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Despite living in Japan for five years, keen hiker Madeleine had never tackled the Dewa Sanzan mountains. She joined the Yamabushi priests to take a spiritual journey over the three peaks.
On a recent trip to Japan I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit a prefecture that was completely new to me – Yamagata. It’s nestled between the mountains and the sea in southern Tohoku, about one-hour by plane from Tokyo.
Yamagata isn’t on the usual tourist path, which for me already made it a very promising place. Untouched nature, excellent food (Tsuruoka, where I was primarily based, is a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy) and hardly another visitor in sight. Bliss.
However the primary reason for my visit was the Yamabushi.
Yamabushi mountain priests – Yamagata
Yamagata is home to one of the most spiritual places in all of Tohoku: the Dewa Sanzan (Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa), which are made up of Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan, and Mount Yudono. For over 1,400 years these mountains have felt the footsteps of Yamabushi mountain priests. They practice shugendo, an ancient ascetic religion that incorporates elements of native Shintoism and foreign Buddhism.
Up until that point, all I knew about Yamabushi was that they meditated under freezing waterfalls, even in the depths of winter. With a healthy dose of trepidation, even in early September when the temperatures were still balmy in Yamagata, I didn’t quite fancy a dip in a mountain stream. I set off with my group to start our very own Yamabushi experience.
Dewa Sanzan mountains
A quick lesson: the three Dewa Sanzan mountains all represent different points on the journey of rebirth. Mount Haguro (414m) represents the present world; Mount Gassan (1984m) in the centre is the world after death where ancestors reside; and Mount Yudono (1504m) is the embodiment of the future and rebirth.
Usually Yamabushi complete the journey between the three peaks in meditative silence, but fortunately my own journey was not quite so strict; I was free to ask questions and marvel openly at the sights along the way.
The first order of the day for our Yamabushi trip was to get appropriately garbed. The clothes are meant to look like the garments worn by the dead, which sounds ominous, but fits with the journey of rebirth the Yamambushi undertake.
Putting on the pure white layered outfit, complete with wrap-around headdress, was an adventure in itself. I was also a bit concerned about the footwear choice – split toed tabi shoes – they proved to be warm, flexible, and surprisingly comfortable.
Day one: Mount Haguro
Armed with a bell tied to my waist (to scare away bears? Help my guide find me if I wondered off track?) and a pilgrim’s stick to lean on, I was ready to start my spiritual journey up Mount Haguro. In the pouring rain, naturally.
As we passed through the wooden Zuishinmon gate, our Yamabushi guide blew his conch shell to signify that we were beginning our pilgrimage.
The cedar-lined path from Zuishinmon to the top of Mount Haguro consists of 2,446 stone steps, and is so beautiful that it has been awarded three stars in the Michelin Green Guide Japan. The heavy late summer rain only added to the atmosphere and it was immediately obvious that I was in an ancient, spiritual place.
A short way along the path we came to a 1,000-year old cedar tree, affectionately known as Jiji-sugi, the Grandpa Cedar. We also came across the oldest pagoda in the Tohoku area; this five-storey pagoda was built around 650 years ago and sits majestically in the forest. It seems to embody the peaceful state of mind the Yamabushi priests aim to maintain. Another blow of the conch horn, another heartfelt prayer, and it was time to set off again – onwards and upwards. Very upwards.
Along the way, our guide stopped periodically to explain some of the meditation methods he and the other Yamabushi use during their pilgrimage. One of them involved each of us in the group setting our own walking pace; another required us to climb steadily up the steps in silence, with only the patter of the rain and the faint jingle of our bells to keep us company.
Despite the unexpected exertion of climbing so many stairs, I was soon swept up in the soothing rhythm of the climb and quickly saw how meditative the journey could be.
Towards the end of the path, a few people in the group spotted strange symbols and pictures carved into the stone steps at various points. It turns out there are 33 in total, and if you find them all on your journey your wishes will come true!
I only found this gourd, which I suppose is better than nothing!
At the top of Mount Haguro – feeling more drowned-rat-esque than enlightened, but happy all the same – we passed beneath another vermillion gate to the accompaniment of the conch horn. From there were ushered into the huge thatch-roofed Sanjin Gosaiden shrine to meet the head priest.
A captivating prayer ritual awaited us, and as our Yamabushi guide intoned our names solemnly we each approached the altar to place our offering of sacred leaves. We were then whisked away to the temple lodgings, our home for the night, where hot baths and a warming Buddhist shojin ryori meal was waiting for us.
Day two: Mount Gassan
Day two began early, as it usually does at temple lodgings, and after a simple but healthy breakfast we set off for the next point of our journey – Mount Gassan. A true Yamabushi would usually walk, but due to time restrictions we made the journey between the two mountains by bus.
Wreathed in mist, Mount Gassan lived up to its name as the embodiment of the afterlife – our guide, still dressed in his white robes and walking serenely through the fog, certainly looked like an ancestor returned from the next life.
From Mount Gassan we headed onwards to our final destination: Mount Yudono. As the most sacred and spiritual of the three mountains, it’s blanketed in a shroud of secrecy. Photography is strictly prohibited, and in the old days pilgrims were forbidden to even speak of what they saw there.
Our guide explained that famed haiku poet Matsuo Bassho, during his own journey along the Dewa Sanzan, alluded to his experience on the mountain in a clever poem: “I cannot speak of it, my sleeves were wet, on Mount Yudono”. I soon saw what Bassho was referring to: in the centre of the shrine was a large red-brown rock, worn smooth by centuries of footsteps and covered in running water.
Climb that,” our guide said, “and your spiritual journey is complete”. Convinced I would slip and meet my doom on the smooth rock, I was pleasantly surprised to find the water was warm as it flowed straight from the hot spring beneath the mountain. The rock was almost sticky to the touch beneath my bare feet as I made my way to the top.
Did I feel ‘reborn’? Had I attained a spiritual awakening, standing there on the warm rock of Mount Yudono? Not as such, but I was certainly filled with a sense of accomplishment, and a deeper understanding and appreciation of the centuries’ old way of the Yamabushi.
To give hiking Mount Haguro a go, take a look at our Northern Highlights Self-Guided Adventure.