The tallest Dewa Sanzan peak with a thriving Haguro Shugendo Yamabushi culture.
The belief of the tallest Dewa Sanzan peak as the resting place of our souls, the sheer devotion of the millions who have paid their respects to lost loved ones there while praying for their own safe journey, and the peak’s resemblance to the other realm have all given Gassan a reputation as the mountain of death.
月山 | がっさん
Gassan (Mt. Gassan, 月山, がっさん) is a 1984m (6509 ft.) peak in the Murayama and Shonai regions of Yamagata prefecture. Gassan is best climbed from mid-June to mid-October. Gassan is a level 3 in terms of physical demand, which means it is moderate to hike, has a A technical grade, which means it requires little expertise, and you want to allow at least 5 hours for a climb.
3 (relatively difficult)
Ubasawa Trail (6 hours return), Eighth Station Trail (6 hours return), Yudono-san Trail (8 hours return), Hijiori Onsen Trail (2 days return)
Best time to climb
July to October
Day trip possible?
Minimum Time Required
6 hours minimum from Ubasawa or the 8th Station
Gassan (Mt. Gassan) is simultaneously one of the most beautiful, and most harrowing mountains of Tohoku, let alone Japan. Symbolising the Pure Land created by Amitābha Buddha, the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life and principal Buddha in Pure Land Buddhism, and at the same time the Shinto Kami (deity) of the night and the moon, Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto (abbreviated to Tsukuyomi, sometimes read Tsukiyomi), Gassan is believed to be our souls’ destination when we pass on to the other world.
For millennia, generations have flocked to the Dewa Sanzan’s tallest peak to show their appreciation to the ancestors and pray for their own safe journey into the next world. Not to mention, the alpine environment of Gassan is eerily similar to the heaven depicted in Hollywood movies; picture hundreds of metres of solid snow and thick fog as far as the eye can see, so the mountain is not just symbolically, but also physically, representative of the world of the afterlife. This representation helped the peak gain status as one of the top 100 Famous Mountains of Japan, and of course Yamagata Prefecture.
Gassan is located almost exactly in the centre of Yamagata Prefecture, in the northern Tohoku region of Japan. The mountain is so big it has trailheads in at least three municipalities: Shonai Town where the summit is, Tsuruoka where the Eighth Station and Yudono-san trailheads are, and Nishikawa Town where the Ubasawa Trailhead and Gassan Ski Field lie.
If you’re wanting to climb the Dewa Sanzan, Dewasanzan.com has a comprehensive guide on how to get there (full disclosure, I wrote the article). Basically, for the Eighth Station and Yudono-san trailheads you will need to make your way to either Shonai Airport or Tsuruoka Station, which can both be accessed from Tokyo. There are busses from Tsuruoka Station to the Eighth Station of Gassan, and normally there are also busses to and from Yudono-san (although they are not running at the moment due to COVID). For the Ubasawa Trailhead in Nishikawa, there are busses to Shizu Onsen available.
Gassan is able to be home to both a Buddha and a Shinto Kami due to the long held belief in Japan of Shinbutsu Shugo, the amalgamation of Shintoism and Buddhism. The two beings are one and the same, only they appear in different forms much like A♭and G#. A Shinto Kami is simply believed to be the form a Buddha takes in Japan to provide salvation to the Japanese people (if you want more information, I wrote a whole article about it here, and even made a whole video about it).
Those who played the original Pokémon Blue or Red may recognise this, but the Shinto Kami of Gassan is Tsukuyomi, the Kami of the moon, and Gassan’s name literally means Mt. Moon.
At the same time, Gassan, or more specifically the Midagahara marshlands at the eighth station of Gassan, is said to represent the Pure Land created by Amitābha Buddha, a place offering respite from karmic transmigration, otherwise known as constant reincarnation. According to Pure Land Buddhism, being reborn in the Pure Land is akin to reaching enlightenment, so Gassan truly is the resting place of the ancestors.
As Tsukuyomi is the Kami of the moon, it’s only logical that their counterpart should be the Kami of the sun. Enshrined in one of Japan’s holiest and most important shrines, Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture, Amaterasu Omikami (shortened to Amaterasu) is the sun Goddess in Japanese mythology, and is believed to be from whom the Japanese imperial family are descended. Put simply, Amaterasu is Yang to Tsukuyomi’s Ying.
