Climbing Three Holy Mountains of Dewa Sanzan

As of lately I have been addicted to hiking or outdoor activities, and Japan provides me with plenty places to do such. Out of all the mountains around Sendai, Dewa Sanzan (出羽三山) or also known as 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 Shinto religion.

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A torii that leads to the main shrine of Haguro-san.

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. In the end from combining information from a hiking blog and a Japan travel guide website, we made a rough plan on how to climb. Note: all travel information would be located at the end of the article, as always. However take note the trip is a bit costly.

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) Haguro-san (羽黒山) followed by Gas-san (月山) and then follow through to the last one, Yudono-san (湯殿山). Haguro-san symbolizes birth, Gas-san symbolizes death, and Yudono-san 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 express bus instead of train, because it is more direct and somehow the fare does not differ much with train. It cost us ¥3000 for the bus. As soon as we reached S-Mall in Tsuruoka, the last stop of the bus, we inquired information at the bus counter for the bus bound to Haguro-san. Bus to Haguro-san are 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 bus schedule from there.

Haguro-san is one hour away from Tsuruoka by bus, and by the time we alighted at the last stop we were already in Haguro-san shrine complex. This was supposed to be the end journey as we missed the stop in front of Ideha museum where the trail to Haguro-san 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.

Alas, as we reached Haguro-san 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 around 5:30PM. We did spend some time wandering around the trail, although not too far.

Moreover we had 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 reservation 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. It was slightly beyond our limited budget but the stay was worth it, as you can expect from a Japanese ryokan. We actually went out after dinner to visit the pagoda at night, hoping that there would be some kind of light-up so we can take night photos. Again, we were out of luck as the light-up is usually held only during weekend or national holiday. Make sure you come at the right time if you wish to view the pagoda at night. We stumbled around in the dark trying to do our best to take shots, but the lack of light really crippled our efforts, and so in defeat we went back to the hotel and slept.

The next around 7AM we departed by bus from a stop in front of the hotel to Gas-san climbing base — a wide parking lot. The hotel had provided us with packed breakfast which we ate heartily at the rest place near the climbing base. Then we began the ascend to Gas-san at 8:45AM. Not so far we stopped by another rest 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.

The trail towards the peak of Gas-san provides one of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen. From the wide-open glades with occasionally 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 forgetting our fatigue.

Around 10:20AM we reached the third rest place. 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 traveler. Of course, expect ‘mountain price’ as the nourishment there does not not come cheap. Regardless it helps tremendously when  you have run out of water or snacks during your 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 11:30AM we reached the peak of Gas-san. We cheered as we were eager to see the shrine.

The actual peak of Gas-san 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: Yudono-san. 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 Yudono-san 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 Gas-san and Yudono-san 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.

On the course to Yudono-san, 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 Gas-san, 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 Yudono-san‘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 Yudono-san must we go.

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Rainwater flowing down the path.

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 a 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 precarious situation. We had to be super careful when stepping on the slippery water-ridden stones.

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 Yudono-san‘s side, as the abrupt change of elevation could deter some hikers. After the ladders came 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 Yudono-san shrine complex before our eyes in the distance, we were thrilled to finish. At around 4:15PM 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 Haguro-san can hardly be called hiking). My thought went straight for the foot onsen available inside the complex where we could relax for a while.

The shrine at Yudono-san is considered as the most holy 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?

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Entrance to the holiest shrine in Dewa Sanzan, Yudono-san.

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.


Access information:

Dewa Sanzan area tourist guide: here and here (English)

 Bus Information  Price
Express bus from Sendai to Tsuruoka (Willer Express)  usually around ¥3000
Bus from Tsuruoka to Haguro-san complex (main shrine area)  ¥1180
Bus from Kyuukamura Haguro to Gas-san climbing base  ¥1470
Shuttle bus from Yudono-san entrance to main shrine (vice-versa)

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 ¥200
Bus from Yudono-san entrance to Tsuruoka (S-mall)  ¥1820

Accommodation information:

List of temple lodgings (Japanese)

Kyuukamura Haguro (Japanese)

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