It was a rainy and misty day as we checked out of our wonderful Azumaso Guesthouse Ryokan in Tendo City.
We knew that this was the last of our luxury Ryokans on this trip, and we savored the delicious breakfast and the first class service of this place.
From here, we are heading into the mountains again, to climb three very Holy Mountains in the Yamagata area, called The Dewa Sanzan.
We have allocated three days to this area, and we planned to climb the three mountains in this region.
The name of the mountain is mentioned first, like “Haguro” and the “San,” is added after the name as an honorary reference.
Thus the names of the mountains are:
The first mountain we intend to climb is called Hagurosan – The Mountain of Birth.
Pilgrims usually come here to pray for a better life in this world.
They ask for health, wealth, a good marriage for them and for their children, success in this world, long life, etc.
The second mountain is called Gas-san – The Mountain of Death.
Pilgrims usually come here to pray for merits and for the paradise of the next world.
They may pray for the souls of their departed beloveds, to reincarnate into better and more favorable circumstances.
The third mountain is called Yudono-San – The Mountain of Rebirth, or reincarnation.
Pilgrims usually come here to pray for the Shinto gods, and to be reborn again into this world.
Pilgrims come to the Dewa Sanzan area to climb all three mountains, starting with Mount Hagurosan, then Mount Gassan and finally Yudanosan.
They either buy or rent/hire new white clothing, and climb up these strenuous mountains as a spiritual pilgrimage, and to receive the blessings of the priests at the temples and shrines on top of each mountain.
Many pilgrims do not actually climb these Holy Mountains, but instead take air conditioned coach buses to the nearest point where they can pray and get blessed.
The pilgrims stay overnight in “Shukubo” which are temple lodgings, or in simple Ryokans that offer lodging in large communal rooms.
They operate much like regular Ryokans, but they are a little more basic, with no daily change of towels and beddings, and the food is simpler.
In the accommodations inside the temples, the food is pure vegetarian.
We chose one of those simple ryokans as our base for climbing the three mountains.
It is called HaguroKan, and after our arrival we could see that it is definitely not the nicest on the street, but it was the only lodging that we could see photos of, and get information in English on the internet about.
It is located on a beautiful street filled with other Ryokans and it is only a ten minute walk to the base of Hagurosan, where the climb starts.
The Ryokan looked lovely, and the nervous and overworked owner speaks just enough English to be very useful in providing much needed information about how to move around the area.
It is in a very rural area and if I had to do it over again, I would rent a car so we could get around more freely and not be limited by the very infrequent buses.
From Tendo City, we took a succession of local trains, to Tsuruoka City.
From Tsuruoka City, we took a local bus to Hagurosan.
The owner of our Ryokan was very apologetic, saying that he was very very busy, and that he could not give us a large room.
We had no expectations about this place to begin with.
We came to Hagurosan as spiritual pilgrims.
We came to climb hard mountains in three days, and we knew that we will be spending most of the day up on the mountains, sweating and leaping over rocks….so we were not bothered by the size of the small room.
We arrived at about two o’clock in the afternoon, and we were not sure what to do with the rest of the day….
It had rained all morning, and it was still drizzling in the afternoon…
Our host was convinced that we would be able to climb Mount Hagurosan that very afternoon.
He said it would take us three to four hours, and that sunset is not until seven or seven thirty at night.
We decided to take his word for it, and to climb Mount Hagurosan that same afternoon.
We emptied our day packs and took some small towels to wipe off the sweat, some water, and our pilgrim passport to stamp at the top of the mountain, and we put on our hiking boots.
I had read in a blog of an adventurous Australian woman who had climbed Hagurosan mountain, that it could be treacherous to do it in the rain… But I pushed it out of my mind and filled my mind with hope for a wonderful journey.
We reached the entrance which had a very large gate, and I said a prayer for a safe journey and for receiving insight as I climbed this mountain.
It was very steamy and hot, and the evaporating rain that had poured down all day, made the path very misty.
Hagurosan was an undiscovered glorious mountain heavily forested with tall cedar trees, until a mystical experience happened here…
It is a story of a spiritual search for Enlightenment, that is VERY similar to that of the Buddha, which happened long ago in ancient India.
In the year 593AD, Prince Hachiko, the first-born son of the reigning Emperor Sushun, (the 32nd. emperor of Japan,) renounced his title and gave up his position as heir to the throne, to become a wandering hermit.
While on a beach in Dewa province, he saw a very large black crow that had three legs.
He decided to follow this rare bird, and it led him to Mt. Hagurosan and then to the other two holy mountain peaks.
Hachiko changed his name to Kokai, and lived on Mount Hagurosan, practicing a very difficult ascetic life.
