Mysteries of Natural Worship on the Three Mountains of Dewa

What’s Special about the Three Mountains of Dewa?

Located in central Yamagata Prefecture, the Three Mountains of Dewa are considered one of the holiest places in Shugendo asceticism’s 1400-year history. In simple terms, Shugendo is a consolidation of Shinto natural worship and various sects of Buddhism unique to Japan. The mystical “Yamabushi” mountain people who trained here were perhaps the truest, and most rigorously dedicated religious figures in Japanese history. During the Edo period (1603-1867), regular folks would make the trip to the Three Mountains of Dewa on a journey of spiritual rebirth. In this incredibly stressful modern world, a trip to this holy land could do you a world of good.

How to Worship on the Three Mountains of Dewa

Now, let us introduce a beginner’s guide to spiritual rebirth on the Three Mountains of Dewa. While it’s possible to visit one mountain, if you spend just two nights and three days during the summer you can visit all three. On the first day, stay at Hagurosan Saikan (introduced further down) at the peak of Mt. Haguro. The next day you’ll visit Mt. Gassan, and finally Mt. Yudono.

The journey begins on Mt. Haguro. From JR Tsuruoka station, take the bus to Zuishin-mon Gate, the entranceway of Mt. Haguro. At an altitude of 414m (1358 ft) you’ll find the lowest-lying village among the three mountains – in short, the closest place to the real world below. Here you pray for happiness your present life.

From Zuishin-mon Gate to the Mt. Haguro’s peak is a stone stairway of 2446 steps, flanked by cedars aged 300-500 years old. Soon after you start your ascent you’ll encounter a 1000-year old cedar and one of Japan’s most fascinating national treasures – a five-storied wooden pagoda, built directly out of the giant tree that stood there. Here, worshippers make wishes for their earthly lives.

Lush green surroundings along Mt. Haguro's 2446-step stone stairway
Lush green surroundings along Mt. Haguro’s 2446-step stone stairway
A five-storied pagoda built directly out of a huge cedar tree
A five-storied pagoda built directly out of a huge cedar tree ※Five-storied Pagoda, Hagurosan / Photo by Crown of Lenten rose
Thick thatched roof of a building at Dewa Sanzan Shrine
Thick thatched roof of a building at Dewa Sanzan Shrine

Next on your spiritual tour is Mt. Gassan. As the highest of the Three Mountains of Dewa – thus the furthest from the world below – Mt. Gassan represents the afterlife. One of the biggest draws of this mountain are the over 100 varieties of alpine vegetation found around the eighth station in the Midagahara district. To get to the eighth station, take the bus approximately 90 minutes from JR Tsuruoka station, followed by a three-hour walk along the Mokudo and Iwaba mountain trails. Finally, you’ll reach Gassan Shrine at Mt. Gassan’s peak.
Note: Mt. Gassan can only be climbed in the summer season.

Gassan Shrine at the peak of Mt. Gassan
Gassan Shrine at the peak of Mt. Gassan
Colorful alpine vegetation along a trail up Mt. Gassan
Colorful alpine vegetation along a trail up Mt. Gassan

Gassan Shrine

Access period: July 1st to September 15

Entrance fee: ¥500

The final stop on your journey brings you to the 1504m (4934 ft.) high Mt. Yudono, known as a place of regeneration. Partway up the mountain you will arrive at Yudonosan Shrine. Aside from the shrine’s torii gate, there are no other buildings on site. People come here to worship the gods that dwell in copper-colored crags from which pure waters boil forth.

The massive torii at Yudonosan Shrine
The massive torii at Yudonosan Shrine
At a waterfall on Mt. Yudono, a worshipper recites sutras under the falls' thundering waters as part of ascetic training
At a waterfall on Mt. Yudono, a worshipper recites sutras under the falls’ thundering waters as part of ascetic training

Yudonosan Shrine

Access period: Late April to early November

Entrance fee: ¥500

Eat Like a Monk

During your mountain pilgrimage, why not partake in traditional vegetarian cuisine? “Shojin ryori” (“shojin” meaning devotion and “ryori” meaning food) is an important facet of Buddhist teachings. This cuisine avoids the sensations of killing – whether animal butchery or harvesting root vegetables which kills the plant.

You can sample this unique cuisine at Mt. Haguro Sanrojo Saikan priests’ retreat at the mountain’s peak. Popular destinations among pilgrims during the Edo era were the temple guesthouses in the Toge village district. The aforementioned yamabushi worshippers would serve shojin ryori to visitors. Today, 30 such guest houses still stand, ready to welcome weary pilgrims such as yourself. With the spirituality, hospitality and natural splendor of the Three Mountains of Dewa, your journey of spiritual rebirth is ready to begin.

Traditional vegetarian cuisine
Traditional vegetarian cuisine