Photo:Gojunoto, the five-story pagoda at Mount Haguro

Mount Haguro: The Beating Heart of Japanese Animism

Dewa Sanzan, the three mountains of Dewa in Japan’s northeast, are not only picturesque. They collectively form an ascetic religious center opened in 593 A.D. that still operates today. Mount Haguro, the “mountain of the present” is the gateway to Gassan, mountain of the past, and Yudono, mountain of the future. At 414 meters, you can walk to Haguro’s summit in under one hour; it is also accessible by car.

Depending on where you begin, a cedar-lined 1.7 km path (2,446 steps to be precise) leads either to the main shrine (三神合祭殿) at the summit, or to Gojunoto, a five-story pagoda that is registered as a national treasure. Both are impressive structures, but it is the meditative and often steep climb amid trees that are 300-500 years old that will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression.

Sanjin Gousaiden, the main shrine at the summit of Mount Haguro

Small elevated wooden structures lining the main shrine and scattered along the path each house a Goshintai, or sacred object from nature. You can also catch vistas of the Shonai plain and the surrounding mountain ranges.

Choukai san, north of Mount Haguro

The Ideha Culture Museum near the entrance gate and bus stop (closed on Tuesdays, entrance fee 400 Yen) provides fascinating insights into Shugendo, or the “way of training and experience” practiced by mountain monks for centuries. This syncretic religion is an amalgamation of pre-Buddhist mountain worship, local folk rituals, Shintoism, Taoism, and esoteric Buddhism. Well-written English signs explain various festivals and practices that are intricately linked with the agricultural calendar.

A giant insect-shaped torch is set aflame during the Fire Festival, held annually from December 31-January 1, to fend off disasters and portend the quantity of the next year’s harvest.

Pilgrims wear white to symbolize the elimination of impurities

To round out your experience, be sure to eat and stay at a temple lodge. Saikan is connected to Mount Haguro’s main shrine by a long covered walkway, and Saikan guests may observe and participate in 30-minute morning rituals in the shrine at 7 am. Monks and apprentices chant, recite prayers, and remove the previous day’s offerings before inviting guests into the inner sanctum. This is a rare opportunity to witness Shugendo animist practices up close.

Saikan lodge offers a unique experience in Mount Haguro

The dinner at Saikan comes with locally made rice and a slew of small dishes, including fish and a tofu made fresh on the premises every morning at 5 am that is out of this world. The breakfast is an eclectic assortment of rare wild mountain vegetables, every one with a distinct flavor unattainable from our modern cultivated crops. Most temple lodges offer similar fare; some specialize in Shojin Ryori, a type of Buddhist vegetarian cuisine.

Vegetarian breakfast at temple lodge includes wild mountain vegetables

ACCESS: Bus from Tsuroka Station (40 minutes) or by car (from Yamagata city 1.5 hours)

For an intro to Dewa Sanzan

Lodging options near Mount Haguro

Note: Most lodgings have shared bathroom facilities with traditional Japanese bath, and rates usually include dinner and breakfast.

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