For centuries, it was common for the people of west Japan to make the pilgrimage to Ise Jingu, and similarly the people of east Japan to make the pilgrimage to the Dewa Sanzan. Devout followers with the means to do so would make the pilgrimage to both, an easier feat these days that would have been much more difficult in centuries passed.
It’s only logical, but Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi are also an important part in the Japanese creation myth of night and day. According to Nihon Shoki, Tsukuyomi (gender unclear) is said to have often fought with their sister, Amaterasu.
Legend has it that their quarreling essentially ended when Tsukuyomi killed their sister Ukemochi, the Kami that protects food, over the way she produced food from all of the orifices in her body. Amaterasu was so disgusted by Tsukuyomi’s actions that she vowed never to look at the god of the moon again, constantly moving to another part of the sky. The two have been separated ever since, and often appear back to back, if at all, in artwork.
There is another belief still practiced to this day in the Shonai region of Yamagata that follows the amalgamation of Shintoism and Buddhism, Kannabi Shinko (神奈備信仰), about what happens when we pass away. According to Kannabi Shinko, when it is time for our bodies to leave this world, our souls separate from our bodies and go through their own form of spiritual training in the mountains.
It is believed that our souls start their training on the lower-lying mountains, your Haguros or Kinbos, and under the guidance of 13 Buddha they spend 33 years gradually making their way up to the summit of the tallest mountain in the area, in the case of the Shonai region of Yamagata, Gassan. Once our souls reach the summit, they are believed to turn into Kami to watch over all those below.
The souls of the ancestors that are worshipped yearly turn into Kami that bring good fortune, but those that are not bring about bad fortune. This is one big reason why there is a huge culture of ancestor worship in Japan that is most commonly practiced during Obon.
Every year during Obon on the 13th of August, Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi perform the Saito-sai festival of lights. During the Saito-sai, huge bonfires are lit at the summit of Gassan, and the eighth and ninth stations to send the spirits of the ancestors back to the villages below.
The sparks from the fires fly off into the wind and down into the villages, symbolising the spirits of the ancestors making their way back to their own ancestral homes, and families await their arrival using small fires called Mukaebi to show the way.
In addition, when a large natural disaster occurs and whole families are wiped out, naturally there is no one to pray for their souls. When we do Yamabushi training, we also pray for the appeasement of the souls of those with no one left to pray for them.
The Dewa Sanzan are home to 33 territories in the eastern part of Japan, including the whole Pacific Ocean coast, meaning the area affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. At the time, the Yamabushi of the Dewa Sanzan had to think just how they could pay their respects to all those lives lost to the terrible disaster. That was when Master Hoshino of Daishobo Pilgrim Lodge on Haguro put a call out for 10,000 Shakyo, copies of the Buddhist Heart Sutra painstakingly written by hand.
Overall, Master Hoshino received over 13,000, including many from overseas, and he set about reading each and every one of them, an effort that took a little over two weeks. Then, the Shakyo were carried to the top of Gassan to be buried in a special memorial there. Now every time we go to Gassan, we make a special effort to remember the lives of all those lost not only during the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, but also other natural disasters.
Unlike Haguro-san or Yudono-san, Gassan has been an official Dewa Sanzan since, as far as I can tell, the outset, where the tallest Dewa Sanzan peak has represented the world of the past where we atone for past misgivings in the Dewa Sanzan Journey of Rebirth.
Originally Chokai-zan, Gassan, and Hayama in inland Yamagata prefecture were known as the three Dewa Sanzan. Only after traversing all three of these peaks was it custom to venture on to Yudono-san, known as the Oku-no-in or temple at the far reaches, whose central object of worship is the physical manifestation of where we are believed to be reborn.
Up until the Buddhist purge during the Meiji Restoration (1868 onwards), there was no governing body over Gassan and it was classified as a Shizen Suhai, ‘nature worship’ mountain. When the Dewa Sanzan made the switch to Shintoism in the early 1870s, Gassan became a predominantly Shinto peak along with Haguro-san and the main shrine of Yudono-san (there are two smaller temples on Yudono-san, Churenji and Ryusuiji Dainichibo, that have always remained Shingon).
Thus the modern day Dewa Sanzan were born, and the three Kami were enshrined atop Haguro-san in the former Jakkoji Temple, the newly christened Sanjingosaiden, the collective hall of the three gods located at Dewa Sanzan Shrine.
