Mountains can evoke images of mystery and intrigue. In Japan, often mountains are also sacred or associated with religious practices. Three sacred mountains in northern Japan, known as the Dewa Sanzan, are the home of shugendo, a syncretic form of asceticism practiced since the seventh century. The religious observances have close associations with historical trade routes, travelers and traditional craft goods as well.
By going to the Dewa region (Dewa is the pre-industrial name for modern-day Yamagata Prefecture), visitors can experience the mysterious atmosphere of the deeply forested mountainsides, gaining an appreciation for the enlightenment of the ascetic experience. But they can also enjoy luxurious hot springs, delicious local cuisine, and traditional entertainment that evokes a by-gone era.
Modern would-be visitors to the area can learn more about this fascinating area on the Japan Heritage Official Site. Japan Heritage is a designation by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs recognizing the historically unique contribution of communities or practices. The Japan Heritage website provides background information to inspire travelers and help them prepare to enjoy these distinctive elements of Japan for themselves.
Yamabushi Asceticism in the Mountains
The three sacred mountains of Mt Haguro, Mt Gassan and Mt Yudono represent this life, the afterlife, and rebirth. With their towering trees, lush forests, and tumbling waterfalls, they would be appealing to both avid and casual hikers even without their spiritual connection. Yet it is the experience of walking in the footsteps of the thousands who have tread here over the centuries, imbued with the spirits of the gods believed to inhabit the mountains, that many find to be the true reward of a visit.
Traditional pilgrims, dressed in white garb, were known as Yamabushi. With special shime necklaces that separate the wearers’ spiritual journey from the physical world around them, pilgrims walked trails through the mountains, senses heightened by their surroundings.
Today, it is possible for dedicated tourists to share in this experience, guided by experienced Yamabushi who provide context and meaning to the journey. Sometimes part of the pilgrimage trail is traversed at night, adding a completely different sensory dimension.
Visitors can also experience shukubo, rustic inns that cater to shugendo pilgrims, providing comfortable but basic accommodation together with vegetarian meals prepared from locally harvested ingredients, including Japan’s famous sansai (mountain vegetables), and locally made condiments.
Buddhist monk Ennin (794AD-864AD), who, after studying in China, traveled widely in Japan to spread Buddhism across the country, founded Risshakuji, a mountainside temple east of the Dewa Sanzan mountains.
Also known as Yamadera, this holy place was popularized for Japanese visitors by the 17th century poet and travel writer Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), who was touched more by the sounds than the sights of the mountainside, writing: "Ah, the silence - sinking into the rocks - the voice of the cicada."
Yamadera remains popular with both casual tourists and serious pilgrims who reach the foot of the mountain by train and ascend a path of over a thousand gradual steps to the temple and a lookout providing stunning views of the expansive valley below accompanied, in summer, by cicada song.
The Legacy of Historical Trade Routes
At the same time as Ennin was founding Yamadera, he is also believed to have observed the ability of the yellow safflowers native to this region to release color, making it a useful source of natural red dye for cloth. He encouraged cultivation of safflowers and production of the dye, which was extremely popular. Cakes of dye became a major item for trade across the Japanese archipelago, especially through the coastal port city of Sakata, northwest of the Dewa Sanzan.
Modern Sakata has preserved some elements of its historical trading roots, most especially as they relate to the lives of the merchants and traders who passed through. At the Somaro Maiko Tea House, where traders were once entertained by maiko and geiko performers, modern visitors can enjoy the same kinds of performances as those people of the past, relaxing to the music, song and dance. A special bento box lunch, stuffed with seafood and other local treats, is served during the performance, as well.
For travelers who prefer pampering over the spiritual path (or perhaps want to sample both), Ginzan Onsen, near Yamagata’s border with Miyagi Prefecture, may be just the ticket. The hot springs town, bisected by the fast-flowing Ginzan River, has preserved its Taisho Period (1912-1926) atmosphere, while often updating and upgrading the ryokan facilities themselves to provide a perfect blend of past and present.
At Ginzan Onsen, visitors can stroll the town in a cotton yukata robe after a long soak in piping hot water, perhaps stopping to soak their feet in one of the public foot baths along the roads. From dusk into the evening hours the town sparkles with period gas lighting. Later, relax over drinks or a meal of Japanese/Western fusion cuisine featuring Yamagata specialties.
The Japan Heritage Official Site provides further details and even sample itineraries to ensure that a traveler’s encounter with these distinct elements of Japan’s history and culture are as full and rich as the history and culture themselves.
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