TIM BUNTING

KIWI YAMABUSHI

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Exploring The Yamabushi Trails of Kinbo-zan (Mt. Kinbo)

きんぼうざん 

金峯山

Kinbo-zan is a dynamic little peak with a deep history of Shugendo.

Kinbo-zan is a 471m high peak at the edge of the Maya-san mountain range located to the south of Tsuruoka City that is a great place for a day hike following ancient Shugendo Yamabushi paths.

KINBO-ZAN

Kinbosan, Kinbozan, Mt. Kinbo, Mt. Kinbosan, Mt. Kinbozan

金峯山きんぼうざん 

Kinbo-zan (Mt. Kinbo, 金峯山, きんぼうざん) is a 471m (1545 ft.) peak in the Shonai region of Yamagata prefecture. Kinbo-zan is best climbed from late February to mid-November. Kinbo-zan is a level 1 in terms of physical demand, which means it is easy to hike, has an A technical grade, which means it requires little expertise, and you want to allow at least 45 minutes one-way for a climb.

Mountain Range

Maya-san

Region

Shonai

Elevation

471m (1545 ft.)

Technical Demand

A (easiest)

Physical Demand

1 (easiest)

Trails

Three: 1) Shoryuji Temple Trail (90 minutes one-way), 2) Naka-no-miya (Inner Sanctum Trail, 45 minutes one-way), and 3) Yutagawa Trail (60 minutes one-way)

Best time to climb

February to November

Day trip possible?

Yes

Minimum Time Required

45 minutes on the Naka-no-miya Trail

KINBO-ZAN

Exploring the Yamabushi Trails of Kinbo-zan

Ever since En no Gyoja (En the Ascetic) enshrined Zao gongen there in 671, Kinbo-zan has been a popular destination for Yamabushi ascetics; My own first Yamabushi training included. Sometimes stylised as Mt. Kimbo and mistakenly on Wikipedia as Mt. Kinpo, the 471m high peak boasts great views of Tsuruoka City, the Shonai plains, and on good days the Fuji of the north, Chokai-zan. Accessible year-round, Kinbo-zan is a great spot for a half-day hike. Although, be sure to bring snowshoes if you’re visiting in the winter!

Originally known as 八葉山 Hachiyoh-san, Kinbo-zan was a Shingon Buddhism branch mountain of Haguro-san. Kinbo-zan became an independent entity when Haguro-san switched to Tendai Buddhism in the 17th century. The mountain came to be known as Kinbo shrine following the separation of Shintoism and Buddhism from 1868 onwards. This was in homage to 金峯山寺 Kinpusenji Temple, the head temple of Shugendo in Yoshino, Nara Prefecture. At that time, many of the relics and statues on the mountain were shifted to Shoryuji Temple. However, Kinbo-zan’s deep and long history is still plainly evident. This is due to the sheer number of relics, statues, Shukubo pilgrim lodges, shrines, and temples lining the ancient Shugendo Yamabushi paths to this day.

Getting to Kinbo-zan

Mt. Kinbo during the winter
Kinbo-zan during the winter

Kinbo-zan is located about 20 minutes by car to the south of Tsuruoka City (Google Maps Link). Tsuruoka is accessible by air or land. There is a flight from Shonai Airport, about one hour flight from Tokyo. The Joetsu Shinkansen Bullet Train and Inaho Express via Niigata are also available (more details here). Like most places in rural Japan, public transport is minimal at best. In other words, go by car if you can. If you have to, the bus takes about 50 minutes. This bus goes all the way to Naka-no-miya, the inner sanctum, about half-way up the mountain.

Main Hiking Trails up Kinbo-zan

Tim Bunting AKA KiwiYamabushi playing the Horagai Conch on Mt. Kinbo during the winter. Photo by David Lips
Tim Bunting AKA KiwiYamabushi playing the Horagai Conch on Kinbo-zan during the winter. Photo by David Lips.

There are three trails up Kinbo-zan. First is from Shoryuji Temple at the base. You can drive past there and go all the way to the Nakanomiya Inner Sanctum. Lastly, climbing the Yutagawa trail from the west is also a good option. It takes about 90 minutes one-way from Shoryuji Temple to the top. The trail from Naka-no-miya takes about 45 minutes one-way. If you’re taking the Yutagawa trail it will be about 60 minutes one-way.

The Shoryuji Temple Trail

Shoryuji Temple on Mt. Kinbo in the winter. Photo by David Lips.
Shoryuji Temple on Kinbo-zan in the winter. Photo by David Lips.