Around the Edo Period (1603–1868), The Dewa Sanzan were basically a huge tourist attraction, and Gassan was one of its biggest draw cards. This is partly due to the fact that during the Edo period, movement between the regions of Japan was limited to the nobility however there was an exception for those traveling for religious purposes. Many people took advantage of this and one of the most popular destinations was the Dewa Sanzan, with some coming from as far afield as Chiba and Yamanashi prefectures, some more than 600 km, on foot at that.
So popular were the Dewa Sanzan, in fact, that there were said to be well over one million visitors annually in their heyday, and even some literary giants also visited the sacred peaks. Japan’s premiere Haiku poet Matsuo Basho had the Dewa Sanzan in his sights as went about composing the Narrow Road to the Deep North, Japan’s quintessential collection of poetry and travel notes by its most revered Haiku poet.
Gassan gets so much snow that it is only accessible about three months of the year. In fact, all that snow means Gassan has the latest ski season of any mountain in Japan, beginning in April. For the other Dewa Sanzan, Yudono-san usually opens from May to November, and Haguro-san where Dewa Sanzan Shrine is located is accessible year-round.
The ski field runs from April to July, but they keep the ski lift running until at least the end of September when Gassan Shrine at the summit closes for the year. When Gassan shrine closes, there is a ceremony to bring it back to Dewa Sanzan Shrine on Haguro-san. The ski lift closes once it begins to snow again, meaning Gassan is generally open for hiking until mid or late October, plenty of time to take in the autumn leaves, but you have to be careful not to be snowed on.
Personally, Gassan is great any time you can get there. In summer, hiking Gassan gives some respite from the heat down below. If you can choose the day, foggy summer days without rain are generally the best, but then you have to hope that the fog clears enough for photo opportunities too.
If I had to choose though, I would definitely go for the autumn. There’s just so much variety in the landscape with the leaves and even grasses changing colour on Gassan at that time, and if timed right, this view is only intensified with Gassan’s location smack bang in the centre of Yamagata prefecture, boasting 360° views all over this fine mountainous land. Since all three of the Dewa Sanzan are still open, this is a great time to hike them.
Be warned, however, as Gassan is the tallest of the Dewa Sanzan and is an alpine environment the weather can turn at the drop of a hat. Plus, it’s not unheard of for there to be an amazingly sunny day on the ground and a thunderstorm at the summit. You truly never know what kind of day you will get until you get up there.
I’ve been on Gassan on a fine summer day, where pretty much the whole time we were able to see Chokai-zan clearly in the distance. I’ve also been on Gassan in a thunderstorm during a typhoon, where I could actually see the lightning striking below us. I can remember clearly the rain hitting my face sideways like it was stabbing me, and the path had all but turned into a river. Let’s just say my white Tabi split-toed Yamabushi shoes came out cleaner than they were when we went up. In other words, be prepared.
Unlike Haguro-san where you can get away without sun protection if you stay in the shade all the way up to Dewa Sanzan Shrine, for Gassan you will definitely want to bring both sun and rain protection, and also something to keep you warm just in case. Gassan gets really sunny if there are no clouds, and even if it rains the straw hats for sale in the souvenir shops are very helpful. If it gets cold, I always make sure to carry a down vest I got from Uniqlo, and have a rain jacket that lives in my hiking bag.
Depending on the time of year, most of the higher paths cross frozen snow that can be extremely slippery, so it is advisable to bring good footwear and even rope with you just in case. You also need to be prepared to climb steel ladders and tall rocks.
As Gassan can be steep at times I would highly recommend a walking stick, such as the Kongodzue used by Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi, that can be purchased at many of the stops along the paths. At the same time, bees, wasps, and mosquitoes are also active, so bug spray, and if possible poison remover is a good idea. Gassan is rather high, so you shouldn’t see any bears nearer the top, but it would still be a good idea to have a bell (or a conch) to scare off the bears living in the lower areas, such as the other Dewa Sanzan mountains.
On Gassan, a ¥100 donation is required for using the facilities, so be sure to have some coins on you. You may also like to purchase some souvenirs or food along the way, so bring some cash as well.
