On a pathway to the divine

by Chris Bamforth

Since it acquired the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, more people have naturally felt inclined to see the temples and monasteries of Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture for themselves. But more than a few visitors to the complex find that its heavy Buddhist religiosity and the funereal gloom of its Okuno-in necropolis make for anything but a joyful excursion.

For a holy mountain experience with a decidedly less oppressive character and much more in the way of outstanding scenery, it would be better to make the effort to get to Dewa Sanzan.

Located in central Yamagata Prefecture in northern Honshu, the three mountains that make up Dewa Sanzan each have a Shinto place of worship, which together comprise the Dewa Sanzan Shrines. The mountain trail connecting the three shrines has been popular with pilgrims since ancient times.

While the shrines are officially designated as Shinto, the religious associations of Dewa Sanzan are rather different. This area is one of the main centers of Shugendo, a sect that combines elements of Buddhism and Shinto, and whose practitioners are the fascinating mountain ascetics called yamabushi.

Sporting almost comically colorful garb and bearing a special set of equipment, each item of which carries a symbolic significance, yamabushi (“one who lies in the mountains”) have been around since Heian times (794-1185). To attain holy or magical powers, yamabushi go into the mountains, where they conduct such acts of austerity as standing under an icy waterfall for hours at a time. They also get up to more spectacular feats like walking on fire and climbing up ladders made of swords.

Though they can’t ordinarily be seen doing anything quite so theatrical, yamabushi can often be encountered on the summit of Haguro-san, the least imposing peak and most visited of the Dewa Sanzan. Completely affable despite the ascetic image, the yamabushi are happy to be photographed and happy too to let the inquisitive tourist have a go at spluttering into their distinctive conch-shell trumpets.

Definitely the best way to climb 414-meter-high Haguro-san is to ascend by the 2,446 stone steps through the superb forest of immense, arrow-straight cryptomerias (Japanese cedars). You can also get to the top by car or bus.

Halfway up the stone staircase stands a homely wooden teahouse, where visitors can enjoy a little refreshment before tackling the rest of the ascent. Here, too, those who really want to look the part can pick up a pilgrim’s staff and conical hat. The teahouse is run by a couple of charming ladies, who are grateful for the company on a slow day and, if you sign their visitor’s book, will present you with a certificate proving you climbed the mountain, taking it on good faith that you’ll go the rest of the way.

Even visitors who do take the easy route up Haguro-san will be certain to go at least part of the way along the stone path, which leads out of the town of Haguro-machi. About 10 minutes’ walk into the forest from the gate at the beginning of the pilgrimage trail is a 600-year-old, five-story pagoda, standing isolated and weather-beaten in the depths of the jade-green forest.

In a country that certainly has no dearth of pagodas, this shingle-roofed, plain wooden structure in its wonderful natural setting is quite possibly its most magnificent.

At the summit of Haguro-san visitors will find the shrine of Dewa Sanzan Jinja, dedicated to the three deities of the three mountains. Its main hall is painted in eye-catching vermilion and impressively topped by a 2.1-meter-thick thatched roof. The syncretic nature of Shugendo is certainly evident at this shrine. Though the priests wear Shinto garb and torii gates stand around the precincts, the architecture of the hall is Buddhist, and rich carvings of elephants, tigers and plants ornament the structure.

From Haguro-san, it’s more than 20 km to the next mountain, Gassan, and only the most dedicated pilgrim would plod the distance rather than taking the bus or trying to hitch a ride. At 1,980 meters, Gassan is the highest of the three peaks and the climb to its summit presents much more of a challenge than is the case with diminutive Haguro-san. The cold is such at the Gassan summit that it has a patch of snow that never melts, and even in September you get to see snowboarders ascending with their gear.

The trail from Gassan toward Yudonosan Jinja, the shrine beneath Yudonosan, the third of the holy mountains, snakes along an undulating ridge before dropping steeply into the valley where the shrine is located. So precipitous is the route that hikers have to avail themselves of the several sets of steel ladders set into the hillside. Being accessible by bus from Yamagata, Yudonosan Jinja is a popular spot. Unusual for a shrine, the deity here is thought to reside in a huge rust-colored rock, over which flows the hot mineral water from an underground spring. Visitors undergo ritual purification by bathing their feet in the thermal water.

While in the Dewa Sanzan area, the place to stay is most definitely at one of the temple lodgings in Haguro-machi. Such temples are often thatch-roofed, elegantly atmospheric spots, which, despite the religious tone, have fridges well stocked with beer and sake. And you don’t have to be a yamabushi ascetic to appreciate the typical temple fare of shojin-ryori, which is a delightful combination of strong and subtle flavors. It’s also completely vegetarian.

Yamagata is rather remote, but Dewa Sanzan,with its combination of grand nature and intriguing culture and history, is one of the most interesting spots in the Tohoku region, and well worth going out of your way to visit.