From a distance, Kinbo-zan looks like any other mountain in the winter. Bald trees are the only feature besides the white blanket of snow and a small spattering of evergreens. Get closer, and it’s a completely different story. Considering the history of the place, it’s not surprising that Kinbo-zan has many buildings in the township at the base. The grandest of these is the Shoryuji Temple complex, where the mountain faith has had its base for centuries. Keep an eye out for the former Shukubo pilgrim lodges too. The tiny township used to be home to about 20 of them.

Shoryu-ji Temple Trail (90 minutes one-way)

Starting from Shoryuji Temple at the base, follow the adjacent concrete road up about 200m. Soon you will come to a smaller car park on the left. This is where the path into the mountain begins proper. The path takes you through a cedar forest with a small area of shrines and Buddhist monuments. There is also a creek and waterfall for meditation. Follow the path up the hill and eventually you will come across a tree in the middle of the path. This tree appears to have two trunks with a gap wide enough for people to get through. If you can go through, it’s said your wish will come true.

Follow the path, and there are a few more shrines and hills to get over before the it evens out. Before long, you will come out at the red Zuishinmon gates beside the Naka-no-miya carpark. From here, look straight ahead and you can see the Shamusho, mountain office. Across from there you’ll find Akainoshimizu, an underground water spring, one of the top 100 natural springs in Japan. Even in the middle of winter people were coming to fill up large bottles with fresh spring water.

Kinbo-zan’s Inner Sanctum Trail (45 minutes one-way)

Kinbo-zan’s Naka-no-miya is quite a sight to behold. Known as Kinbo Jinja’s Heiden, where gifts to the gods are offered, this National Important Cultural Property is ornately decorated. There are hundreds of lanterns on the outside, and a roof built to combat the heavy snow of winter. This roof is reminiscent of Japanese Zen temples, and even has a Chinese-style gable over the entrance. There is an inscription on one of the beams that says the building was remodelled by Mogami Yoshiaki. This suggests the structure is older than 400 years.

After paying your respects to the gods, it’s time for a bit of adventure. Just behind the inner sanctum, the path splits into two. The left path will take you on a short walk to a nearby waterfall, the right path to the top. It’s worth checking out the waterfall if you have the time, although it is not that big. I usually pray to this waterfall too, and it is often used for waterfall meditation by Yamabushi. Ours were the only footprints past this point when we went in the middle of winter.

The Ancient Yamabushi Paths on Kinbo-zan

Mt. Kinbo in the winter. Photo by David Lips.
Kinbo-zan in the winter. Photo by David Lips.

Keep following the mountain up to the right and you’ll pass a sign. This sign says 山伏古道 Yamabushi Kodo, the ancient paths of the Yamabushi. Soon, you’ll come across an ancient road that runs across your path. This path takes you to the Yorogamine peak, Hokari-yama, and Maya-san.

Here, keep going straight and you’ll come across one of the two main lookouts over the Shonai plains. In summer, this path has roots that form a sort of staircase. Once you reach the second lookout, you’re almost at the top. Keep a lookout for a cedar forest, this is your point of reference. In this forest, you’ll find a few shrine buildings, and of course the main shrine of Kinbo-zan.

The Main Shrine of Kinbo-zan

Tim Bunting AKA KiwiYamabushi praying at the shrine on top of Mt. Kinbo. Photo by David Lips.
Tim Bunting AKA KiwiYamabushi praying at the shrine on top of Kinbo-zan. Photo by David Lips.

The main shrine of Kinbo-zan is quite a humbling sight. It’s hard to imagine how it would have been built, most likely using wood from the nearby forests. The view at the summit isn’t very good. However, if you head down the mountain a little and to your left, you can find a great lookout.

The Yutagawa Trail (two hours return)

If you’re after more of a relaxing time, start out from Yutagawa onsen. This quaint Onsen town has dozens of Ryokan with onsen. My personal recommendation is Tsukasaya Ryokan.

About 30 minutes from Yutagawa, you’ll come to some Torii shrine gates to Kinbo-zan Shrine. Pass through the gates, and after about 30 minutes of walking through the forest you will join another mountain path. Turn right here (heading south), and soon after there is a left turn up the mountain.

Be careful not to miss this one. From the point where the mountain paths meet, there is a sharp incline with rocks. After that, the tree roots form a sort of staircase until you come out along the ridge-line. The path splits here, with one that takes you up to Hokari-yama. Turn left here (heading north) and the summit is very close. Once you’re through the beech forest, you can see the shrine, and behind that, the summit.

Nearby Locations of Interest

The Fishing Village of Yura Beach

Yura is a quintessential fishing village nearby. The tiny town has its trademark Hakusan Shrine on the small Hakusan Island that juts out from the coast. Yura is also famous for its Onsen Hot Pools, such as Yurayaotome (Japanese website, I’m in one of the videos). Plus, it was the landing spot of Prince Hachiko, founder of the Dewa Sanzan.

