TIM BUNTING

KIWI YAMABUSHI

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山伏

The Autumn Leaves of Mount Taizo

キウイ

Best half-day hikes in Shonai (besides Haguro-san)

You can’t really blame Shonai’s lesser-known peaks for being, well, lesser-known. Shonai is home to not only one of Japan’s spiritual powerhouses in the Dewa Sanzan; Haguro-san, Gassan, and Yudono-san, but also the highest peak entirely in Tohoku that was itself a Dewa Sanzan peak in the past; Chokai-zan, Tohoku’s very own Dewa Fuji.

With such legendary peaks in your backyard, it’s hard to imagine looking much further. However, not doing so would be to your detriment. Besides these mountains, Shonai is home to some pretty powerful peaks.

Since I’ve climbed the majority of mountains in Shonai on the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata List, I thought I’d introduce you to my five favourite half-day hikes in Shonai, besides the big ones(!), in the hopes that you to try one, or all, of them!

The mountains appear in no particular order, and the only criteria is ‘can I start hiking in the morning, and still be back in time for lunch’. Although as we are dealing with mountains, you always need to have something to eat on you!

Now onto the list.

Maya-san on the Sekigawa Trail

Maya-san is the top peak on the Kinbo Shugen line of mountains packed with spectacular views, wicked wildlife, and buried yamabushi treasure. Most people climb Maya-san from the eastern Arasawa Trail in Asahi Village, but if you have the choice, don’t do that.

Although the Arasawa trail is more easily accessible from central Tsuruoka, it’s a tough trail with extremely steep areas and ladders. It’s much better to climb from either of the two trails on the western side: the Koesawa Trail, or the Sekigawa Trail.

Of these two, the Sekigawa Trail is the shorter and less steep, and still takes you past Nana-no-taki falls, the emergency hut, and along the striking ridges to the summit. Well worth the hike.

Taizo-san on the Mototazawa Trail

A short 20-minute drive from central Sakata, and you can be on one of my absolute favourite 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata, Taizo-san. One of the former trails between the Shonai and Mogami regions, Taizo-san lies to the south-east of Sakata right next to Kyogakura-yama and its distinctive trapezoid shape means it sticks out like a sore thumb.

As you can probably tell from the shape, Taizo-san follows a very gradual incline, with only one really steep section. The deep forests before the steep section are breathtaking, especially in autumn, but things really start getting interesting from there. After the matsu no torii (the pine tree torii gates), there is the Kobo shimizu freshwater spring, and a little further up lies Taizo-san’s truly eerie Naka-no-miya, inner sanctum.

Keep following the path up and in a few spots you get great views of Chokai-zan before arriving at the Oku-no-in shrine at the summit. Then, a little back-tracking and a short 2-minute walk later, and you’ll discover the Akaha lookout, one of the best places I have ever been to experience Japan’s autumn leaves.

Kyogakura-yama on the Ennoji Trail

Directly north of Taizo-san, and about the same amount of time from central Sakata, lies Kyogakura-yama, a small peak packed with places to explore. Kyogakura-yama is not a big mountain, and admittedly, it has countless stairs. That and the astonishing artifacts and Shugen training locations are why I liken Kyogakura-yama to Haguro-san.

For example, the Saru-watari, monkey’s crossing and Tainai-kuguri womb pass definitely tested training monks in the years gone. Add in the Zazen rock and the namesake of the mountain, its 1000-year-old collection of sutras in an earthenware pot, and you have a recipe for a pretty fun hike. Lastly, the spectacular views of Chokai-zan, the Shonai plains, and The Sea of Japan awaiting you at the summit only add to the magic.

Kyogakura-yama backs on to Junino-taki, the 12 falls, from which you can also climb. However, the real action happens from the Ennoji side, where you should hike from before hooking back around and checking out Juni-no-taki.

Kinbo-zan on the Yutagawa Trail

Most people climb Kinbo-zan from Shoryuji, or even the Oku-no-in. This is understandable as both are good routes. However, there is another trail on the Yutagawa side that combines a walk through the rice fields and tiny hamlets, before the hike begins proper.

Along the way, there is the tiny Kinbo bridge, and some great views of the villages in the middle of the mountain. Then of course there is the shrine at the summit, and the expansive views of Tsuruoka nearby. Once you’re done, you’re right there to enjoy a soak in Yutagawa’s onsen too!

Arakura-yama on the Yura Trail

Arakura-yama has to be one of the most underrated hikes in Shonai. Well, in order for something to be rated, you need to know it exists. The first time I tried climbing Arakura-yama, I had no idea where the trailhead was, even following the maps on the Yamagatayama website.

Thankfully, these two older ladies who had seemingly just come off the mountain pointed me in the right direction. And even still I got lost. There are no signposts! So just be careful when you go there.

When you do, though, I doubt you’ll be disappointed. The climb up Arakura-yama is similar to Taizo-san in that it’s very gradual with soft footing essentially the whole way. Then also like Taizo-san, the views along the way are second to none. If you’re able to climb when the mountain Sakura is in bloom, around the end of April, then you get views of the Sakura with Hakusan Island in the Port of Yura.

Keep following the mountain ridge up, and eventually, you’ll meet a service road that will take you to Arakura Jinja. There is a small red bridge over a pond here leading up the steps to the shrine itself, which is a fun little place to explore. Once there, it’s only about 10-15 minutes to the summit. Although there’s not much at the summit, just a clearing in the middle of the forest and a sign, there is a lookout on the way there from where the view of Chokai-zan is very swell indeed.

In Conclusion

The Shonai Region is more than just the Dewa Sanzan, past and present. If you’ve done the Dewa Sanzan and Chokai-zan, also try these mountains on for size. I just hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hi, I’m Tim Bunting AKA the Kiwi Yamabushi, a New Zealander who became a Yamabushi Ascetic in the Dewa Sanzan mountains of north Japan. I’m part of the Yamabushido team, and we host life-altering Yamabushi training on the Dewa Sanzan (website link). People come to us for the ultimate mindfulness experience, to reach the next level, or simply connect with nature and themselves.


I’m on a mission to summit all 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata Prefecture to spread the splendour of this fabulous location, and in dedication to all those who lost their lives out in nature, including my father.


On my daily blog I post thoughts of a practicing Yamabushi that I hope people can use to better themselves and live as fulfilling a life as possible.


Sign up to the weekly Mountains of Wisdom newsletter, follow me on social (Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Clubhouse, all @kiwiyamabushi), or send me an email via the link below to stay in touch.


Tim.

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