Why to Add The Dewa Sanzan to Your Bucket List
Written by Timothy Bunting
In recent years, more and more people have been searching for an escape from ordinary everyday life. Northern Japan’s Dewa Sanzan have been providing that location for more than a millennium. However, only recently has it started to gain traction as a top hiking destination for international guests. Here we count down the top five reasons to add the Dewa Sanzan to your bucket list.
First up, the scenery of the Dewa Sanzan is in at number five. The looming 1984m Mt. Gassan of the Dewa Sanzan provides Yamagata Prefecture with a fresh source of water year-round that creates the rivers and lakes that support the extensive beech and cedar forests, and the fields and fields of rice at the base. Combined with the varying seasons and unique architecture, the Dewa Sanzan is blessed with a huge variety of scenery that nature-lovers and photographers alike are sure to enjoy. Be sure to check out the autumn leaves of the Dewa Sanzan if you can.
Mt. Gassan boasts amazing vistas over the Shonai plains to the Sea of Japan and north to Mt. Chokai. If the weather holds up, it’s possible to see across to the cities and towns tucked in the pocket between the Asahi mountain range in inland Yamagata Prefecture. The path from Mt. Gassan to Mt. Yudono is particularly noted for the greenery that can only come from being on the mountain with the most snowfall, not to mention the latest snow season in Japan.
The base of Mt. Haguro is home to the Shukubo Pilgrim Lodges, the Five Story Pagoda, the Haraigawa River, the Grandpa Cedar and the start of the ascent into the three holy peaks. Walk up the stone staircase amongst the cedars to find Ni-no-saka Teahouse with views out onto the Shonai plains. Nearby lies Minamidani, The Southern Valley that silenced none other than world-renown Haiku poet Matsuo Basho. Once at the top, check out the 200-year old Sanjingosaiden Shrine, with the thickest thatch roof in all of Japan. From there, Saikan, the former temple turned pilgrim lodging is just a short (covered) walk.
The Dewa Sanzan developed its own form of cuisine, Dewa Sanzan Shojin Ryori (Ascetic Cuisine). The ascetic diet that supported Yamabushi for centuries is a major reason why Tsuruoka City gained its status as Japan’s only UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. As such, it deserves inclusion at number four on our list of reasons to add the Dewa Sanzan to your bucket list.
Dewa Sanzan Shojin Ryori developed when Yamabushi found food on the mountains for the sole purpose of survival. Nuts, roots, grasses and other edible things were collected throughout their gruelling training . Before long, sun-drying, salting, pickling and other methods of preservation developed. This allowed the Yamabushi greater mobility on the mountains, as well as guaranteeing food could be provided year-round. Over time, more and more followers at the Shukubo Pilgrim Lodges and Saikan desired the same meals as the Yamabushi. Dewa Sanzan Shojin Ryori as we know it today was born.The Meals
The meals available at the Shukubo Pilgrim Lodges at the base of Mt. Haguro, or at Saikan at the top are typically those used for celebration after training, known as Naorai, rather than the actual food eaten during training. The meals brilliantly showcase the centuries of techniques passed down from generation to generation. This means it’s possible that the meals are the same ones that Yamabushi from over a millennium ago.
The mostly-vegan (some places offer meat or use fish stock) meals use ingredients taken straight from the mountains. The meals combine traditional techniques not just for preservation, but also to provide a variation of textures and tastes, or simply to remove toxins and make the foods edible.
At number three on our list is the role the Dewa Sanzan played in Matsuo Basho’s quintessential The Narrow Road to the Deep North, arguably the best collection of Haiku in the Land of the Rising Sun. Following his ascension to the top class of Haiku poets, apprentices flocked to the side of Matsuo Basho. His travels to date had been rather comfortable affairs; wherever he travelled he would meet an apprentice who welcomed him with open arms and treated him very well. His status had meant that travel no longer felt like travel anymore. In search of philosophy and creativity, Matsuo felt an urge to voyage further than ever, even if it led to his death. Matsuo had heard rumours of the elusive Oku, the Deep North; a land that marked the border between the ethnic Japanese and the native Emishi tribes that still lived following the philosophies of old.
oh what sweet delight …
the sharp fragrance of snow
in southern valley
– Matsuo Basho
On the 19th of July 1689, during their travel to Oku, Matsuo Basho and his apprentice Sora landed their boat at the Kiyokawa checkpoint on the Mogami river and headed up Old Haguro Road to begin their pilgrimage on the Dewa Sanzan. After spending a few nights, including a visit to the main shrine, in the temple at Minamidani (The Southern Valley), the pair adorned traditional garb of the Yamabushi; white Shime necklace and Hokan headpiece, as they were led up towards Mt. Gassan by a Yamabushi guide.
