The traditional pilgrimage to Dewa Sanzan, or the Three Mountains of Dewa, begins with the smallest and northernmost Mount Haguro. The plaque at the beginning of the path through Zuishin Gate tells of 33 carvings of "gourds, sake cups and the like" scattered along the 2,446 steps to the top of the mountain, and that whoever can find all of them will have their dreams come true.

It didn't take me long to realize this isn't so much an egg hunt as a goose chase, a clever distraction from the arduous ascent. Fifteen minutes and a few hundred steps in, my legs trembled, my clothes dripped sweat and I had yet to spot a single carving. At least the scenic rewards of Mount Haguro were more immediate. Only just beginning my three-day pilgrimage, I'd already passed the high waterfall that serves to purify those foolhardy enough to undertake such a task, as well the famed five-story pagoda first built by Taira no Masakado in the 10th century.

Dewa Sanzan in Yamagata Prefecture has been a site of devotion since its founding by Prince Hachiko in 593. During the Heian Period (794-1185) it became an important center for Shugendo, a syncretic belief system that borrows elements from esoteric Buddhism and Shinto, and emphasizes the relationship between humans and nature.