Pilgrims have been trekking up the slopes of Dewa-sanzan (出羽三山; also known as Dewa-san), one of Japan’s most sacred mountains, for more than a thousand years. It’s an arduous rather than difficult climb, taking in ancient cedar woods, alpine meadows and three intriguing shrines where yamabushi (mountain ascetics) continue to practise their secret rites.
A lumpy extinct volcano with three peaks, Dewa-sanzan faces the Sea of Japan across the famously prolific rice fields of the Shōnai plain. Many people take the road up its first peak, Haguro-san (羽黒山; 414m), but it’s well worth slogging up the 2446 stone steps from the bus stop, among venerable cedars, to reach the impressive, thatch-roofed Gosaiden, which enshrines the deities of each of the three mountains. Dewa-san’s middle shrine perches atop Gas-san (1984m), with spectacular views in clear weather, though otherwise it’s the least interesting of the three mountains. If time is short, you might want to skip round by road to Yudono-jinja, on the third peak, visiting a couple of rather grisly mummified monks en route.
Today Dewa-san and its three shrines fall under the Shinto banner, but the mountain was originally home to one of the colourful offshoots of Esoteric Buddhism, later unified as Shugendō. The worship of Dewa-san dates from the seventh century, when an imperial prince fled to this area following the death of his father. In a vision, a three-legged crow led him to Haguro-san (Black Wing Mountain), where he lived to the ripe old age of 90, developing his unique blend of Shinto, Buddhism and ancient folk religion. Later the yamabushi, the sect’s itinerant mountain priests (literally “the ones who sleep in the mountains”), became famous for their mystic powers and their extreme asceticism – one route to enlightenment consisted of living in caves off a diet of nuts and wild garlic. Though once fairly widespread, the sect dwindled after the mid-nineteenth century, when Shinto reclaimed Japanese mountains for its own. Nevertheless, you’ll still find a flourishing community of yamabushi around Dewa-san, kitted out in their natty checked jackets, white knickerbockers and tiny, black pillbox hats. They also carry a huge conch-shell horn, the haunting cry of which summons the gods.
The best time to see yamabushi in action is during the area’s various festivals. The biggest annual bash is the Hassaku Matsuri (Aug 24–31), when pilgrims take part in a fire festival on Haguro-san to ensure a bountiful harvest. At New Year, Haguro-san is also the venue for a festival of purification, known as the Shōreisai, which combines fire and acrobatic dancing with ascetic rituals.