Home to Haguro Shugendo and the Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi mountain monks
Haguro-san is home to Haguro Shugendo and the Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi monks. Explore Haguro-san’s ancient cedar forests, Five Story Pagoda, and thickest thatch roof in Japan.
羽黒山 | はぐろさん
Haguro-san (Mt. Haguro, 羽黒山はぐろさん) is a 414m (1358 ft.) peak in the Shonai region of Yamagata prefecture best climbed from April to November (although, winter hiking is also very much recommended!). Haguro-san is a level 2 in terms of physical demand, which means it is relatively easy to hike, has a A technical grade, which means it requires little expertise, and you want to allow at least 2 hours for a climb.
2 (A little difficult)
Best time to climb
Year-round (need snowshoes or rain-boots in winter)
Day trip possible?
Minimum Time Required
3km length one way, 3 hours return
It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve been up Haguro-san more than 100 times. As the core base of our Yamabushi trainings, Haguro-san has a special place in my heart, and it always manages to evoke sentimental feelings. It’s hard to put into words, but I never thought it was possible to love a mountain so much. And this is exactly why it’s so embarrassing to admit, but before this, I had never climbed what is said to be the original Haguro-san.
It turns out that the Haguro I thought I knew, the one that starts at the Zuishinmon gates, with its 1000s of stone stairs amongst the cedar forest overlooking the majestic five-story pagoda, the Ninosaka Tea House, the remains of the massive Gohonbo Temple, Minamidani, the southern valley, and not to mention Saikan, the former Kezoin Temple, and Japan’s thickest thatch roof on the towering Sanjingosaiden, home to Dewa Sanzan Shrine, this Haguro-san is only half of the story.
Legend has it that the Dewa Sanzan, the three sacred mountains of Dewa in modern-day Yamagata prefecture, were opened as a religious centre in 593 by Prince Hachiko, son of Emperor Sushun.
As the story goes, Emperor Sushun was assassinated by Soga-no-Umako of the Soga clan. Seeing the struggle of the everyday person, and at the shock of his father’s own death, Prince Hachiko decided to dedicate his life to providing salvation to the people through ascetic practice. Fearing for his cousin’s life, Prince Shotoku convinced Prince Hachiko to make tracks for Haguro-san as he had come across Avalokiteśvara (Kannon Bosatsu, Guanyin, or the Buddhist god of Mercy) there on his own travels.
Prince Hachiko sailed north on the Sea of Japan and arrived at Yura on Tsuruoka’s southern coast, a spot I visited very recently before climbing Arakura-yama. Under the watchful eye of the mystical three-legged crow, a common theme in Japanese mythology, Prince Hachiko’s ascetic practice led him to Haguro-san where he came across Haguro Gongen, the deity of the mountain (Avalokiteśvara is the Honji Buddha of this Gongen). This eventually led to the founding of the Dewa Sanzan as religious grounds, which has obviously had a profound impact on the surrounding area for centuries, millennia even.
They say Prince Hachiko didn’t originally climb up the western Tsuruoka City side of Haguro-san, the side with the now famous Five Story Pagoda and stone stairway. Instead, Prince Hachiko’s journey up the legendary Dewa Sanzan allegedly began on the Shonai Town side in a hamlet conveniently known these days as Hachiko (with different Kanji 鉢子）.
Now known as the Haguro Kodo (羽黒古道）, the ancient Haguro path, this path from Hachiko to the summit of Haguro-san is said to have prospered up until the Edo period (1603 to 1868), when literally millions of pilgrims each year ventured to the sacred Dewa Sanzan. You see, in those days travel between different regions of Japan was forbidden except for the higher classes, or those on religious pilgrimages. In other words, a religious pilgrimage was one way normal people could go and see other parts of this fair land, and many opted to visit the Dewa Sanzan.
If you’re familiar with Kabuki, you may have heard the story Kanjincho in which the famous warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune, travelling with his porter Benkei, disguises himself as a Yamabushi to get through one of the checkpoints. This story also formed the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s The Men who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. Minamoto no Yoshitsune is said to have stayed with Benkei in Goshonoji Shrine in Kiyokawa near the Haguro Kodo on their way to Hiraizumi in the modern-day Iwate prefecture.
Pilgrims would come off the Mogami River at the Kiyokawa checkpoint located at the base of the Tachiyazawa River, pay their respects at Goshonoji Shrine, and then climb Haguro-san using the Haguro Kodo.
The Haguro Kodo is also said to have been the path Matsuo Basho used to climb the Dewa Sanzan while composing Japan’s quintessential collection of Haiku, Oku no Hosomichi, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (a story I wrote about here). Needless to say, I was very intrigued to explore this unique part of the Dewa Sanzan’s often conflicting, often sketchy, history for myself.
The Haguro Kodo begins in Hachiko, a tiny hamlet on Route 47. Although the first part of the path is on a service road, you instantly find yourself in a serene forest of evergreens and are immediately overcome with its mystical energy. If the Jizo statues don’t make you feel like you are in a sacred area I don’t know what would.