Called the Happo Nanakuchi, there were traditionally seven trailheads to the tallest of the three Dewa Sanzan mountains, however these days most people climb from one of four; the Ubasawa Trailhead from Shizu Onsen in Nishikawa Town that utilizes the Gassan Ski Lift, the Eighth Station of Gassan and Yudono-san Trailheads in Tsuruoka City, and for serious hikers, the Hijiori Trailhead from Hijiori Onsen in Okuramura.
The shortest and easiest way to climb to the tallest Dewa Sanzan peak is on the Ubasawa Trail from Shizu Onsen in Nishikawa Town, taking advantage of the Gassan Ski Lift. There are a few car parks in Shizu Onsen that can be used, from which it is a short walk to the Gassan Ski Lift and the Ubasawa Trail. The Gassan Ski Lift is ¥600 for adults or ¥400 for children one way, or ¥1,100 and ¥700 return respectively.
From the top of the ski lift, the path to the top is pretty straight forward; keep heading up and to the right. Eventually the path meets a ‘T’ intersection at a place called Ushikubi (lit. cow’s neck) from which a left turn will take you to Yudono-san and Ubaga-take. Take a right turn here and this path will lead to the summit of Gassan.
The first part of the trail is rather gradual, with a mixture of dirt and wooden boards to walk on, although there are sections that require walking on snow in early summer. Then there are also a few sections of large boulders closer to the summit to climb up. In spite of this, the Ubasawa trail is still the shortest route to the summit of Gassan, the easiest way to summit the tallest of the Dewa Sanzan mountains.
The Ubasawa Trail to Gassan takes about 3 hours one-way, including the ski lift. If you have the time and energy, Ubagatake is only a 30 minute detour from the top of the ski lift, so you could visit there on your way back down Gassan without too much trouble. Just keep following the path straight at Ushikubi instead of turning towards the ski lift.
It is also possible to forgo the ski lift and hike the first section from Shizu Onsen. This will add an extra two hours to your hike, which might be worth it if you’re there on a sunny day amongst the autumn leaves, or really want to make the most of your trip to the Dewa Sanzan.
The second easiest option for hiking Gassan is from the Eighth Station on the Tsuruoka City side that starts at about 1,400 m of elevation. Whereas traditionally people walked the whole length of the mountain from the Arasawa Entrance on Haguro-san after visiting Dewa Sanzan Shrine, these days it is much more common to go by road to the Eighth Station and climb from there.
Taller mountains in Japan traditionally have ten stations (written in Japanese as go, 合), with the tenth station being at the summit, and all other stations typically equidistant apart. In Gassan’s case, it wasn’t always possible to build stations an equal distance apart. The stations of Gassan are located right after a hard part of the climb where people would usually require a break, such as a steep incline or thick bush, or where there is a water source for refreshments. Starting from the eighth station gives you a huge advantage, as you can skip about 6 or 7 hours of hiking from Haguro-san.
It is still possible to hike from Haguro-san to Gassan’s Eighth Station, but the path is not always cleared so it is incredibly tough, and you’d be wise to take a guide up this part as there are hidden sections that go through the bush, such as the seventh station in the literal centre of the mountain. Traditionally this was the main way to climb the Dewa Sanzan, with people stopping at all the stations along the way, and even staying the night.
The Eighth Station of Gassan has a huge car park and mountain hut, then it is a ten or so minute walk to a shrine and a manned building where you can get your walking stick branded. I would recommend using the facilities at either of these places, as there are only limited spots to do so on the Dewa Sanzan from this point onwards.
Just behind the Eighth Station is a marshland called Midagahara that is home to some of the most beautiful flora and fauna in all of Tohoku. This area is named directly after Amitābha Buddha, as this is said to be the Pure Land they created.
The climb from Gassan’s Eighth Station is relatively easy compared to other trails on the Dewa Sanzan. This is because the path is rather gradual and there are only a few times where you have to climb up huge rocks. Where it gets hard is when it is either extremely hot and sunny and there is a risk of heatstroke, really cold and raining very heavily, or when you have to walk on hundreds of metres of snow.
The Ninth station of Gassan is located next to a pond called Busshoike. This station has a manned hut and shop where you can buy all manner of mountain supplies and some souvenirs only available on the Dewa Sanzan.
I highly recommend stopping here at least for some miso soup or amazake (sweet non-alcoholic fermented sake) if it’s cold out, or maybe some ice cream or a waffle (or both) if it’s hot. The coffee here is also hand-drip so it is a great boost to the senses.
