Mount Haguro

Home of Dewa Sanzan’s Yamabushi

By Alena Eckelmann    - 4 min read

Mount Haguro is considered sacred by followers of Japan’s Shinto religion and of Shugendo, an ancient Japanese tradition of mountain worship whose practitioners are commonly known as yamabushi (those who lie in the mountains). Taking their faith very seriously, they come every year on a pilgrimage to worship their deities.

In the summer, visitors with touristic intentions might run into groups of pilgrims clothed in white from top to toe, and led by yamabushi priests whose attire is a rather ancient looking robe. The mysterious sound of a conch shell, masterly blown by the priests, announces their passing.

You might want to try and extract a decent melody from this unlikely instrument yourself at the Ideha Cultural Museum. It is located in Toge Village on foot of Mount Haguro where you can learn all about the history and culture of Dewa Sanzan’s yamabushi.

Mount Haguro is one of three mountains that make up Dewa Sanzan, “the three sacred mountains of Dewa”, as this area in present-day Yamagata Prefecture was called until the late 19th century. The other two mountains, Mount Gassan (1,984m) and Mount Yudono (1,500m), are located in the vicinity and Japanese pilgrims come in droves to venerate the kami-sama (deities) of these mountains.

It is said that Dewa Sanzan was opened as a religious center in 593 by Prince Hachiko, the son of then Emperor Sushun.

Traditionally, worshippers went first to Mount Haguro before making their way to Mount Gassan and finally to Mount Yudono. The latter two are covered in snow for most part of the year (mid October to June) and hence inaccessible to the pilgrims’ and visitors’ cohorts.

Hence, practical like the Japanese are, they established a shrine on Mount Haguro, which is accessible all-year-round. It serves as place of worship for the deities of all three mountains.

This shrine is the Sanjin Gosaiden, the largest wooden building with a thatched roof in Japan and another two-starred treasure that is featured in the Michelin Green Guide Japan.

The present structure is from 1818 but its history is reaching much further back in time. Looking at the impressive over two meters thick thatched roof, you don’t want to imagine the amount of labor that goes into repairing it.

On top of Mount Haguro there are a number of temples and shrines, although this is said to be a shrine complex. It just shows that Buddhism and Shinto were entwined before the two religions were forcefully separated in Japan’s Meiji Restoration, the events that restored imperial rule to Japan in 1868 and that heralded the begin of a new era in Japan.

The trail up the mountain starts after you pass through a torii gate near the Ideha Cultural Museum. Actually the trail first descends into a valley where you will find a small waterfall, Suga-no-taki, and a shrine near a red-lacquered bridge, called Shinkyo, or God’s Bridge. Pilgrims perform purification here before they walk across the bridge which marks the entrance to the sacred precinct of Mount Haguro.

A short walk will bring you to a centuries-old wooden pagoda and nearby you will also find a cedar that is said to be 1,400 years old. It is marked by a sacred rope. Actually there were two of them and they were thought of as a “couple” but one was destroyed by lightning. The remaining ancient cedar stands proud among its younger cousins that are “only” a few hundred years old. In any case, all of these cedars are older than we will ever get.

Walking in the forest of these old huge cedars makes you feel humble and small.

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Alena Eckelmann

Alena Eckelmann @alena.eckelmann

Born East of the Wall and South of Berlin, I am celebrating my 15th year anniversary in Japan in May 2020, the country that I call home now. I lived in crazy Tokyo for 6 years and since 2011 I call the beautiful Kii Peninsula (Kumano, Koyasan and Yoshinoyama) my home.I have been a JapanTravel Partner since the conception of the platform in 2011! In Tokyo I worked in market research at AIP Corporation and in business education at JMEC. For the last 10 years I have been a guide for foreign visitors at Venture Japan, on top of being a Freelance Writer and a Business Researcher.  Apart from work, I trained at the Yoshinkan Aikido Dojo and at the Oedo Sukeroku Taiko Dojo for several years each, and I ran the 1st Tokyo Marathon and enjoyed cycling around Tokyo. During the last 10 years I am working with local authorities to improve their hospitality to foreign visitors and I have participated in many monitors as a media representative.  My current interest is in Japanese nature and spirituality. I love spending time in the forest and mountains, and I love visiting temples and shrines.   I am a licensed guide for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails  and for Koyasan, the Buddhist monastery, in addition to being a practitioner and licensed guide for Forest Therapy (Shinrin Therapy).  As a guide for walking tours, I have taken visitors to walk the Kumano Kodo trails, the Nakasendo trail and the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage trail.  Being grounded during this COVID-19 crisis, I enjoy gardening, baking bread in my new Japanese bread-maker and going for walks around 'my' village.  Take care, keep well, stay safe! 

Join the discussion

Andrew C. 3 years ago
Wouter Thielen 8 years ago
I saw an ad hanging in the metro today about Mount Haguro. It commented that it is worldly renowned as a sacred place, and that it has earned 3 Michelin stars in the Michelin Guide of Japan. The photos look very impressive indeed, and I would love to go there sometime!