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-Haguro, Mountain of the Present
Legend has it that Prince Hachiko enshrined the bodhisattva Shokanzeon, savior of mortals in the living world, at Mt. Haguro. It came to be called the “mountain of the present” because it is the lowest and closest to civilization of the three mountains, and grants earthly benefits to worshippers.
A full 2,446 stone steps comprise the 2km path from the Zuishinmon gate at the bottom of Haguro to the summit; cedar trees of imposing height and girth, each three- to five-hundred years old, line both sides. A short walk reveals the jiji-sugi, or “grandfather cedar,” which the locals have preserved throughout over 1,000 years since the temple’s founding. Nearby is one of Japan’s national treasures: a magnificently austere 5-story pagoda constructed of unvarnished wood. It has stood against centuries of wind and snow to capture the hearts of those that gaze upon it.
Climbing the stone stairs one by one amidst the stillness, breathing the clear air, purifies body and soul; it is a chance to reflect deeply on oneself. At the top of the mountain, the Sanjin-Gosaiden stands proud against even heavy snowfall with its 2.1m-thick thatched roof. Sanjin-Gosaiden enshrines not just the god of Haguro, but also those of Gassan and Yudono, who cannot be worshipped at their main shrines in the winter because of the snow. Visitors pray for peace and stability, healthy crops, and that other earthly wishes be granted, as well as for a successful “journey of rebirth” before continuing on to Gassan and Yudono.Gassan, Mountain of the PastSince antiquity, this region’s people have believed that the souls of the departed rise up to the tops of the tallest mountains. The loftiest Dewa Sanzan mountain, the beautiful Gassan, has long received prayers for the departed to rest in peace; it is called the “mountain of the past” because it represents the afterlife.
Partway to the top are the Midagahara marshlands, named after the Buddhist Pure Land, where riotously blooming alpine plants meet cool air drifting from the permafrost that covers the slope above. Beyond, visitors must overcome the steep gyoshagaeshi—“pilgrims’ defeat”— slope and rugged rocks to finally reach Gassan Shrine at the peak and pay their respects to the god Tsukuyomi, who governs the night, and wish for peace after death. On fair days, when a sea of clouds obscures the world below, a visitor may find their shadow suddenly reflected on the clouds with a bright halo. Those who have encountered this spiritual phenomenon have helped to solidify Gassan’s reputation as “mountain of the past.”Yudono, Mountain of the Future
Yudono is known as the “mountain of the future” for the two gods it honors. One is the red boulder, Goshintai: the hot water springing forth from its top symbolizes women’s miraculous ability to bring new life into the world. The other is the god of the mountains, from which all life is born: O-yamatsumi.
Pilgrims go barefoot amidst the mountain’s natural features to honor Goshintai, and absorb the Earth’s energy through the warmth from its core they feel on their palms and feet. Yudono’s rock face, revealed by extreme erosion and dotted by waterfalls both large and small, represents “wilderness” in its purest form, so it is no surprise that Yudono is the site of ascetic training such as waterfall ablution and arduous hikes upstream. The pain experienced during the training is also meant to represent the pain of childbirth. Visitors to Yudono feel awe for nature and a powerful sense of rejuvenation, and pray to the mountain for rebirth.
Today:A Living “Journey of Rebirth”
In the past, visitors to Dewa Sanzan traveled the continental route Rokujuri-goe Kaido from the coast to the inner part of Yamagata, or sailed in via the Mogami river, and began their ascent from one of eight official pilgrims’ entrances. Edo-period pilgrims wore woven bamboo hats and shiro-shozoku, white clothes representing the attire of the dead. It is said that during that era, the line of pilgrims was so great that it was like watching a flood of bamboo hats pass through.
Temple lodging districts were created as temples and guest houses sprang up around the thoroughfare, way-stations, and mountain entrances, while local residents made a living by offering hospitality to pilgrims and helping them prepare for the journey. Perhaps the most impressive such district was Toge at the foot of Mt. Haguro, which in the Edo period boasted 300 pilgrims’ quarters bustling with activity. Today, it is home to yamabushi, mountain ascetics, who continue to welcome pilgrims to the mountains. As part of a tradition that has continued since the Edo period, these yamabushi spend spring through fall guiding visitors, and in winter travel through each part of eastern Japan to spread the blessings of Dewa Sanzan and encourage pilgrims to make the journey.
The intertwining of faith and daily life is evident not just in the temple lodgings, but nearby houses as well, where one can see artifacts like the sacred rope from Haguro’s Shorei Festival hung from the eaves as talismans. These people have, since childhood, attended events like the Shorei Festival, and been profoundly influenced
by the sight of adults in their lives blessing and guiding pilgrims through the mountains: they grow up with prayers to Dewa Sanzan and yamabushi always close at hand. In early adulthood, many young men will undertake the ascetic training called mine-iri—“summiting”—to become yamabushi, and guide others on the journey of rebirth.
Pilgrims’ lodgings also offer shojin-ryori, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. It is made with a bounty of locally harvested mountain vegetables, and cleanses the body while revitalizing even the weariest traveler. Many dishes are connected to Dewa Sanzan’s spiritual sites, such as Hakusan-jima (sesame tofu), Kake-goya (fry-simmered Gassan bamboo shoots), Harai-gawa Bridge (boiled giant butterbur); to eat them is to truly experience authentic yamabushi food culture. Shojin-ryori is also at the heart of the local culinary traditions, and remains a fixture of family dinners.
The Dewa Sanzan pilgrimage, a journey of rebirth, is a living, breathing tradition. It has weathered centuries through the support of people whose daily lives are deeply rooted in the spiritual world of the three mountains. Today, it continues to bring people to the heart of nature, where they can feel its spirit and stand in awe, and through this journey purify body and soul to be blessed with renewed energy for the morrow.