The couple that run the 9th station are Junpei and Emi, and are both really fun people. Emi is also a Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi, and designs a lot of the t-shirts and things for sale in the shop, so you will be showing support by purchasing something directly from them. They even own a parrot called Kumara, and if you’re lucky he will say ‘Uketamo’ just like the Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi!
In 2020 when we did the Dewa Sanzan Kaihogyo led by Master Kazuhiro Hayasaka of Daishinbo pilgrim lodge, we climbed from Daishinbo at the base of Haguro-san to the Ninth Station at Busshoike in one day. I was completely knackered by then, but I remember quite fondly the hospitality given by Emi and Junpei.
If you stay at the Ninth Station hut, dinner and breakfast is included, which food was mainly Dewa Sanzan Shojin-Ryori (ascetic cuisine)-type mountain vegetables, very healthy and also very delicious! Plus there is also plenty of sake in case you are in need of a nightcap. Just be warned that there are no shower facilities here and that the power gets shut off at night, so save your phone battery!
Just after the ninth station there is a mountain called Omowashi-yama, which literally means ‘the fool’s peak’. This mountain is named as such because it tricks people into thinking that it is the summit of the Dewa Sanzan’s tallest peak, whereas in reality, the summit of Gassan is much further ahead.
Further up the path there is a spot called Gyojagaeshi, which literally means ‘where the ascetic turns back’. This is supposedly where En no Gyoja, En the Ascetic, had to turn back while trying and failing to climb the Dewa Sanzan. Therefore, those who make it past here can claim superiority over the founder of Shugendo, the belief followed by the Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi.
If you have transport organized (as of now, August 2021, the busses to Yudono-san are not running), one common way to hike Gassan is to start from the Eighth Station, make your way to the summit, then come down the Yudono-san trail. Called the Dewa Sanzan Juso (縦走, lit. running upwards), hiking this way means you can knock off two Dewa Sanzan at once, and also take in the huge variety of landscapes that the mystical mountains have to offer.
In what is known as the Dewa Sanzan Kaihogyo (回峰行, lit. the training of visiting peaks), I have walked all the way from Haguro-san, over Gassan while staying at the 9th station lodge, and on to Yudono-san while stopping at all the prayer spots along the way. The 30 km experience took about 15 or so hours of hiking all up, and was one of the most difficult climbs I’ve ever done.
Quinlan from Go North Japan even made a video about it. Contact me and I can help you find a guide who can do this, and who knows, I might even join you. If you don’t have the time or energy to do that, just drive to the eighth station or take the bus from Tsuruoka city.
I would only ever recommend spending at least two days in the Dewa Sanzan area, but if you did Haguro-san very early in the morning, then got on the bus to Gassan’s Eighth Station, this would be one way to do The Dewa Sanzan in one day.
Yudono-san is not a mountain as such, rather it is a ridge of Gassan. When we say Yudono, we are referring to Yudono-san Shrine. At about 1,000 m of elevation, Yudono-san is quite the distance from the top of Gassan, and the path between the two is rather difficult. We usually use it as a downhill, climbing Gassan from the Eighth Station, then finishing at Yudono-san shrine and being picked up or taking the bus (which is currently out of action) back to our base on Haguro-san. The most comprehensive way to climb the Dewa Sanzan in one go.
In saying that, it is of course possible to climb up from Yudono-san, although it is quite demanding indeed. There are times where you have to cross through mountain streams, climb up huge boulders, climb up long steel ladders, and on top of snow if it’s still early in the climbing season.
From Yudono-san Shrine, the path is quite obvious. Head into the mountains, basically. First you will go along the Bonji River, with multiple waterfalls including the Kanman Falls where Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi often do Takigyo waterfall meditation.
Then, the path takes you up the river, crossing huge boulders that lead you into the forest. In this forest there are multiple ladders to climb up, which I believe are the only ladders on the Dewa Sanzan, and slippery sections that require the use of ropes at times.
When you come out of the forest, there is a climb along a ridge until you get to a few huts at a point where the path splits in two. Taking the path straight will take you to the real Yudono-san (which used to be another mountain entirely; Yakushi-san, until they decided the Dewa Sanzan needed a real Yudono-san). The real Yudono-san is only accessible on snow shoes when there is snow cover, usually from March until about May.