The beach at Yura is one of the top places for an ocean dip in summer. The village is one of my favourite spots in Shonai. So much so, there was even a time I strongly considered buying a house located on the coast there.

Takadate-yama

In spite of its small 274m stature, the stunning Shimoike and Kami’ike lakes certified as Wetlands of International Importance, huge variety of migratory birds, forests voted as amongst the top 100 in Japan for Shinrinyoku (forest bathing), and 360° views out over the Sea of Japan, Chokai-zan, The Shonai Plains, Gassan, Kinbo-zan and Arakura-yama, mean Takadate-yama sure packs a lot of punch.

Mountains of Sakura: Arakura-yama

The mountain directly south of Takadate-yama is Arakura-yama. As I wrote about in the article on Arakura-yama, Arakura-yama is famous for the mountain Sakura trees, but also for the breathtaking Arakura Jinja, which is easily reachable by car from the car park of Takadate-yama. If you’re up for it, it’s possible to do Arakura-yama and Takadate-yama on the same day. The best way to do this is to bring a friend, park one car at Hotoria at the base of Takadate-yama, then drive another car to Yura. Hike Arakura-yama from Yura, then head towards Takadate-yama, and come back down to your car in Hotoria. Then all you need to do is pick up the other car.

Sanze Beach and Fujikura-yama

Sanze is one of the coolest beaches along the Shonai coast. Relatively sheltered from the open sea, and with a great rock for jumping off, Sanze is the perfect spot for a dip in the ocean in the warmer months. There is a Ramen shop located there called Konpiraso that my brother in law can’t get enough of either.

Yunohama Beach

Yunohama is another beach resort along the coast. This is also one of the most popular places for a dip in the Sea of Japan among locals. There are a number of famous Ryokan in Yunohama, perhaps the most famous being Kameya, which even hosted the Emperor and Empress of Japan in 2016 (from memory). Yunohama also has a market on Sunday mornings that is popular amongst locals. The Shonai Country Club golf course is also located nearby.

Atsumi-dake and Atsumi Onsen

Atsumi-dake is one of the most rewarding peaks to climb along the Shonai coast. Plus, I know I’ve said this already, but Atsumi Onsen is one of the coolest places in the Shonai region. Atsumi Onsen itself is also a relaxing spot. Here you can walk amongst the Sakura, or visit the rose garden. Be sure to check out Chitto Mocche, a locally-run cafe that is famous for its outdoor foot spa.

Accommodation

In the nearby township of Yutagawa, you will find one of my favourite Ryokan (Traditional Japanese Inn) in the region, Tsukasaya. Tsukasaya is run by the young Shoji family, and provides excellent cuisine foraged straight from the surrounding area (including Moso bamboo from Kinbo-zan in the Spring). Takehiko Shoji, the husband, is a fellow Yamabushi and even a professional Sake sommelier, so he will definitely be able to find you something great to drink. Kanae Shoji, the wife, is fluent in English and has extensive experience serving Japanese and non-Japanese guests alike. In addition, the Ryokan has recently gone through renovations to be like brand new.

Kinbo-zan in conclusion

In retrospect, our midwinter climb of Kinbo-zan was a little bit reckless. There is a good reason why the mountain shouldn’t be climbed from November until the official mountain opening ritual in late February. We climbed Kinbo-zan in early February when the snow is at its heaviest, and all we had were spats, waterproof leg coverings, for our boots. I had waterproof trousers on, but my friend didn’t and his jeans were drenched up to his hips. Snow up to your hips is generally reason enough not to climb a mountain, and if it weren’t warm enough to rain, we probably would have had a much harder time getting through the deep snow. If you are going to be climbing Kinbo-zan in winter, I’d definitely recommend busting out the snowshoes. But who said climbing mountains was easy?

FROM THE REGION

Mt. Shogadake
Dancing in the Dawn Lilies: Shoga-dake and The Fuji of The North (Mt. Shoga-dake)
Mt. Atsumi in Atsumi Onsen, a quaint Onsen Hot Spring town in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture
Reaching Peak Tranquility: Atsumi-dake (Mt. Atsumi)
Mother. Hunter. Mountain. Hokari-yama (Mt. Hokari)

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Hiking Guide to the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture
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Mt. Chokai
The Mt. Fuji of North Japan: Chokai-san (Mt. Chokai)
A Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) at Semi Onsen Hot Spring Resort
Turtles, Tigers, and a Legendary Japanese Character: Kamewari-yama (Mt. Kamewari)

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