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  • Silvia Valentini

The Secrets of Yamagata: The Sacred Path of Dewa Sanzan

Updated: May 12, 2021

At the north of Tokyo lies the Tohoku; a region still less known, but rich in natural and historical treasures. In the prefecture of Yamagata you will discover sacred mountains, Buddhist temples, and ancient sake distilleries to enjoy between a traditional festival and a thermal bath. Yamagata prefecture can be easily reached by taking a domestic flight from Tokyo to Shonai. There are many places to visit in the prefecture of Yamagata but I suggest you to start from what is considered the sacred region of Dewa Sanzan; which includes the three mountain peaks: Haguro, Gassan and Yudono that respectively symbolize life, death and rebirth.

Dewa Sanzan is very popular among the followers of the Shugendo, a religion based on the worship of the mountain. The Shugendo monks called Yamabushi, subject their bodies to tests of force to the limit of possible to transcend their physical bodies.

Mount Haguro, is the most easily accessible among the three sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan thanks to a road that allows you to reach the top both by car and by public transport. The most traditional way to reach the top is to take the traditional route, together with a real Yamabushi. The route consists of a stone staircase with 2,446 steps that winds through the forest and will allow you to discover a little more on the fascinating Japanese spirituality. Along the way, 33 figures carved in stone steps bring prosperity to anyone who can find them all.

Also along the way you will find several attractions that are worth visiting to stop and rest. At the beginning of the route is the Ideha Museum which provides history and details on the Shugendo religion and its followers, and a section of the museum is dedicated to the nature and sacred aspect of Dewa Sanzan.

Along the way you can find a five-storey pagoda immersed in the cedar forest, a National Treasure whose first construction dates back to 937 and rebuilt in 1300; today it has become the symbol of Mount Haguro.

Just before reaching the top there is a building called Saikan connected directly to the Mount Haguro sanctuary, which offers accommodation for pilgrims and visitors. The rooms are simple and furnished in traditional style with tatami, with the inclusion of a Buddhist meal (shojin ryori) made from naturally-grown mountain vegetables and mushrooms harvested on Mount Haguro.

At the top of the staircase you will reach the shrine Gosaiden, the final stage of the route, surrounded by vegetation on top of the mountain. Its main room, Sanjin Gosaiden, boasts a traditional Japanese style, with a very imposing roof of 2 meters thickness and richly decorated interior. The Gosaiden shrine is a singular and unusual sacred place in the Buddhist and Shinto religion as it venerates not one but all three mountains, displaying statues of deities from all sanctuaries and temples of Dewa Sanzan.

Climbing Mount Haguro was one of the most interesting experiences I had in Japan. Amidst unspoiled nature, intense spirituality, age-old stories, I really had the feeling of having purified myself mentally and internally.

I invite anyone to have such an experience. Especially after this dark and difficult time, getting lost in the cedar forest and meditating with the Yamabushi is the best way to find yourself and discover one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

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