By Katsuo Kokaji / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterTSURUOKA, Yamagata — It’s gotten harder for me to go up stairs since I reached my mid-50s. My legs usually feel heavy as I climb the 47 steps at a station on my way to the office.
Yet somehow I recently found myself climbing 2,446 steps on a path on Mt. Haguro, feeling light as I went up the stairs.
Mt. Haguro in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, is one of the three mountains of the Dewa pilgrimage in the prefecture. The stone stairway leads to a shrine at the top of the mountain, and about 600 large Japanese cedar trees that are 350 to 500 years old densely line both sides of the 1.7-kilometer-long trek.
Thinking about how the mountain is a holy place for Shugendo mountain asceticism, I felt as if its spiritual power was pushing me forward. I felt good even as my breathing got labored.
The path to the shrine starts from a gate called Zuishinmon. After I crossed a red bridge, the first thing that surprised me was the enormous size of a cedar tree that stretches straight up to the sky. It’s called Jiji-sugi, meaning grandpa cedar tree. Ten meters in circumference, the tree is said to be more than 1,000 years old.
There also used to be a Baba-sugi tree, or grandma cedar, but it was lost in a storm in 1902.
“It’s said that the surviving tree, which is now called Jiji-sugi, is actually the grandma tree because the one that fell down was fatter than the one that remains,” said Nakamine Watanabe, a yamabushi mountain priest who accompanied me as a guide. The cedar tree was designated as a natural treasure under the name Jiji-sugi for unclear reasons.
But no matter what the 1,000-year-old tree is named, it remains massive and steady.
The path continues to a five-story pagoda, a national treasure that is a picturesque plain wooden structure.
There are steep stone stairways after passing the pagoda. The path of stone steps — which is as straight as a cedar tree — continues as if it were reaching to the sky.
I just concentrated on going up the steps. When I reached a gentle slope, I thought that was the end of all the steps, but actually it was just the end of the Ichinosaka first flight. There are two more — the Ninosaka second flight and the Sannosaka third.
I thought that the path to the shrine has an atmosphere — with the cedar trees and stone stairways that extend upward — that is completely different from the ordinary world below. It made me feel I could handle all sorts of feelings that were twisted up in my heart and start thinking about things straightforwardly.
After a while, I noticed that I had finished climbing Sannosaka. I arrived at the summit of Mt. Haguro where the Sanjin Gosaiden main shrine building stands. The building enshrines the three deities of Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono — collectively called Dewa Sanzan, meaning the three mountains of Dewa.
You need to climb the 2,446 steps in order to be able to face the deities with a fresh mind, I thought.
The tour of Dewa Sanzan is called “a journey of rebirth.” Mt. Haguro represents the present, Mt. Gassan the past, and Mt. Yudono the future. It is said that people who pray for happiness in this life, peace after death, and rebirth, and visit all three mountains, will have their souls reborn. However, it’s not easy to visit all three.
At Shozenin Koganedo temple at Mt. Haguro’s temple town, Buddhist statues called Dewa Sanzan Rittai Mandala (the sculpture mandala of the three mountains of Dewa) are enshrined to reproduce the Sanzan pilgrimage. Visiting the temple buildings and paying respects to a tathagata at the Otake Dainichi-do hall in the precinct is seen as the equivalent of visiting the three Dewa mountains.
Even in a small hall, visitors can take a journey if they are so inclined.
Of course, it’s not easy to be reborn. But when I thought at the train station about the straight cedar trees and the stone steps on the stairs, my tired legs felt a little lighter.
In commemoration of last year’s 200th anniversary of the reconstruction of the Sanjin Gosaiden main shrine at Mt. Haguro, visitors can see the inside of the five-storied pagoda for the first time in 150 years.
The hidden Buddhist statues of Haguro Sansho Daigongen (the three Buddha and Buddhist saint statues of Mt. Haguro) also are exhibited at the Gishiki-den ceremony hall on the top of the mountain. Both are open to the public through Nov. 30.
Visitors can climb the stone steps of Mt. Haguro freely. The Kyukamura Shonaihaguro hotel provides its guests with a self-guided tour service for the stone stairway. The shuttle bus leaves at 9 a.m. daily. Reservations are required. For information, call (0235) 62-4270.
The Saikan inn located on the left side of Sannosaka on Mt. Haguro was originally a place where yamabushi mountain priests engaged in meditative purification. Today, ordinary people can stay and eat there.
The vegetarian shojin ryori food served is what yamabushi used to eat during their training. At first, they ate raw edible wild plants collected on the mountains but eventually developed techniques for improving the taste and preserving food that are still used today.
Shojin Gozen (¥3,240) consists of 10 kinds of dishes, including sesame tofu with sauce and boiled wild plants with rice and miso soup. The menu changes depending on the season. The chef said: “It’s meaningful to eat what’s harvested in the mountains. We want people to consume edible wild plants with the spirits of the mountain.” The wild vegetables were well seasoned and went well with rice.
Reservations must be made at least a day in advance.
The Takenotsuyu sake brewery in Haguro, Tsuruoka, was established in 1858, and its predecessor was one of the sake breweries that shugen mountain ascetics of Mt. Haguro used for annual events. In 2002, the brewery succeeded in extracting water from Mt. Gassan 300 meters below its premises.
Only this water is used to brew sake. Junmai Daiginjo Hagurosan, priced at ¥2,000, is sake made from local rice and yeast. With few ingredients that result in strange flavors, its clear tone tastes just like the spirit of Mt. Haguro.
Access: It takes two hours from Tokyo Station to Niigata Station by Joetsu Shinkansen. Transfer to the limited express at Niigata Station. It takes less than two hours to Tsuruoka Station. From Tsuruoka Station, it’s an about 30-minute bus ride to Zuishinmon-mae at Mt. Haguro.Speech