Japan Heritage

Journey of Rebirth through Nature and Faith:
The Three Mountains of Dewa Begin with the 2,446 Stone Steps Surrounded by Cedar Trees More Than 300 Years Old

The Origin of “Journey of Rebirth”

The Three Mountains of Dewa (Dewa Sanzan) is the generic name for Mt. Haguro (414 meters or 1,358 feet), Mt. Gassan (1,984 meters or 6,509 feet), and Mt. Yudono (1,504 meters or 4,934 feet), rising in the center of Yamagata Prefecture. The mountains are known for their elegantly continuous ridgelines, forming the dominant peak of Mt. Gassan along with lower Mt. Yudono and Mt. Haguro.
It is said that about 1,400 years ago, the son of Emperor Sushun, Prince Hachiko opened Mt. Haguro, which later became a central site of the shugendo practice. Shugendo is a very unique Japanese mountain worship, which was born by combining Buddhism and Tantrism based on nature worship.
The essence of Haguro shugendo is the way they liken Mt. Haguro to a place to pray for happiness of this moment (present), Mt. Gassan to a place to pray for a peaceful death and comfort after death (past), and Mt. Yudono to a place to pray for reincarnation (future). The pilgrimage of shugendo, after which you can be reborn as a new soul while you are alive, widely spread among the common people during the Edo period as a “journey of rebirth” to tour the present, the past, and the future. (In Haguro shugendo, the journey is particularly called “sankan sando no gyo.”)

The Mountain Representing the Present World – Mt. Haguro

It is said that Prince Hachiko enshrined in Mt. Haguro the Buddha (Shokanzeon-bosatsu) who saves people living in the present world. The mountain is the lowest of the Three Mountains of Dewa and located the nearest to a village. It has been thought that the mountain brings people the grace of the present world. Thus, it is called “the mountain representing the present world.”
The entrance to Mt. Haguro, the path of about 2 kilometers, or 1.2 miles, from the Zuishin Gate to the mountaintop, consists of 2,446 stone steps, which outnumber many other stone stairs in Japan. Along the path, 300 to 500-year-old Japanese cedar trees stand on both sides in continuity, as if they were competing with each other for their heights and diameters. Advancing on the path, you first find Jiji-sugi, a Japanese cedar tree more than 1,000 years old, which has been watching people since the mountain was first opened. You will also find the Five-storied Pagoda made of unfinished wood, without coloring. These two dignified figures, which have endured the long years of wind and snow, capture the heart of those who see them. Surrounded by the refreshing air and silence, your body and mind are washed as you take each step on the stone stairs, allowing you to reflect on yourself deeply. Located on the mountaintop, the Sanjin Gosaiden Shrine has a thatched roof 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) thick so that it will bear the weight of heavy snow. Here the sacred gods of Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono, which are inaccessible during the winter because of deep snow, are enshrined together with the sacred god of Mt. Haguro. At this shrine, people pin their hopes for a peaceful nation, a bountiful harvest, and wish fulfillment, among others, in the present world, and continue the pilgrimage to Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono for their successful “journey of rebirth.”

The Mountain Representing the Past World – Mt. Gassan

Since ancient times, this region has fostered a belief that ancestor spirits climb towering mountains. Mt. Gassan, with its beautiful shape standing out most prominently among the Three Mountains of Dewa, is worshiped as “a mountain where ancestor spirits rest in peace.” In the Haguro shugendo, the world after death is considered to be in the past, and thus the mountain is called “the mountain representing the past world.”
Mt. Gassan has been thought to be the land of Perfect Bliss for Amitabha, for which the 8th station of the mountain, where a boggy area extends, is called “Midagahara”, or the field of Amitabha. Here you find alpine plants profusely in bloom and feel the cold air running from the perpetual snow covering the slope. Beyond the 8th station, overcoming the steep slope called “gyoja-gaeshi” (meaning a place that refuses ascetics) and craggy areas, you finally reach the Gassan Shrine on the summit, in which Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto, the moon god in Shinto, is enshrined. Here, you will pray for peaceful life after death. On a sunny day, when the lower world is blocked by a sea of clouds under the eyes, a brilliant halo may unexpectedly appear at the summit of Mt. Gassan, like the “Descent of the Amitabha Trinity.” Those who witness this mysterious phenomenon are more convinced that Mt. Gassan is the mountain of the past.