Keep following the path up as it veers off to the right and you will come across an open area called Subeno(皇野). Subeno literally translates to ‘Imperial Field’, an homage to Prince Hachiko, who is said to have begun his ascetic training on the Dewa Sanzan in this very spot. This unsuspecting area is said to have prospered up until the Muromachi period (approximately 1336 to 1573) with up to 500 buildings, such as temples (大皇山満納寺) and Shukubo pilgrim lodges.
In the middle of Subeno, there are the remains of a building called Haguro-san Honsha, the main office of Haguro-san. This is believed to be the original Haguro-san office that over the centuries was located in many spots up the mountain until finding its way to Sanjingosaiden at the summit in 1818.
In Subeno, there are the remains of a small pond called Mitarase that was used for washing, and nearby there is an Inari shrine and monument dedicated to the ‘founder’ of the Dewa Sanzan, Prince Hachiko.
The Haguro Kodo then takes you along a stream called Haguro Sawamizu, with numerous artefacts such as a small monument called Gyojazuka, which is believed to be Prince Hachiko (founder of the Dewa Sanzan)’s grave (there are at least two purported graves to Prince Hachiko, another one is at the top of Haguro-san).
On this monument there is some Sanskrit and also 「一世行者○海」(according to recent research, the circle is said to be the character 永 for longevity). This is most likely a monument to a local ascetic. Also, near the stream there is a monument called Hikyaku no Haka, the Grave of Hikyaku, said to be Prince Hachiko’s envoy. Chigozuka, another monument along the path is dedicated to a young monk said to have lost their life there.
Follow the Haguro Kodo signs up the mountain that lead through the dense forest. Before long, you will come out at an opening that reveals great views out to the Tachiyazawa Basin or if the weather is good, Chokai-zan. Once you make your way to the top of the hill, views out over the Shonai Plains and to the Sea of Japan await. Keep following the path and you will come across an access road that leads into a Beech and Cedar forest that eventually comes out at Reisaiden at the top of Haguro-san.
To be honest when I reached the summit I got quite a shock. I had probably visited that part of Haguro-san at least 20 times, but I never realised that there was a mountain path there. Part of that might be because the Shrine seems to not want people to use the Haguro Kodo for some reason. I’m not sure why, but the path fails to appear in maps and there is zero signage at the top, but it could perhaps be because where it comes out is in fact a cemetery, which generally anything related to death is taboo in Shintoism. That too me only added to the mystery, and I was really glad I got the chance to see the story for myself.
To get to the Haguro Kodo, you’re either going to have to climb down from Reisaiden Shrine at the summit of Haguro-san, or you’ll need a car. I’ve written all about how to get to Haguro-san in this article, but to get to the Haguro Kodo, there is a car park here, and the trail head is here.
There are useful maps at the carpark and it’s a good idea to take a photo of them before you head off into the mountains, which we forgot to do. From the carpark, you will see a house that sits against the hill. There is a road that goes directly past this house that you want to take that leads straight into the forest. This is the Haguro Kodo.
It would be a shame to go to Haguro-san and not stay in a Shukubo pilgrim lodge, and not see the Five Story Pagoda, nor the stone stairway. I would recommend climbing up the stairway if possible, or at least making your way to the Five Story Pagoda at the base.
The summit of Haguro-san is also accessible by car, and there you will find Dewa Sanzan Shrine in the building called Sanjingosaiden, The Collective Hall of the Three Gods, where each of the Dewa Sanzan gods are held during the winter months. Nearby Saikan is also a must-see, with some of the most unique Shojin Ryori (Ascetic Cuisine) that Japan has to offer. Contact me for bookings, or check out dewasanzan.com for more (I run the site).
Gyokusenji is a Soto-sect Zen temple located at the base of Haguro-san near the Torii gates leading into the Dewa Sanzan. Gyokusenji is perhaps most well known for its Japan Heritage gardens that are over 300 years old. While there, be sure to grab yourself a cup of freshly-whisked Maccha Green Tea and accompanying sweet to enjoy while looking out over the famous garden.
If you’re visiting Haguro-san and looking for even more of an adventure, I highly recommend Gassan. Gassan represents the world of the afterlife on the Dewa Sanzan Journey of Rebirth, and is said to be where we come face to face with our ancestors. Gassan is only open from July to mid-October due to the massive amounts of snow that accumulate on the peak annually, but this means that the variety of landscapes to be seen is second to none. Use this map for the 8th Station on the Haguro-san side of the mountain.
From Kiyokawa, it isn’t that hard to get to Matsuyama in Sakata City. Matsuyama is a former castle town and has some of my favourite spots in the Shonai Region such as Somokusha Cafe, Sokoji Temple, and excellent views all over the Shonai region from Chokai-no-mori.
The Forest of Illusions, Genso no Mori, is a nearby forest full of natural cedar trees that have deformed into various shapes over the centuries. The description says that the forest feels like being in the tentacles of an octopus, but you should definitely check it out for yourself.
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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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