The Dewa Sanzan: Foreword 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.


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

On August 6, I watch the minute changes on the horizon as my train races up the northern edge of Japan’s main island.

Less than a week ago, I was far south, on the distant island of Shikoku. At the time, I’d just finished a month-long walking pilgrimage. I’d dozed in on the train that sailed high above the Seto Inland Sea and back to Japan’s main island. In this vast protected straight, islands are littered everywhere, like casually crumpled scraps of origami paper casted from the sky. After a month of continuous walking, sitting to just be deposited an hour later at my destination some 90 kilometres away was a mind blowing concept. 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 for the past few days. 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,(修験道) is practiced and where legendary writer Matsuo Basho stopped in his visit to the Deep North. The mountain 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 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.

Shugendō, 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 (transit info here). 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 (or so I thought at the time). After almost two months outside of cities, spent either on farms or walking the Shikoku pilgrimage, I need to readjust to ‘civilisation’. That means I need regular breaks from it.

Countryside rice paddies near Tsuruoka

I arrive in the early evening at Tsuruoka and walk around looking for food without much luck. Luckily, I’ve arrived on time for the last 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 near the first mountain. I hadn’t booked a place because I didn’t know when I’d arrive. It’s passed 5pm, so many ryokan will no longer take last-minute reservations because they are already preparing dinner (usually included unless otherwise specified). I will just have to believe that my luck will carry me through.

mt haguro
Japanese maps are rarely to scale, but they give you a general idea of what to look out for!

The bus driver hands me a 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. I forgot, this is rural Japan. I have better chances getting fresh produce from home gardens than finding a restaurant. 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 was the norm only a week ago, when I used to pick up provisions to do nojuku, camping while visiting Shikoku’s 88 temples. Focusing only on what I need to do now to walk tomorrow 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 preserved its dark wooden floorboards, posts, and ceiling beams. 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, he can tell I am not just visiting Haguro-san, which is all most visitors see. He wants to make sure I know when the buses are so that I can get back. I’m taken aback, as I’d planned to walk between the three mountains. But it turns out, Haguro-san and Gassan are several days’ walk from each other and no-one takes the old walking route, not even along the paved road. Also, the time table shows that there are far fewer buses than I’d expected. The owner’s concern and initiative was 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 because it is another bus route. I can’t tell if walking 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 more athletically tuned, even stoic, scales of “difficulty”. On Shikoku’s popular pilgrimage path, I wouldn’t mind discovering how far I get on the day, but I am not equipped to be camp in the Northern mountains, even for summer. I need to make specific bus times. The one or two small lodgings on Gassan are sure to be booked already.

If I decide to break walking 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.

But I came to hike.

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 yet, 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.

Before sleeping, I study the maps and elevation gains for the mountains to calculate my feasible walking distance. Haguro-san isn’t too high. Gassan is the tallest one, but the bus climbs most of it to the 8th Station. The route from Gassan to Yudono-san is not too far, but 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 down mountains. I will finish Haguro-san to catch the first bus from there to Gassan. Then, I should have plenty of time to do the full route and catch the last bus out of Yudono-san in the afternoon.

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.

Athena Lam

A content marketing strategist and consultant.

3 thoughts on “The Dewa Sanzan: Foreword to the 3 Holy Mountains of Yamagata

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