The Mountain Representing the Future World – Mt. Yudono

Since ancient times, Mt. Yudono has been said to be a place which one should not step. During the period of Shinbutsu-shugo (syncretism of kami and buddhas), people considered Vairocana, a celestial buddha symbolic of eternal life and of nature’s vitality, as well as Oyamatsumi, a god of mountains who gives birth to everything, as the buddha and the god of Mt. Yudono, thus the mountain is called “the mountain representing the future world.” At the Yakushi-dake peak, located on the side of Mt. Yudono, there is a brown megalith that spouts hot water. People compare this megalith to the mystery of the female giving birth to a new life, and worship the rock as the sacred body of Mt. Yudono.
Visitors to this shrine (mountain) go barefoot to come in contact with the sacred body in the middle of great nature and accept the heat of the earth through their palms and soles into their body as the energy of the earth. Mt. Yudono is also a site of shugendo training, in which tough discipline “aragyo”, including standing under a waterfall and stream climbing, is performed, taking advantage of the characteristic wild nature, such as bare rocks created as a result of rockfall on the slopes and waterfalls of various sizes studded throughout the mountain. The hard training is said to be representing the pains of childbirth. Mt. Yudono definitely lets visitors feel strongly the awe of nature and its overwhelming vitality, driving them to pray for rebirth on this mountain.

“Journey of Rebirth” – A Tradition Still Alive in People

Visitors to the Three Mountains of Dewa used to take either the land route called “Rokujuri-goe Kaido” (meaning “60-Chinese mile way”), connecting the inland and the coastal area of Yamagata Prefecture, or transportation on the Mogami River, to start climbing from one of the entrances called “Happo Nanakuchi,” or seven entrances in the eight directions, dotted around the three mountains. It is said that in the Edo period, the line of pilgrims, wearing sedge-woven hats and white garments (the costume of the dead), became so long that it looked like a wave of hats. Along the roads, and around the checkpoints and the mountain entrances, post towns were formed with temples and diners, allowing local residents to make a living by getting pilgrims ready for the journey and treating them.
Of all the post towns, the Toge area, located on the foot of Mt. Haguro, was particularly crowded with pilgrims with over 300 shukubo inns in business in the Edo period, some of which are still run by yamabushi to welcome those who visit the mountains. Yamabushi guide visitors in the mountains in the summer and travel across eastern Japan in the winter to deliver talismans called “ofuda” issued by the shrines of the Three Mountains of Dewa. These activities have been practiced since the Edo period as part of their mission to attract more visitors to the mountains.
One can find the strong association between local people’s daily lives and the mountain worship in various aspects, including tow ropes, used in the “grand torch event” of the Shorei-sai Festival of Mt. Haguro, being hung under the eaves of shukubo inns and many residences to ward off evil spirits.
Growing up in the Toge area, locals feel close to and are familiar with yamabushi, and the faith in the Three Mountains of Dewa, through the experience of serving for the festivals held in Mt. Haguro, including the Shorei-sai Festival, as well as directly seeing the adults who are at their devotions and who take visitors around to show the three mountains. During adolescence, many young men repeat the training to become yamabushi called “mine-iri” and help people to carry out their “journey of rebirth” as yamabushi.
Shukubo inns serve shojin cuisine, which is cooked with plenty of mountain vegetables harvested locally, to purify travelers’ bodies and assist them in getting in shape. Each dish is named after a place related to the mountain worship of the Three Mountains of Dewa, such as “Dewa Hakusan Island” (sesame tofu), “Mt. Gassan Lean-to” (deep-fried and stewed Gassan bamboo shoots), and “Bridge over the Harai River” (butterbur parched with oil), allowing them to experience the gastronomy fostered by yamabushi. Developed as part of the local gastronomy, the recipes of shojin cuisine are also popular as family meals.

In this way, the “journey of rebirth,” touring the Three Mountains of Dewa, has been sustained by the people living in the area with the faith in the Three Mountains of Dewa deeply rooted in their daily living, and is still practiced beyond hundreds of years of its history. This journey, through which you put yourself in nature to feel the pneuma of and to have awe of nature, physically enhances those who visit the mountains and gives them refreshed vitality for tomorrow.