Most people who visit Japan like to play it safe and stick to the cities in the country’s so-called “golden triangle” of tourism: Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. While there isn’t anything wrong with the hustle and bustle of Japanese megacities, it would be a true disservice to your itinerary to skip the natural scenery, one-of-a-kind cultural experiences and traditions only found in the heart of Japan’s countryside.
Such an example of beauty and heritage is in Yamagata Prefecture and its sacred Dewa Sanzan, or Three Mountains of Dewa, near the coastal city of Sakata. These mountains—Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono—are not only magnificent points of beauty in Japan’s wilderness but sacred to Japanese Buddhism and the Shugendo sect of Shinto monks that traverse these mountains.
To open the door for visitors to these sacred sites, Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) has updated the latest version of the official Japan Heritage website. Here, you’ll find everything needed to plan your trip effortlessly and experience Dewa Sanzan in person.
High on the mountains
The scenery of Yamagata Prefecture has attracted people for centuries. Its lush forests and panoramic mountain peaks were thought to be places of power—so beautiful that the gods themselves blessed the region. Thus, they became sacred sites of pilgrimage and legacy.
Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono became paramount to the faith of yamabushi, the ascetic Shugendo monks who made Dewa Sanzan their home. Shugendo is a uniquely Japanese religion that combines ancient Shintoism, mountain worship and Buddhism. The mountains have since become popular among hikers and casual nature lovers, alike—even with poets such as famed haiku master Matsu Basho.
Several routes offer beautiful landscapes and spiritual escapes. They are dotted with shrines, temples and huts for pilgrims, but even the weary hiker can find rest and meditation—or stay the night for an authentic monk experience: a shukubo, or lodging in a temple. The Buddhist temple of Yamadera, arguably the region’s most well-known sacred spot, sprawls up a forested mountainside and rewards visitors with breathtaking panoramic views over the valley below.
Follow the monks
Mount Haguro, the smallest of the three mountains, has the most accessible peak and is the easiest mountain to traverse—as long as you consider a flight of 2,446 stone steps “easy.” The path winds and twists to the peak and is lined with a canopy of ancient cedar trees. Visitors can even have a real yamabushi monk guide the way—past age-old shrines and the towering Five-story Pagoda of Mount Haguro, the oldest in Japan’s Tohoku region and a Japanese National Treasure.
The monks can guide you across all three mountains. To the yamabushi, this is a spiritual journey that represents rebirth (Mount Haguro), contemplation of the life they are living (Mount Gassan) and, finally, being reborn anew at Oku-no-in Temple ( Mount Yudono).
Of course, you can’t pass over nearby Sakata. The historic trading port’s maiko (an apprentice geisha) culture has endured to this day. Here, ochaya (tea house) such as Somaro Maiko Tea House will entertain guests with traditional tea ceremonies, shamisen performances and elegant dances.
The food culture of the region also persists. Although many dishes have been modernized with a Western touch, most of the regional cuisine adheres to the heritage of the Dewa Sanzan mountains for both recipes and ingredients, such as wild vegetables and spices from Mount Gassan.
The yamabushi’s vegetarian culture has also contributed to this culinary legacy. It includes healthy vegetable-based cooking such as goma dofu, a delicious tofu dish for followers of shoujin ryori (Buddhist cuisine)—a specialty of the Saikan pilgrim lodge near the peak of Mount Haguro.
Traditional, but modern
For those seeking a means to soothe their soles after a day of hiking (or who want to skip nature entirely), Dewa Sanzan is home to many quaint ryokan (traditional inn) well-known by locals for their onsen (hot springs)—most notably in the hot spring town Ginzan Onsen.
This charming town’s streets are lined with wooden inns, shops and Taisho era (1912–1926) architecture. The famous Ginzan Onsen is illuminated by gas-powered lamps that elegantly set the mood at night. Tourists will likely feel as if they’re stepping back in time to classical Japan. A popular inn, Fujiya, borders traditional and modern luxury with 100-year-old rooms renovated with chic minimalist designs.
Plan your visit
The Japan Heritage Official Website: Japan Heritage is a project focusing on various historic cultural properties across Japan—hidden gems with deep-rooted stories and traditions tied to the region that is known only to a select few.
The website features in-depth reports, stunning virtual reality presentations and video content, descriptions of the historical backgrounds of cultural properties, and much more. Links are provided to download much of this content free of charge.