He ate only plant matter, and he meditated and fasted for many days in a row,
It is said that he had seen an apparition of the Buddha that inspired him to build the temple shrines on the three sacred mountains.
Kokai lived the rest of his years upon Haguro-San, and his imperial grave is still here and is maintained to this day.
A few hundred years ago, in the Edo period, the government of Japan announced that Buddhism and Shintoism must become one religion, or at least be integrated in all Buddhist temples.
Thus on these three holy Mountains, you will see many sculptures of the Buddha, along with Nio guardians of the spirit world, standing next to Shinto bulls, frogs, dragons, the lucky rabbit, and many other mixed symbols that are used by both religions.
From the main entrance gate, the path descended downwards for many stone steps. Both sides of the steps were lined with huge ancient cedar trees, which provided much shade and sheltered the forest.
At the bottom of those steps, was a clearing with a few small wooden buildings, each enclosing a shrine.
We crossed a beautiful red bridge over a lovely river with a rock waterfall.
The path meandered along and reached a five story pagoda.
The “Go-Jyu-No-To” five-storied pagoda was constructed in the years 931-937 (it took six years to built the original pagoda, and a member of the Fujiwara clan rebuilt it in the year 1372).
The pagoda is 29 meters tall, has five stories and is made of plain unpainted wood with shingles.
It was a very impressive sight, this tall and beautiful pagoda standing there in the middle of the misty forest, so beautiful and majestic….but the very tall Cedars made it look small in comparison…
From the pagoda, the stone path is called “Ishi-Dan” and it traversed and climbed steeply through a dense ancient forest of giant cedar trees.
The stones were wet and very slippery, and I had already fallen on my butt.
Beside staining my hiking pants with much mud, nothing happened to me nor to my butt, but I was now much more aware of every step I took.
I took the fall in good spirits, and could not avoid the symbolism of it…. As you go through life, you might fall, and you must learn quickly to become aware and to walk with mindfulness, if you wish to avoid much aggravation…
From there, we started climbing…..and climbing and climbing….
The steep stone steps are counted at 2446 steps (EACH WAY,)….and it was constructed in the year 1648.
It took 13 years to complete and the path twists up the mountain for 1.8 kilometers.
It is an accomplishment to climb and to descend these 4892 wet and slippery stone steps…..
They have been worn smooth over hundreds of years under the feet of hundred of thousands of pilgrims…
Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks that it was an accomplishment to climb thousands of steep steps each way in the rain…
When we stopped to buy water at the midway rest lodge, the friendly lady chatted with us and then proceeded to give us a certificate for our accomplishment.
It was a printed certificate, and it actually said:
“You have visited Mount Haguro and climbed all the 2446 stone steps lined with towering cedars, which has been designated a natural treasure and awarded three stars by Michelin Green Guide Japan.
We celebrate your strong legs and this honors your great achievement.”
Because it rained all day, and this forest is generally very shaded, mosquitos were swarming all around us.
Initially, I waved them away with my small towel, but finally I realized that it was better to hold hands with Jules, and to offer support and to balance one another on the slippery steps, and to just allow the millions of mosquitos to bite us, than to risk a broken leg…..
But miraculously and for the second time while walking in wet forests in Japan FULL of mosquitos, we exited this holy mountain hours later, without a single mosquito bite between us….
Atop the mountain, we entered a flat top through a very large gate and all of the struggles of the climb evaporated as I gazed upon the beauty of these temples, built around a large pond that is called “The Mirror Pond.”
At first we came upon a temple that was decorated with beautifully carved wooden columns, depicting fierce looking dragons.
It was absolutely magnificent.
Next to it were a few other temples with the most impressive among them, being “Sanjin Gosaiden,” the main temple hall.
Inside it, pilgrims were given blessings and monks were chanting.
It is a most captivating structure, very large in size and with a thatched roof that is 2.1 meters thick.
No other wooden building in all of Japan, has a thatched roof that is this large.
We noticed that some of the thatch was being replaced, and maintenance work was being done to the roof.
Nearby stood an enormous iron bell which was inscribed with the year 1275.
It was getting very late in the day, and we feared that sunset was fast approaching…. So we stamped our spiritual pilgrim passport, said a few prayers and made our way down.
I did not ask for many earthly things on the mountain of birth…
My earthly desires are not many…
Most of what I wish for does not include success or wealth or even good health…. I wish for greater understanding and for advancement in Self realization.
The way down was even harder than the climb up.
Many of the steps were small, in fact too small for a full foot, and since it was steep, mossy and wet, we held hands all the way down to balance one another.
It was another symbolic walk for us on the “mountain of birth”…. To remember to HELP ONE ANOTHER……