The Dewa Sanzan: Forward to the 3 Holy Mountains of Yamagata

This is is the preface for my series on the trekking route through Haguro-san, Gassan, and Yudono-san.

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The sun chars the craggy coastal cliffs racing by. The Sea of Japan glistens. The blue skies form a white halo around the golden orb.

On August 6, I watch the minute changes on the horizon out the train window as I head towards the northern edge of Japan’s main island.

Less than a week ago, I was far south, on the distant island of Shikoku. There, I’d dozed in a train that sailed high above the Seto Inland Sea. There were islands littered everywhere, as if casually dropped from the sky. At the time, I’d just finished a month-long walking pilgrimage around Shikoku. I marvelled at how I could do just sit and deposited an hour later at my destination some 90 kilometres away. I basked in the fatigue that comes with accomplishment. At the time, I was on my way to a vacation.

Now, I’m glad that vacation is over. My legs are growing sore from just sitting. My muscles are bubbling with anticipation.

I will satiate this desire by hiking the Dewa Sanzan, 出羽三山, the Three Mountains of Dewa Province, the old northern frontier. They are the historical sites where Shugendō is practiced. Their names are Haguro-san (The Black Winged Mountain), Gassan (Moon Mountain), and Yudono-san (Spring-Lord Mountain). San means mountain(s).

These three sites were declared sacred by Prince Hachiko in the Suiko Reign, in the 6th Century, after he arrived in from Nara, the Heian capital. Official history states that he landed in the town of Tsuruoka and was led by several women to Haguro-san, where he spent time in ascetic training.

Since then, Shugendō 修験道, evolved since its 7th-century roots into a syncretic religion. The name basically means the Path of Training. It blends elements of mountain worship / Shintoism, Taoism, and esoteric Buddhism. Enlightenment is equated with attaining oneness with nature and the spirits (kami).

This place is 500 kilometres out of Tokyo. It takes 4 hours on a Shinkansen and express train to get to the closest station in Tsuruoka. From there, it’s about a 40-minute bus ride from the coast to the foothills of Yamagata Prefecture. The words yama means mountain, and gata means form. The mountains are never out of sight.

The millennia-old pilgrimage route remains intact, a convenient route for trekking. After almost two months outside of cities, spent either on farms or walking the Shikoku pilgrimage, I need to readjust to ‘civilization’. That means I need regular breaks from it.

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I arrive in the early evening at Tsuruoka. There isn’t much beyond the train station. Luckily, there is still a bus to the foot of Haguro-san, so I hop on. I ask the bus driver if he knows of any ryokan, Japanese inns, in the town. I hadn’t booked a place yet. It’s passed 5pm and many ryokan do not take same-day reservations now because they don’t have enough time for dinner preparations. I will just have to believe that my luck will carry me through.

The bus driver has a handy map with the lodgings for the three mountains listed (see travel information post). I study it and make a call to two ryokan during the bus ride. My first choice is full, but my second one has an available room. I take it, requesting sudomari, stay without food. I will be gone by dawn tomorrow anyway.

By the time I arrive at the town, it’s almost dark. Rows and rows of shukubo, lodgings, line the road, but there are no restaurants in sight. How could I forget, this is rural Japan. Visitors would dine in their ryokan. I’ll have to ration my snacks for dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast. I hope there will be a shop open early enough for me to purchase food from tomorrow.

My mind remains calm as I process the food logistics. This train of thought is familiar, reminiscent of my days in Shikoku. It keeps me centred. I prefer this sparse life.

I check-in to my ryokan and am given a room in the extension building. The bath is in the main building, which has been well kept for the past century. I explain to the owner that I will be leaving early the next day and ask if he wants to settle the bill now. He says it’ll be fine if I do it tomorrow.

Instead, he changes the topic and to the bus times. With my two walking staves from Shikoku and henro hat, it is obvious I will climb tomorrow. He wants to make sure I know when the buses are. I didn’t even know I needed to take a bus between Haguro-san and Gassan, several days’ walk from each other. There are far fewer buses than I’d expected. This man’s added concern is a life saver.

Then, he tells me that hiking all three in a day will be impossible: most guests do Haguro and Gassan on the first day and Yudono-san on the second. I can’t tell if it is actually impossible, or just impossible by Japanese city standards. Generally, the tourist signs filled with warnings are accurate for city-dwellers unused to exercise; however, local climbers have personal, more athletically tuned, even sometimes stoic, scales. Normally, I wouldn’t mind discovering on the day, but this new piece of information has implications scheduling my day. I need to make specific bus times. The one or two small lodgings on the mountain are sure to be booked already, so I cannot just stop in between. If I decide to break it into two days, I would have to retrace my steps down Gassan rather than crossing the other side of the mountain to Yudono-san’s shrine. Since the bus from Yudono-san is a different route, I’d be spending most of the second day doing bus transfers than actually hiking. I came to hike, and the shrines were a bonus.

I mull over it while showering and soaking in the bath, a Japanese ritual I have an irrational attachment to after 2 months of farm labour and urban camping. Even though I haven’t walked much today, the full day of train travel has worn me down. When I finish, I make tea with the bag and pot provided in my room. The complimentary crackers provided will effectively be my dinner. Thankfully, I’m not hungry.

I’ve finished my calculations after studying the maps and elevation gains for the mountains. Haguro-san isn’t too high. Gassan is the tallest one, but the bus climbs most of it. The route from Gassan to Yudono-san is a descent. I need at least an hour or two buffer time, especially for descents. With a previously injured left ankle and bad knees, I cannot make up lost time by running up and down mountains. I finish Haguro-san to catch the first bus from there to Gassan, I should have plenty of time to do the full route and catch the last bus out of Yudono-san.

It’s decided: tomorrow, I will wake up at 5am before dawn.

My back’s against the wall. I duck under the covers, content with tomorrow’s challenge.

Bring it on.

Continue to my post on Haguro-san to find out what the route is like.

One response to “The Dewa Sanzan: Forward to the 3 Holy Mountains of Yamagata

  1. Pingback: A birthday wish – thoughts on happiness, gifts, and giving | The Cup and the Road·

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