The group navigated the misty Midagahara marshlands of Mt. Gassan, the abode of Amitabha Buddha, and climbed over the ice and snow-capped landscape. When they reached the top of the mountain they spent a night in a straw hut. Awakening from their bamboo-grass beds at dawn, the group set off for the most sacred site of the Dewa Sanzan, Mt. Yudono, from where they continued their journey north.
sleeves wet at Mt. Yudono,
by the mountain foot
– Matsuo Basho
A trip to the Dewa Sanzan cannot be complete without a visit to the self-mummified monks, the Sokushinbutsu (lit. Buddha in the flesh). Known as Living Buddha or Buddha Mummies in Japan, the Sokushinbutsu are reason number two to add the Dewa Sanzan to your bucket list.
Nowhere in the world shows the devotion of Buddhist monks better than Mt. Yudono of the Dewa Sanzan. The Shingon-sect temples Churenji and Dainichibo are home to multiple Sokushinbutsu, of 21 found in Japan, 16 trained on the mountain. In addition, the temples twice refused to switch allegiances when the surrounding mountains converted; first to the Tendai sect of Buddhism in the 1630s, and then to a completely different religion; Shintoism during the 1868 Meiji Restoration.
The Shingon sect believed that enlightenment could be reached in the current world. The monks believed that leaving behind a trace of Buddha in this realm in the form of a Sokushinbutsu, they could provide salvation to the townspeople even after their death. In fact, both Churenji and Dainichibo Temples believe that Kukai, the founder of the Shingon sect and their temples, is became a Sokushinbutsu after his death at Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture.
Those monks brave enough to become Sokushinbutsu first had to seek permission from their temples to undertake training. The monks slowly reduced the amount and type of foods they ate to rid their bodies of fat. When the time drew near, they drank lacquer to preserve their innards, climbed into a purpose-built chamber, and were buried alive where they rang a bell and repeated sutras until they reached enlightenment. After 333 days, if the self-mummification was a success, the Sokushinbutsu were removed from their chamber. Following this, they were returned to their respective temples to provide solace to the people to this day. Both Churenji Temple and Dainichibo Temple on Mt. Yudono enshrine Sokushinbutsu. Others can be found at various temples throughout the Shonai Region and along the Sea of Japan coast.
Finally, number one on our list is none other than spiritual rebirth. Since ancient times, Japanese people regarded mountains and gods as one and the same; a magical and unpredictable location full of life’s deepest secrets. So unpredictable were the mountains, in fact, that no-one ever dared venture into them. However, too perplexed by the mystery of life, some brave souls finally decided to do so. The secrets the ancestors to the Yamabushi discovered during their time in the mountains evolved into what has since become known as nature worship or Animism, and has played a major role in the cultural development of Japan.
For Yamabushi (lit. mountain dwellers) returning to the mountains is akin to returning to the womb. By venturing into mountains and spending prolonged amounts of time there before coming back out, the Yamabushi felt extremely refreshed, much like a metaphysical rebirth.
In the 7th century, the philosophies, doctrines, and rituals from Shintoism and the Vajrayana school of Buddhism combined with Taoism and Animism to form a new religion known as Shugendo, of which the Dewa Sanzan is home to its very own school; Haguro Shugendo.
The most famous example of the Haguro Shugendo Pilgrimage of Rebirth is the Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual that takes place at the end of August each year. Two versions of the Akinomine Autumn Peak Ritual exist, the original Buddhist version, and the more popularly-known Shinto version that began in the Meiji Restoration as an offshoot of the Buddhist version.
Armed with the Haguro Shugendo philosophy of Uketamo (I accept), around 150 Yamabushi clad in their white Shiroshozoku robes under the characteristic blue and white climb the Dewa Sanzan, Horagai conches blearing and bells ringing out for all to hear. Their final descent down the stone staircase amongst the bright green of the cedars on Mt. Haguro has since become a key feature of summer in the region.
So there you have it, the top five reasons to add the Dewa Sanzan to your bucket list. From the scenery and food, to the various types of people who gained from the three mountains’ power, the Dewa Sanzan has provided a spiritual rebirth for millennia, and now it’s your turn. Join us on a hike of the Dewa Sanzan. Or, if you like what you see, show your support by signing up for the Dewa Sanzan Tribe.
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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