Dewa Sanzen: My trip to find tranquility in Yamagata's holy mountains
Hiking the stunning Haguro-san and Gas-san.
In my last post, I enjoyed the delicious vegetarian Buddhist cuisine of rural Yamagata. However, it was now time for the main reason for my visit - to hike!
First up - Mount Haguro
The start of the 2446 stone step path, the imposing Zuishinmon gate, was a mere minute's walk from my accommodation. Upon stepping over the threshold, I was immediately surrounded by towering cedar trees on both sides. According to legend, the trees were planted somewhere around 1648.
After what is about a ten-minute walk into the trail, I was greeted by the famous five-storied pagoda and the so-called Grandfather Tree (which is an estimated 1000 years old), two of the best-known symbols of the mountain.
The word Zen seems almost like a cliché in the English language today, but I can't think of any other word to describe the hike up Mount Haguro. Although there were other people on the trail, I often found myself with only the trees and moss-covered rocks for company, the hum of the cicadas the only sound I could hear.
It is easy to understand why the Yamabushi took pilgrimage to this place – one would be hard-pressed to find this kind of peace and tranquility in today's fast-paced world.
The walk-up is about one and a half to two hours, and the biggest difficulty one is likely to face is the sections where the stairs get somewhat steep. Halfway up the mountain is a small teahouse run by a group of very cheerful ladies. Here you can relax, look out at the stunning view of the valley below, and enjoy a cold drink or a bowl of kakigori (shaved ice with sweet syrup).
When I told the ladies that I have already developed a taste for the local cuisine, I was soon presented with a small bowl of vegetarian treats and a cup of green tea.
The people of the Japanese countryside sure seem intent on keeping their guests fed! After being informed that I am only halfway up the mountain and still have about another hour to go, I dramatically threw my hands up in the air and bid the ladies goodbye, and they bid me ganbatte (you can do it!).
As Mount Haguro is the only one of the three Dewa Sanzen that is open year-round (Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono are closed off in winter due to heavy snow), the deities of all three mountains are enshrined at this complex to make it easier for worshippers to access.
After exploring the temple complex, I started on my way back down the trail. The afternoon sun piercing the thick forest canopy made me feel like I was in a fairy tale. The sunlight on the moss-covered stones made them appear almost emerald.
The following day, I decided to take on the more challenging Mount Gassan. Public transport is very far and few between, and I had to rush to catch the 6:30 am bus – basically the only one for the day. The terrain is much different from Mount Haguro, with the path through the forest replaced with open fields and stunning vistas of the countryside beneath.
The path is much more difficult to traverse as well – a hike to the temple at the top of the mountain is a 3-hour long affair, and the path is made up of uneven, jagged rocks.
Although I would suggest that Gassan is more appropriate for those who like hiking, its natural beauty is unquestionable. On the bus back that afternoon, me and two other passengers were treated to a small tour of sorts by the enthusiastic bus driver.
He would stop at lookout points or drive by very slowly in order for us to enjoy the stunning views. The landscape at the time seemed to be completely untouched by human hands, with green hills as far as the eye can see.
After enjoying my final dinner and breakfast at the temple, I caught the bus at around 9 the next morning, just to be greeted by the same bus driver. We chatted and he even helped me get to exactly where I needed to be to reach my next bus.
I will never forget the calm beauty of the mountains, nor the kindness and generosity of the local people.
My name is Ilze, and I am a writer who is enthusiastic about travel! I am currently based in Japan, where I spend my time trying to find the best hidden gems the land of the rising sun has to offer! You can follow me on instagram: @ilzegram
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