We don’t want to go there, so take a left at this point. The path will take you past some alpine ponds, and up along a river. There is a part along here where you can fill up your water bottle with fresh mountain water, one of the only spots on the Dewa Sanzan, but only do so if you are with a guide (again, contact me if you need to find one).
Keep following this path up and again you will eventually come out at a ‘T’ intersection. A right will take you to Ubaga-take (about 30 minutes one-way from here), so we want to take a left on the path that eventually leads to Ushikubi (Cow’s neck), where you meet the Shizu Onsen path to the Gassan Ski Lift. From here, just keep following the path up.
I am yet to do this trail, but it sounds like a doozy. At 20km, the trail to Gassan from Hijiori Onsen is by far the longest and requires spending a night on the tallest Dewa Sanzan peak. If you are taking this trail, there is an unmanned mountain hut at about the halfway point so you will need to bring your own supplies such as a sleeping bag and food.
Instead of climbing from Hijiori Onsen, it was recommended to me to climb to Hijiori Onsen by spending a night at the manned hut at the Gassan summit. That way you don’t need to carry any bedding or extra food, and you also get to stay at the summit, which having stayed there is a pretty good experience in and of itself.
I have heard that the path from the summit of Gassan takes 12 to 13 hours one way to Hijiori Onsen, so you will need your wits about you to do this one. Best to do this with a Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi or someone as a guide. In the end, you end up in Hijiori Onsen, one of two hot spring towns on the Dewa Sanzan, and one of the top hot spring towns in all of Yamagata, the perfect location for a much-deserved soak.
The shrine buildings of Gassan lie at the summit, the tallest point of the Dewa Sanzan. There are some stone Torii gates from which any photography is prohibited, even drone footage. Inside the gates and to the right there is first a small rest hut, and then a little higher up there is a small office.
At this office, make a donation of 500 yen for purification before entering the shrine. Bow as the monk chants a purification prayer and blesses you with an Onusa, a bamboo stick with white lightening-shaped paper on it.
Before heading up to the inner sanctum, take the small charm given to you in the shape of a person. Rub this charm all over your body, blow on it three times, and then place it in one of the water troughs to remove Kegare impurities and complete your purification.
Once at the main shrine, pray as you normally would at any Japanese shrine; bow twice, tell the Kami your prayers, clap twice, and bow once so that the Kami can grant your wishes.
After that, walk anti-clockwise around the back of the shrine where there are a number of other smaller shrines for you to pay your respects. Then, there is a small shop which has a lot of souvenirs such as amulets, charms, and trinkets that are only available on at the top of Gassan, let alone the Dewa Sanzan. Just down from the shop, there is another shrine to pay your respects to, the last official shrine of Gassan.
Back at the small rest hut, you can get your Tsue walking stick branded with ‘Gassan Shrine’ to prove your dedication in climbing the Dewa Sanzan. In this hut, take a look for the list of names and ages of the eldest people to have reached the summit. I know what I want to try and do when I’m 90!
Besides the Ryokan lodges at Shizu and Hijiori Onsen, and the ninth station, it is possible to spend the night at the lodge at the summit of Gassan (in normal years the Eighth Station is open for accommodation, but it is currently closed due to COVID).
In August of 2021, we did the Dewa Sanzan Juso where you climb from the Eighth Station of Gassan to Yudono-san. This is very much possible in one day, but this time we decided to take our time and stay at the mountain lodge at summit.
To be honest, the lodge was so comfortable we hardly wanted to leave. I guess it didn’t help that is was raining quite heavily outside, but the meal in the lodge was really good, a whole array of mountain vegetables collected from the Dewa Sanzan, some mushroom soup, and we even had some salmon to top it off (don’t ask me why we would eat fish on top of a mountain).
If you do stay at one of the lodges on Gassan, be warned that they don’t have shower facilities, so you may need to bring something to wipe your body down. Master Hayasaka had brought these wipes that had soap on them that worked a charm.
Gassan is known as Mt. Death, but you shouldn’t let that put you off. The mountain is an amazing place to explore not only for the alpine environment, but also the culture of the Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi that is alive and well and has been passed down through more than a millennia of pilgrimages.
As you can probably tell by the length of this article I have climbed Gassan many times, and have amassed huge amounts of information over the years. I am yet to climb the Hijiori Onsen Trail, and I haven’t taken the Ubasawa Trail in a number of years, so I look forward to adding more on these to this article in the future. Thanks for stopping by.
