yellow flowers. The alpine grassland ripples. The wind draws long, crisp sweeps. This wind buffets directly at my side, dragging at my cheeks. The gales here part the clouds rather than carry them along. It’s a brilliant azure sky, with a both the intense sun and naked breeze unfiltered. The industrious bumble bees work through the small, sprite blossoms.
Soon, I’m high enough to see the cabin, the sole source of shelter beat into a slight dip on that distant ridge. It just skirts the biting flow of air. The torrent of clouds rake through, shrouding it every few seconds. At the drop I couldn’t see past earlier, there’s a patch of snow, one of many in these alpine meadows. In the distance, the thousand mountains of Yamagata stand rank and file, shifting from deep green to shades of light blue at the horizon. They rise to meet the fluffy blanket of clouds above.
The shadowy slope that we trekkers climbed earlier is on the other side of the cabin, already forgotten. Here, there is only the relentless blue, green, light, and wind – the sacred grounds of Shugendo.
It’s a pile of rocks, arranged rocks, fitted with dark, heavy boards warped by time. This is Gassan’s shrine. The new arrivals like myself enter the narrow, primitive stone walls. After paying an entrance fee, all are ritually cleansed by a Shinto priest and wipe themselves from head to toe with the human figure piece of paper they are given. Each pilgrim follows the only route into the shrine in another rock wall enclosure. Prayers are made, incense and candles lit, coins tossed, and one makes an exit.
That shrine is on the coldest corner of this rounded summit. That one spot is a mist magnet. In that small space, the wind howled, the sky disappeared, and the world drained of colour. The holy is the bare. Somehow, it seeps into your bones.
Once outside, the warmth of the sun returns, the sky reverts to blue, and the land flushes green. Trekkers fan out on the grassy slopes to take their lunches and enjoy the panorama of mountains.
Since we’re on the ridge, I cross to the steeper side to see the view. Demonic winds gush up the steep slope, hauling waves of possessed wisps in their wake. They almost knocked me and my bag off. I can’t help but smile. The men who practised here had wisdom in their madness.
But, I must move on. There is the last shrine in the valley of Yudono-san, the holiest of the three.
May the mountains grant me safe passage. That’s all I asked for. I hope the gods have heard.
For more information on reaching Haguro-san and Gassan, please check my Dewa Sanzan information post.