North Japan’s premiere location for a spiritual rebirth
“It is the very mind itself that leads the mind astray; Of the mind, do not be mindless.”
– Takuan Soho
For centuries, millions have flocked to the precarious cliffs, gushing rivers, bountiful forests, serene landscapes and flora and fauna of Oku in search of a spiritual awakening, including two very influential figures in Japanese history.
Prominent master of Zen and proficient gardener, painter, calligrapher, tea master, poet, and author Takuan Soho was banished to Dewa no Kuni (present-day Yamagata and Akita Prefectures) in 1629 for protesting the Shogun’s interference in temple matters, before later becoming an instrumental advisor to later Shogun who effectively ruled Japan for more than 200 years.
“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home”
By the mid to late 1600s, Japan’s premiere Haiku poet Matsuo Basho had reached the top of the literary world affording him unavoidable luxury on his travels. In search of philosophy and creativity, Basho knew he had to travel further than ever before, even if it led to his death. Rumours of the people living by the philosophies of old on the border to the lands where the native Japanese Emishi tribes lived attracted Basho in an unprecedented way. These travels to Oku culminated in the quintessential Japanese classic The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Join the many millions who have made the pilgrimage to Oku over the millennia in search of a spiritual awakening.
For over 1400 years, Yamagata Prefecture has been the home to hundreds of pilgrimages on the mystifying Dewa Sanzan; Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono. Not to mention the prefecture is also the location of the famous Yamadera temple hanging off the edge of a cliff, and the towering Mt. Chokai, a.k.a the Fuji of the north, making it the best place to experience the spiritual side of the land of the rising sun.
See our range of exciting activities designed for your self-development
Join Master Hoshino, the 13th generation Yamabushi Master of Daishobo Pilgrim Lodge, and the Yamabushido team as they embark on a Haguro Shugendo-style pilgrimage of rebirth on the Dewa Sanzan.
Taste life as a Yamabushi on Mt. Haguro. Your Yamabushi guide will take you from your Shukubo Pilgrim Lodge up Mt. Haguro, stopping for a small meal at Nino-zaka Teahouse, before arriving at Dewa Sanzan Shrine at the top for the official worship ritual.
Let us take you to the original spots the founder, Jikaku Daishi trained in, and tell you the origin story. Just a hint, it’s not where you think it is. Get to know everything there is about Yamadera Temple, the famous temple on the precipice of a cliff.
Zenpoji Temple, Tsuruoka
Try Zen Meditation in the specially-built meditation hall, wake up to the prayer session that has been continuing non-stop for more than 100 years, or try your hand at Japanese calligraphy. Accommodation available.
Explore the town of Kurokawa in Tsuruoka, and earn all about Kurokawa Noh, some of the country’s oldest Noh theatre.
Dewaya is a Ryokan, traditional Japanese Lodge, in Nishikawa on the inland Yamagata side of Mt. Gassan. The nearby forests of the mountains are covered in edible vegetables and mushrooms that are ripe for the picking. Join the team on one of their expeditions, and help prepare a feast for the ages complete with local sake.
Where the present world’s troubles are overcome
With its stone stairway and five-storied pagoda situated amongst the hundreds of towering cedars and the thickest thatched roof in Japan at Sanjin-gosaiden Shrine, Mt. Haguro is a definite must-see.
Located at the food of the Dewa Sanzan is the Shukubogai, a village of pilgrim lodges built in the 1600s specifically for those making a pilgrimage on the Dewa Sanzan. In its heyday, this village hosted more than 3 million pilgrims annually, providing not only lodging, but a place for pilgrims to change into the traditional Shiroshozoku garments and purify their bodies by eating the Shojin Ryori (ascetic cuisine) before heading out on their pilgrimage of rebirth.
The world of the afterlife where we meet our ancestors
From the mist-covered Midagahara marshlands, to the rocky mountain paths over ice and snow, the 1,984m (6,509ft.) Mt. Gassan is the tallest of the three Dewa Sanzan.
When we die, it is said that our souls spend an arduous 33 years training, starting in the lower-lying mountains such as Mt. Haguro, until eventually reaching the top of Mt. Gassan where we turn into gods.
