Different country, different language, different definition of mountain: A year on the Mountains of Yamagata (round-up)
When I started the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata project, to be honest I thought I would be climbing taller mountains like Mt. Chokai and Mt. Gassan basically the whole way. I had it in my mind that that was what a mountain was; an alpine environment in another world completely separate from our everyday lives. However, different country, different language, different definition of mountain; and when you really get into it, the mountains of Yamagata here in the northern Tohoku region of Japan take on a completely different meaning.
For starters, I was shocked to find out that the lowest mountain on the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata list, Mt. Kashiwagi on Tobishima Island, was a mere 58m. Even my 3-year-old nephew could summit Mt. Kashiwagi in a manner of minutes, on a tricycle at that. What I failed to realise was that the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata weren’t chosen on the basis of stature, nor difficulty in climbing. Very wisely, in fact, these mountains were based on their cultural significance for locals. How else could you prioritise a tiny 57m peak?
A few weeks back I was part of a group checking out the condition of the cedar trees on Mt. Haguro, and one of the scientists there, a mountaineer who lives in the foothills of Mt. Chokai, told me exactly how the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata were chosen. From 2,774 peaks in the prefecture, this was no easy task, but it was made much easier by the way they went about it.
Yamagata Prefecture is separated into four main regions; The Shonai Region on The Sea of Japan coast where I live, and the three inland regions, The Mogami, Murayama, and Okitama Regions from north to south. Put simply, each region was tasked with choosing 25 peaks to place on the list. Of course there is some overlap as many of the peaks fall on the borders of the different regions, but a lot of the mountains all but choose themselves.
The first mountain I tackled for this project was Mt. Kinbo (1), a mountain I had climbed a few times before as part of yamabushi training, as it is a former Shugendo mountain, part of the Kinbo Shugen school. Mt. Kinbo is located to the south-west of central Tsuruoka City, and historically was the entrance to the Kinbo Shugen line of mountains, including the mountain of armour, Mt. Yorogamine, Mt. Hokari AKA Mother Hunter Mountain (16), Mt. Yunosawadake, and lastly one of the coolest peaks around, and one of my new favourites, Mt. Maya (13).
Mt. Kinbo and Mt. Maya especially have a long history and really interesting backstories. Mt. Kinbo alone is also a relatively easy hike, about one hour one way if you take the shortest route, but this can be extended to 90 minutes if you start from Shoryuji Temple at the base. The same mountaineer from earlier recommended climbing from Mt. Yunosawadake all the way down to Mt. Kinbo. I am yet to do Mt. Yunosawadake as I ran out of time this year, so am really looking forward to heading up there sometime next year if I can.
I have been to Mt. Yorogamine only once before during yamabushi training, on a day when the path to Mt. Gassan was blocked, and Master Hoshino chose Mt. Yorogamine specifically for its view of Mt. Gassan, which as expected is rather grand. Mt. Hokari and Mt. Maya also have grand views of Mt. Gassan if you can time it right.
The second mountain I climbed was Mt. Arakura (2), which I named Sakura Mountain as the cherry blossoms were in full bloom as I was up there. At 307m, Mt. Arakura isn’t exactly tall, but the route I took from Yura was a long one, taking about 2 hours one way. For anyone who has done Mt. Haguro before, I would also recommend Mt. Arakura, especially if you can get there in spring.
Mt. Arakura is part of what I believe locals call The Shonai Alps, a group of mountains along The Sea of Japan coast starting with Mt. Takadate (3) just to the north of Mt. Arakura. Mt. Takadate is very easy to recognise due to being covered in cell towers, and is a relatively easy climb compared to other peaks in the area, taking less than one hour one way. When we were there, some local high schoolers had even biked all the way up to the top.
Mt. Takadate is known for its RAMSAR-certified marshlands, the Shimo’ike and Kami’ike lakes, where all manner of birds, mainly swans in the cooler months, likes to congregate. The flowers in the lakes are also extremely pretty, especially the lotus in summer.
Just to the south of Mt. Arakura is the Sanze hamlet home to Mt. Fujikura (9). As you can tell from the video, I didn’t enjoy this mountain that much. I was there while the heat of summer was still lingering, and the path was very overgrown. I came across a pair of mamushi pit vipers, and got bitten by leaches right at the end. There also wasn’t much to see on Mt. Fujikura, but I think it would be a really good mountain to explore in spring and definitely during the autumn leaves.
Another peak that counts as The Shonai Alps was Mt. Kumanonagamine (try saying that in one breath) (7). Mt. Kumanonagamine was the first time we (I) really screwed up climbing a mountain. We stupidly followed the route on Google Maps, which took as to an older decommissioned trail. We forged our way upwards, clambering through and at times on the bush, and managed to make it in the end.