The Dewa Sanzan journey of rebirth traditionally begins on the lowest peak, Haguro-san. Of the three peaks, only Haguro-san is low enough to not be covered in metres of snow in the colder months, making it accessible year-round.
Known to represent the world of the present where we overcome our worldly desires, Haguro-san is home to the Shukubo pilgrim lodges, such as Master Hoshino’s Daishobo and Master Hayasaka’s Daishinbo, the Haraigawa River and Suga-no-taki falls, the Grandfather Cedar, Five Story Pagoda, and stone stairway amongst the cedar forest that leads to Saikan and Dewa Sanzan Shrine at Sanjingosaiden at the summit. Be sure to check out the Haguro Kodo, the ancient path up Haguro-san as well.
Although Yudono-san does have a peak, it is more known for its object of worship, which unfortunately cannot be disclosed. If you’re climbing Gassan, be sure to also check out this sacred gem that marks the most sacred part of the Dewa Sanzan where we are reborn.
Yudono-san was traditionally the final mountain on the Dewa Sanzan journey of rebirth, and is famous for Sen’ninzawa, ‘The Swamp of the Immortals’, training ground to the Sokushinbutsu self-mummified monks. Sokushinbutsu are known in English as Living Buddha or Buddha Mummies, and came about through the belief in Shingon Buddhism that reaching Buddhahood in this life was possible.
By becoming Sokushinbutsu, the monks believed they could provide salvation to the people by proving that Buddhahood was attainable in the current world. Churenji and Dainichibo Temples on Yudono-san are home to some Sokushinbutsu, and there are a few others scattered around housed in temples scattered throughout Yamagata and the surrounding prefectures.
Ubaga-take (姥ヶ岳うばがたけ) is a 1670m (5479 ft.) peak in the Murayama and Shonai regions of Yamagata prefecture. Ubaga-take is open from July to October. Ubaga-take is a level 1 in terms of physical demand, which means it is easy to hike, has a A technical grade, which means it requires little expertise, and you want to allow at least 1 hours for a climb.
Shizu Onsen is one of two major Onsen (hot spring) resort towns on the Dewa Sanzan and Gassan, the other being Hijiori Onsen. Shizu Onsen flourished over the centuries thanks to its location along the Rokujurigoe Kaido, the path connecting inland Yamagata with the Shonai coast.
Surrounded in a forest of beech trees, Shizu Onsen itself is an snowy mountain escape straight out of a James Bond movie, with giant yet humble Ryokan resorts that get pummeled during the winter season lining the village streets. Each lodge provides great views and high-quality onsen water that is great on the skin. There’s even a resort there called Tsutaya run by a Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi friend of mine that was featured in Our Man in Japan with James May.
Hijiori Onsen is named after a monk who healed his broken elbow in the hot spring water found there. Tucked away in the hills behind Gassan, Hijiori Onsen is famous for recording the greatest snowfall of any region in Japan, and there is even an annual competition to see who can dig through the snow to the ground the fastest. The path to the summit of Gassan from Hijiori Onsen is the longest available, and requires one night on the mountain.
Named after its distance of 60 ri, a traditional distance based on how much ground someone carrying a load could make in one hour (it has since been defined as 3.93 kilometres or about 2.44 miles), the Rokujurigoe Kaido is an ancient path of over 100km connecting inland Yamagata with the Shonai region on the coast of the Sea of Japan. This was the main path people took to visit Yudono-san, the most sacred of the three Dewa Sanzan.
The Rokujurigoe Kaido is said to be at least 1200 years old. The route enjoyed its heyday in the 1600s when pilgrimages to Yudono-san were in vogue, and the moss-covered paths, relics, and old teahouses found on the side of the road connect us to a time gone by. Check out the Nanatsuki Falls, said to have been used by Yamabushi for their waterfall meditation.
I’m yet to ski Gassan in the spring, which seems to be a bit of a novelty, but from what I hear, it’s just ice, so make sure to get your fix at Yudono-san Ski Field during the winter when you can.
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About the author
TIM BUNTING – KIWI YAMABUSHI
OFFICIAL DEWA SANZAN YAMABUSHI NAME:
RYOSEN – SPREADER OF TRUTH
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 I made). 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.
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