Dewa Sanzan Hassaku Festival on Mt. Haguro
Written by Timothy Bunting
Cicadas blearing, rice fields of bright green leaves, fireworks on show, it’s summer in Japan and that means one thing; festivals. When the weather heats up, communities gather outside at night under the lanterns and let the sake flow. Traditionally, festivals in Japan are a celebration of successful farming, when communities show their appreciation to the gods. For the agricultural community of the Dewa Sanzan, the Hassaku festival on August 31st is one of the most important, especially for the Yamabushi. Seeing 150 Yamabushi chanting in unison under the dim light of the lanterns and fire is a wonderful sight to behold.
At this time of year, the rice plants begin to ripen. In the past, people in farming communities celebrated by sending newly-harvested grains to their supporters on this day. Before long, these celebrations passed on to the people in the towns and villages. Then, the Hassaku festival developed as a prayer to the gods for protection from natural disasters that would destroy crops.
Hassaku comes from two words, Hachigatsu, meaning August, and Sakujitsu, meaning the first day of the month. So why is the Hassaku festival on August 31st? Well, much like the Dewa Sanzan Flower Festival in July, the Hassaku festival is originally based on the lunar calendar.
The Hassaku festival corresponds with the Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual, and the annual festival of Prince Hachiko Shrine. The Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual is the most important for Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi, with up to 200 joining in. In addition, Prince Hachiko was the founder of training on the Dewa Sanzan. So, in essence, the Yamabushi are following in the footsteps of the founder of the Dewa Sanzan from 1400 years ago.
At 10pm on the 31st of August, Yamabushi announce the results of their training at Prince Hachiko Shrine. Then, they light a bonfire, called Daisaitogoma, in front of the shrine where they perform special rituals. The Daisaitogama fire is to both commemorate the souls of the ancestors, and call upon the gods.
Once the fire is ready it is time for the Hibashi ritual. Here the Yamabushi perform a dance with 4m-long sticks, turning around and dancing around in the burning ash. In addition, the other Yamabushi walk around in a snake-like fashion chanting the whole time creating an electric atmosphere. The Hibashi ritual is to pray for a bumper crop, and the health of every household. Lastly, from midnight, the Denmensai festival begins at Sanjingosaiden Shrine, where the Yamabushi pray for resilience against typhoons and strong winds.
The Hassaku festival takes place at Prince Hachiko Shrine at the top of Mt. Haguro next to Dewa Sanzan Shrine. If you’re coming by car, we recommend getting there early, around 8:30-9pm, to get a good park. Otherwise, a special bus service will run during the duration of the festival connecting central Tsuruoka. More information below.
If you’re coming to specifically see the Hassaku festival, we’d recommend staying in Saikan right next door. You’ll also get the opportunity to try Dewa Sanzan Shojin Ryori, exactly what this festival is about. However, take note that Saikan will be busy with preparations for the festival throughout the night. If that bothers you, take advantage of the special busses and stay in a Shukubo at the bottom of Mt. Haguro. Read our article on accessing the Dewa Sanzan for more.
The Hassaku Festival takes place right at the end of summer, just when there are many other things on. This means you’re nearly in time for the autumn leaves of the Dewa Sanzan. If you haven’t already, consider climbing Mt. Gassan or Mt. Yudono. Here’s our guide to hiking the Dewa Sanzan. While you’re on Mt. Haguro, chances are you’ve already checked out the Five Story Pagoda. Keep in mind that you’re also there in time for the Five Story Pagoda Light Up. Or, check out the places Matsuo Basho visited on the Dewa Sanzan. Looking for something further afield? Here’s more on Tsuruoka City, or their official website. Looking for other festivals on the Dewa Sanzan? The Flower Festival in July or the Shoreisai Festival on New Year’s Eve are both worth checking out also.
Shonai Kotsu run special busses specifically for the Hassaku Festival. Some stops have been omitted for ease of understanding. The times are as follows:
|Shozen’in Koganedo Temple||19:10|
|Sakurakoji (Daishobo, Daishinbo etc.)||19:12|
|Zuishinmon Gates (bottom of Mt. Haguro)||19:15, 19:30, 21:00|
|Top of Mt. Haguro (Dewa Sanzan Shrine, Saikan)||19:45, 21:15|
|Top of Mt. Haguro (Dewa Sanzan Shrine, Saikan)||20:35, 22:00, 12:20am (Sep. 1st)|
|Zuishinmon Gates (bottom of Mt. Haguro)||20:50, 22:15, 12:35am|
|Sakurakoji (Daishobo, Daishinbo etc.)||22:16, 12:36am|
|Shozen’in Koganedo Temple||22:18, 12:38am|
|Tsuruoka Station||22:43, 1:03am|
The Hassaku Festival is one of the most important events for the Dewa Sanzan. This festival combines elements from over 1,000 years’ of training on the sacred mountains making for a very special event. Want to experience one of Japan’s coolest fire festivals? Come check out the Hassaku festival on Mt. Haguro on August 31st each year.
Mt. Haguro is not a very high mountain, but it can get cold at night. Be sure to bring a jacket or warm clothes just in case. A torch will also be handy.
Three Mountains of Dewa
Tim Bunting is a Dewa Sanzan Shrine Yamabushi with over 10 years’ experience living beneath the three mystical peaks. He is a self-professed Dewa Sanzan nerd, and is currently working on the Yamabushido project and Dewa Sanzan Monzenmachi Project with Megurun Inc. His roles including assisting in Yamabushi trainings, translating, interpreting, and curating Dewasanzan.com.
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