That’s when we realised we had gone completely the wrong way, and I very stupidly stopped filming at this point. Turns out we required the services of some locals who were clearing the marshlands up there to take us back to our cars. They really saved our arses, and you can read all about it in the Mt. Kumanonagamine article. I have to get back up there again now, and get a proper video for you. It’s not high on my priority list though.
Mt. Atsumi (8) was another really good find. Located in the southern part of Tsuruoka City, Atsumi Onsen is a tiny hot spring village that I still visit frequently. Little did I know that in the hills behind lay one of the coolest peaks in the whole Shonai region. Mt. Atsumi is covered in waterfalls on one side, and has a whole trail on the other side that is covered in relics of its time as a Shugen peak. Mt. Atsumi even had an Shukubo pilgrim’s lodge to boot.
After Mt. Kinbo, Mt. Arakura, Mt. Takadate, and then climbing the Haguro Kodo, I went and checked out Mt. Nihonkoku (5), a tiny peak on the border of Niigata Prefecture that was marked the border between ancient Japan and the tribes of Emishi who lived to the north. Mt. Nihonkoku was a nice little hike, it was steep, but wasn’t very long at all and had some really good views from the summit. It also has a few interesting theories as to the origin of the name. Read the Mt. Nihonkoku article for more.
As a Dewa Sanzan yamabushi, it’s a given that I climb these mountains at least once a year. This year I climbed Mt. Haguro (4) probably about 10 times, Mt. Gassan (10) twice, and went to Mt. Yudono (11) twice, once from the top of Mt. Gassan, and once for the Mt. Yudono Shrine opening in June.
Probably the highlight for me was climbing the Haguro Kodo, the old path of Mt. Haguro on the Shonai Town side, for the first time. I had been down that side of the mountain before, there is a small shrine with a waterfall called Otaki Shrine that we go to during the Akinomine Autumn’s Peak Ritual annually. However, I had never taken the Haguro Kodo, and it was a really eye-opening experience to see some statues and relics that were from a time before Mt. Haguro had its now epitomising stone stairway.
What surprised me the most about the Haguro Kodo, however, was that there is absolutely zero signage from Dewa Sanzan Shrine at the summit. For some reason, Dewa Sanzan Shrine doesn’t want people climbing up that way. Perhaps it’s the shops at the base near the Zuishinmon gates, or the Ninosaka Teahouse halfway up, but for whatever reason, they are completely ignoring what is actually a very nice trail.
Mt. Gassan I climbed twice. The first time with a group of friends guided by a yamabushi friend of mine, and the second time with a group of friends guided by a different yamabushi friend of mine. The first time round I recorded the climb, but saved it in a corrupt hard drive, so lost all the data. Luckily in the following weeks I had the chance to go up again, this time actually staying at the summit, and going down to Mt. Yudono. It turned out to be a very epic two-day hike, one that I would definitely recommend to any fellow mountaineers out there.
Mt. Ubagatake (14) isn’t one of the Dewa Sanzan peaks, but it is located along the trail between Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono. We had intended on climbing Mt. Gassan from there, but ran out of time in the end. The day we went was amazing, the sheer variety in colours on the autumn coat of Mt. Gassan is just intense. Definitely worth seeing for yourself.
Mt. Kyogakura (12) and Mt. Taizo (15) to the south east of Sakata City both turned out to be really amazing peaks to hike. Mt. Kyogakura due to the history of the place, there was plenty to explore on this low-lying peak, that I would definitely recommend to people who have done Mt. Haguro and want a similar challenge. Mt. Taizo was basically a really long hike through a corridor of autumn leaves that comes out at the most amazing spot with 360 degree views of said autumn leaves. Well worth the hike up!
As one of the peaks of Mt. Chokai, Mt. Shogadake is probably the mountain I see the most but never go to. We climbed Mt. Shogadake via the normal way up Mt. Chokai, but again my footage corrupted, and I lost essentially all the video I had. The mountain was really cool, it’s known for its alpine flowers, and the dawn lilies in particular were really quite amazing to see. I will have to go up there again on the way up Mt. Chokai, although I would like to try the climb from Ninotaki and Sannotaki in Yuza.
So there you have it, 16 peaks in one year, not as much as I’d like, but still plenty to work from. This project has been very surprising, I have learnt so much about the surrounding peaks, I can now recognise more mountains than just the normal Mt. Gassan and Mt. Chokai, and I can also tell you a whole lot of stories from each of the peaks visited. Plus, I managed to develop a lot as a video creator, although I am still nowhere near where I’d like to be. Something to keep working on.
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.
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