As such, Mt. Gassan is the metaphoric border into heaven where we can meet our deceased ancestors, and represents the world of the afterlife.
The world of the future where we come face-to-face with our future selves
Mt. Yudono is home to the most sacred part of the Dewa Sanzan, the object of worship in Mt. Yudono Shrine. So sacred, in fact, that there is an age-old rule forbidding any mention of it.
Mt. Yudono was also the training ground for the Sokushinbutsu. Otherwise known as Buddha Mummies or Living Buddha, Sokushinbutsu are self-mummified monks that sacrificed their lives to leave evidence of reaching enlightenment in the current world, and in the hopes of providing salvation to the people.
Yamadera is a picturesque temple hanging on the precipice of a cliff founded over 1,000 years ago. Notable for its views, a climb up the 1,015 steps is akin to climbing up to paradise.
Matsuo Basho didn’t originally plan on visiting Yamadera Temple, however, when questioned multiple times on whether he had been there, it was obvious he simply had to go.
And it is a wonderful thing he did, for he phrased a Haiku that succinctly encapsulates the essence of the Japanese.
Zen monks have been training at Zenpoji Monastery for over a millennium. Dedicated to the ocean, the temple is home to one of Tsuruoka City’s five-storied pagodas, the only city in Japan to have more than one, illustrating the strong spiritual
beliefs of the townspeople.
Zenpoji has a shrine where two dragon gods reside, with dragons traditionally symbolising water in the east.
The temple offers Zen experiences such as meditation and calligraphy, and guests are also welcome to stay there.
All life comes from the mountains. The leaves fall on the trees, and the bacteria help develop nutrient-rich mulch. The rain and snow fall and carry these nutrients down through the rivers and across the plains providing the grains, vegetables, and fruits with the necessities of life. Necessities that also sustain the wildlife, and the birds and fish alike. The rivers flow into the sea and provide nutrients to the creatures in the ocean. The mountains provide food, the essence of life.
The bountiful mountains, plains, rivers, lakes, and sea have provided the people of Yamagata with hearty meals for centuries. Yamagata Prefecture is known as the home of rice production in Japan, and is home to the only UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in the country, Tsuruoka City. The unwavering spiritual belief of the people of Yamagata has lead to a distinctive food culture based around worshipping nature.
Yamagata prefecture is covered with places to devour the unique food culture of this very special part of Japan that can be tried at the numerous restaurants, temples, shrines, and accommodation facilities.
Yamagata’s Finest Cuisine
The Shojin Ryori of the Dewa Sanzan is a major reason why Tsuruoka City was designated a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. Try the large variety of dishes sourced straight from the surrounding mountains.
Freshly foraged mountain vegetables and mushrooms are on the menu with the Dewaya Furumai Ryori Set.
Taste the flavours of the season with the locally-sourced ingredients in Fumotoya’s famous set meal.
Shukubo are lodges dedicated to pilgrims. Each has their own prayer hall for Yamabushi to change into their Shiroshozoku garments, and Shojin Ryori ascetic cuisine for purification before entering the mountains.
Put yourself in an age gone by with a stay in one of Yamagata’s many Onsen Ryokan, traditional hot spring inns.
Wake up to chanting monks and try Zen Meditation or Calligraphy at one of the many temples and shrines in Yamagata.
For those who simply want a place to rest their head, Yamagata has plenty of hotels available.
Shukubo Pilgrim Lodges
Plane, train, bus, or car, find the best way to access Yamagata.
Yamagata is one of few prefectures in Japan to be served by two airports, Yamagata Airport and Shonai Airport.
Yamagata is famous for its Shinkansen Bullet Train complete with foot spa, and the Inaho that runs along the coast of the Sea of Japan.
Yamagata is served by multiple bus companies connected within and without the prefecture.
Although Yamagata is served by a public transport system, the infrequency means that arguably the best means of transport within the prefecture is by car.
Zen Experiences at Zenpoji Temple
Zen Experiences at Yamadera Temple
Mountain Vegetable and Mushroom Foraging with Dewaya Ryokan
Kurokawa Noh Experience