Footsteps of the Yamabushi

Hailing from a warmer country where there is no snow, we decided to make the most of the winter and head to the 5-feet-heavy-snow zone of Mt. Haguro in Yamagata Prefecture. Our plan was to explore Mt. Haguro, Sanjin Gosaiden Shrine, have Buddhist vegetarian cuisine at ‘Saikan’ and explore Tsuruoka City. Our entire trip was to take place in the snowy mountains. Luckily though, Japan’s amazing transportation system allows even those fresh-off-the-boat to navigate their way to just about anywhere! Nonetheless, to keep everything running smoothly, we acquired the services of Sunrise tours. We embarked upon the first part of our journey to Tsuruoka in the early morning.  The adventure that followed was absolutely amazing! How do I even begin to describe what it’s like to travel to Yamagata Prefecture?

Everything is simply amazing.

Every moment is filled with utter delight.

It’s not just the destination but the magical journey…so let’s get started!

Traveling through the beautiful snow-capped mountains of Yamagata, we finally reached Tsuruoka City within around 3 hours. Our guide was already waiting for us at the S-Mall where our bus pulled in. From there we drove to Mount Haguro’s Ideha Cultural Museum. As we drove to the museum, there were snowplows everywhere, busy making way through the snow for the other vehicles on the roads. The Ideha museum is one of the leading cultural facilities of Haguro Town.  It was built around eleven years ago to house various cultural artefacts of the Dewa Sanzan area. ‘Dewa Sanzan’ (出羽三山) refers to the three holy mountains of Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono. This time we only had time to visit Mount Haguro. The Ideha Museum has displays and features introducing Dewa Sanzan culture such as films, exhibitions and lectures. At the museum, a Yamabushi priest (a mountain priest of the ‘Shungendo’ religion) briefed us about their culture, the Dewa Sanzan area, in particular about the Five-Story Pagoda that is situated about 20 minutes from the museum. The ‘Goju-to’ (Five-story) Pagoda is a recognised national treasure of Japan. We also had the chance to wear the special white garments and headdress traditionally worn by Yamabushi priests when performing their ascetic practice.

After the initial briefing, we decided to visit the Goju-to Pagoda. We changed our shoes and were handed a pair of ski poles to help us walk through the heavy snow before we began our trek towards the pagoda, following behind our Yamabushi guide. If I had to choose one memory of the trip that I will cling to for the rest of my life, it would undoubtedly be trekking from the Ideha Cultural Museum at the base of Mount Haguro to the five-story pagoda. The trek was by far one of the most alluring experiences I have ever had. You descend from the Museum through a Cedar Forest, down a flight of stone steps in between the trees to reach the five-story pagoda. The valley and the waterfall along the trail among the tall cedar trees create an absolutely mesmerizing environment. On a cold February day, we were the only foreign tourists there. The calmness and serenity of the trek is infectious. The sound of the babbling river beneath the blanket of ice is music to the ears. After hiking for a few minutes, we stumbled upon the pagoda – the most magical of places. The feeling there was one of complete bliss and tranquility. All the cedars surrounding the tall pagoda, make for quite a sight. Every history enthusiast that visits Tsuruoka simply cannot miss the opportunity to pay homage to this sacred place – the oldest pagoda in the Tohoku region! Though the return path was steep, we somehow managed to get back in around 20 minutes. For fitness freaks, this part of the trek is a cakewalk. In summer, you can also opt to keep climbing up over 2000 stone steps to reach the shrine at the peak of the mountain.

Upon getting back to the museum, we returned our ascetic garments, though we kept our snow shoes and ski poles for the next part of the adventure. From the museum, we retreated to the comfort of our van and started our journey towards the top of the mount Haguro. We reached it in around 40 minutes, thanks to our trusty van. At the top of Mount Haguro, one can really get a sense of standing at the edge of the world. Haguro is one of the mountains of Dewa Sanzan, which is the combination of three sacred mountains of Mount Haguro, Mount Gossan and Mount Yudono. If you’re searching for a chance to refresh your mind, body and soul, a pilgrimage to the Dewa Sanzan in Tsuruoka might be in order. Visiting these mountains in person is something truly breathtaking.

Mt. Haguro’s main shrine holds deities from all three of the Dewa Sanzan shrines, which many consider to make it the most important of the three. The main building ‘Sanjin Gosaiden’ features the thickest thatched roof in Japan – over two meters thick! Also at the summit is the Dewa Sanzan Historical Museum containing information on the shrines in Japanese, along with some art and artifacts. We explored the Sanjin Gosaiden, the museum and temple inside the building. By that time, it was already 2 o’clock. We were super hungry. So, we walked to a nearby lodging called ‘Saikan’. At Saikan, we were served Buddhist vegetarian cuisine prepared mainly with wild mountain vegetables.

The secrets of Buddhist vegetarian cuisine are handed down through the generations of families living around Mount Haguro. This cuisine was also exhibited at Expo 2015 in Milano, Italy. It’s the best of its kind anywhere in the world. The taste was simply superb! This cuisine is made according to the unique customs of Dewa using seasonal mountain vegetables and bamboo shoots from the foothills as ingredients. After the meal, we spent a couple more hours mountaineering, exploring natural streams of fresh drinkable water.

As we got caught up in our exploration the time was getting late, as we had another reservation at “Naa”, another organic food restaurant. So, we had to reluctantly drag ourselves from this beautiful place.  The specialty of ‘Naa’ is that all of the meat, vegetables and ingredients are completely organic. No preservatives of any kind of are used in growing them. The owner of the restaurant Mr. Onodera Norimasa grows all of the vegetables in his own private fields.  It is a restaurant where you can savor the idyllic and rustic taste of Japanese home-cooking. We were again served dozens of items for dinner! We also participated in a bit of vegetable harvesting in the field. As we left, Mr. Onodera gave us some super fresh Daikon to take home with us. It was almost 7 o’clock in the evening when we finally returned to S-Mall of Tsuruoka City. The bus arrived right on time. Within 3 hours, we were back in Sendai.

Written by Asad Ali, Pakistan

ACCESS


Ideha Cultural Museum

The tourist centre of the Dewasanzan area, introducing the culture and history of mountain worship. Yamabushi guides/ experiences can be reserved here.

Price: Ideha tourist guide 5-storey pagoda course, 2500 yen

Available times: 9:00~16:30、(December – March 9:30~16:00)

Holidays: Tuesdays, New Year period (remain open through July-August and Golden Week)

Phone: 0235-62-4727

Homepage (English): http://hagurokanko.jp/en/history/ideha-cultural-museum.html

Ideha Cultural Museum

Useful information about bus lines running between Tsuruoka and attractions in the Mt. Haguro area: http://www.shonaikotsu.jp/english/sp/tourism/haguro.html

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