Climbing the Three Holy Mountains of Dewa Sanzan

October 17, 2020

Note: this post was re-posted from my old website, originally published in September 2016. So be aware that some info might have changed since then. Head to the end of the article for the latest info.

I have always been addicted to hiking, and Japan provides me with plenty of places to do such. Out of all the mountains around Sendai, Dewa Sanzan (出羽三山) or also known as the Three Holy Mountains of Dewa, attracted me the most. There were three reasons why I wanted to hike in Dewa Sanzan. Not only there are three mountains you can climb in just one productive trip and the beautiful nature in the area, but these three mountains themselves are considered holy to the Japanese, especially those who follow the Shinto religion.

Thus, I decided to plan a trip with my fellow Indonesians to climb the mountain. Four of us would go to Tsuruoka by bus and from there we would start our 2-days climb. Finding accurate information was rather difficult because obviously there is no single piece of information that catered to our needs. So we gathered some information from a hiking blog and a Japan travel guide website then made a rough plan on how to climb.

A washbasin for ritual purification in Hagurosan.

According to the usual pilgrimage route, we have to climb (note: here are the mountain names without prefix Mt. which I shall use for the entire article) Hagurosan (羽黒山) followed by Gassan (月山) and then follow through to the last one, Yudonosan (湯殿山). Hagurosan symbolizes birth, Gassan symbolizes death, and Yudonosan symbolizes rebirth. In this order, one should climb the mountains and that was the way we wanted to proceed.

From Sendai to Tsuruoka we took the express bus instead of the train because it is more direct and somehow cheaper. Tsuruoka, the last stop of the bus, we inquired information at the bus counter for the bus bound to Hagurosan. Bus to Hagurosan is frequent because it is the most accessible one out of the trio. PS: the bus counter in S-Mall is very useful. Try to get the bus schedule from there.

Statue of Matsuo Basho, the famous haiku poet, who visited the shrine ages ago.
These small shrine altars are dwelled by different gods, each offers different kind of protection or luck.

Hagurosan is one hour away from Tsuruoka by bus, and by the time we alighted at the last stop, we were already in the Hagurosan shrine complex. This was supposed to be the end journey as we missed the stop in front of Ideha museum where the trail to the shrine is supposed to begin. If you wish to experience the stone steps all the way up to the main shrine, I suggest you start from the walking trail entrance by alighting at the Zuishinmon bus stop at the base of the mountain.

Main shrine of Hagurosan.

Alas, as we reached Hagurosan pretty late in the afternoon we did not have time to visit the beautiful old five-storied pagoda in the middle of the walking trail as the shrine complex closes at 5:30 PM. We did spend some time wandering around the trail, although not too far.

The torii gate that welcomes you to the main shrine if you travel via the walking trail.
Saikan, a temple lodging inside the shrine complex.

Moreover, we had a problem with lodging. Originally we planned to spend a night at a shokubo (temple lodging) around the area, but we just found out we had to reserve the room beforehand by phone. I strongly suggest you make reservations before coming to the shrine. (Lodging information can be found here, though it is in Japanese). In the end, we were lucky and managed to secure a room for four at the National Park Resort Kyuukamura Haguro nearby.

Bunch of tied-up bad luck omikujis.
Kyuukamura Haguro National Park resort.

The next around 7 AM we departed by bus from a stop in front of the hotel to Gassan climbing base — a wide parking lot. The hotel had provided us with a packed breakfast which we ate heartily at the resting place near the climbing base. Then we began the ascend to Gassan 2 hours after departing. Not so far we stopped by another resting place that sells omamori (Japanese charm). I kinda regretted I did not buy a cool-looking charm there that I had my eyes upon. Boy, I am still regretting it until now.

View from the parking lot, climbing base for Gas-san.
A resting area near parking lot.

The trail towards the peak of Gassan provides one of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen. From the wide-open glades with occasional pools of rainwater here and there to the blue sky and swirling clouds that encircle the mountain peaks — they all enriched the journey to the summit, providing endless amusement that makes us forget our fatigue.

Let’s protect the nature! Take only photos and leave only footprints!
Official entrance to Gassan shrine.
View from one of the hilltop. The rest area is so small, over yonder!

Around half to ten, we reached the third pit stop. At the time of our arrival, an old lady ran the place. It was very amusing that someone actually stays in such a remote place to sell food and drink to travelers. Of course, expect ‘mountain price’ as the nourishment there does not come cheap. Regardless it helps tremendously when you have run out of water or snacks during your hike.

Third resting area in Gassan.
A small crag overlooking the valley.
Swooping clouds like these are the usual view during the hike.

After a brief rest, we continued. For a while, crossing the ridge of a hill after another and again and again, the notion of reaching the shrine was unforeseeable. Fortunately, the favorable weather allowed for a smooth hike so that approximately before noon we reached the peak of Gassan. We cheered as we were eager to see the shrine.

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Gassan shrine. Small yet sacred.

The actual peak of Gassan is actually not where the shrine is located, but behind some rocks formation not so far. Since we were a bit tired we opted not to pursue going to the very peak. At around noon, we left for our third destination: Yudonosan. From the shrine, there is a small trail leading to the descent. From what I read it is not possible to go to the peak of Yudonosan as there is no trail at all going there, so we could only aim to go down towards the ‘shrine of rebirth’. Bear in mind that either Gassan and Yudonosan are not climbable during winter due to the dangerous amount of snow falling there. Summer might be the only best time to visit these mountains because the trail is pretty steep at some places and would trouble less-experienced hikers during bad weather.

A brief respite during the hike.

On the course to Yudonosan, we came to realize we were the only hikers that ventured into that direction. All the while we saw other people going down the slopes from Gassan, but after the 3-way junction that leads to the lift, the number of people started to decrease. We also noticed the clouds were coming down rather fast, which before we could even react it started to rain down from the sky. As we came prepared, we put on our raincoats and moved on, unhindered by the rather light rain.

The descent was more challenging due to the narrow path crisscrossing the occasional thick foliage of trees and bushes among the usual rocky scenery. Three hours later we arrived at the only rest area in Yudonosan‘s route, which consists only of a small, uninhabited rickety shack. From here there is another path that will take you to Shizu where there are camping ground and onsen. I was pretty tempted for the onsen, but down to Yudonosan must we go.

A valley that reminds me of Jurassic Park lol

As we made our way far and far into the descent, the rain began to get heavier. This was when it got as hard as it gets. The pouring rain combined with the narrow, downhill rocky slopes gave us extra difficulty level as the trail turned into an unending waterfall and mushy footing. I wish I could take pictures to show how severe it was, but I was not going to risk taking out beloved my camera in the middle of a precarious situation. We had to be super careful when stepping on the slippery water-ridden stones.

Rainwater flowing down the path.

Nearing the end of the descent, the trail went even steeper. There were sets of steel ladders which is only passable for one person taking turns. Going down was hard enough, but I could not imagine how much harder it is to go up from Yudonosan‘s side, as the abrupt change of elevation could deter some hikers. After the ladders came to another obstacle course — we would have to go through a passage where you have to hold on to a rope and abseiling to the bottom.

It was a slow and trying journey, but when finally we had the sight of the Yudonosan shrine complex before our eyes in the distance, we were thrilled to finish. At around 4 in the afternoon, we finally reached the foot of the mountain where the shrine lies. We were victorious. We have conquered all the three mountains (albeit going around Hagurosan can hardly be called hiking). My thought went straight for the foot onsen available inside the complex where we could relax for a while.

A small dam at the base of the mountain.
A small stream with shinenawa. Must be holy water..

The shrine at Yudonosan is considered as the holiest and therefore no photography is allowed inside the compound. I was okay with that. Being tired I just wanted to dip my feet at the onsen and perhaps buy an omamori.

However once again luck was not at our side. At the time the shrine was actually closing and we were told to immediately catch the last shuttle bus to the parking area (¥200 one way). If we were to miss that, we would have to spend another 20 minutes walking along the asphalt road. The last bus to Tsuruoka has been waiting for all the passengers in the parking area. I was not sure how could we go back to the city if we miss it. Perhaps hitchhiking?

Entrance to the holiest shrine in Dewa Sanzan,

On the way back to civilization, I felt that we have succeeded in challenging our bodies to the utmost limit. The descent took some toll on my legs, which were still sore until the week after. Still, it was a great experience to have and I would suggest hiking-lovers to try climbing these holy trinity mountains. Try to perform all the rituals at the shrines too for maximum religious effect, but remember to always be respectful to the customs of the shrine.

Until next hike, I am signing out.


Useful sites:

Dewa Sanzan Website (English), a cool website containing everything you want to know about Dewa Sanzan, run by KiwiYamabushi


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About the Author

Jerfareza Daviano

Jerfareza is a weekend freelance photographer based in Sendai, specializing in portrait photography, family & couple photography and travel photography among others. Should you wish to hire him you can do so by checking out his photo plan page.

He won grand prize in architecture category of Sendai Starlight Festival 2018 Photo Contest.

Visit his photo portfolio for articles about travel in Japan especially Tohoku area and photography related stuffs.