Inviting adventure and exploration, Bandai-Asahi National Park in Japan’s north-eastern region of Tohoku is an exhilaratingly wild land of still mountains and forests. It’s home to peacock-blue caldera lakes and wooded crests, silhouetted against a pandemonium of breathtaking skies. Spanning over 186,000 ha (1,860 sq. km) and stretching across three prefectures – Fukushima, Yamagata and Niigata – it is, in area, the second largest national park in Japan.
Resolute hikers are met with equally resolute winds atop its three sacred peaks: Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono (Dewa Sanzan, collectively). The three mountain giants inhabit the northern reaches of the park in the ancient province of Dewa (now Yamagata Prefecture). Mount Gassan is the highest, with Midagahara, a singularly spectacular lava plateau of rich wetland habitat strewn with rustling reeds and moisture-loving alpine plants, occupying its north face.
Occupying the park’s southwest is the Iide mountain range — a wildlife-rich habitat that gives way to sky-blue iiderindo flowers and lichen-carpeted trails winding through a primeval beech forest.
Its southeasternmost swathe (or Bandaiazuma-Inawashiro area) meanwhile is characterised by steaming onsen and cobalt calderas rippling in restless winds. They recur like footprints left by giants across a vast expanse of sand-coloured terrain. This unique landscape is the masterwork of volcanoes: Mount Bandai (the park’s namesake) and Mount Azuma.
In 1888, this majestic mountain collapsed in a blast of steam, blocking and redirecting the Nagase River and its tributaries. An assemblage of ponds and lakes, varying in colour from aquamarine to copper, now adorn its foothills, an area now known as the Goshikinuma (‘five coloured’) Ponds.
Offering year-round interest, the park during the spring and summer months (April to September) is an adventure playground for hikers, pilgrims and water sports enthusiasts, the densely forested slopes offering respite from the sun
From mid-September through October and November, when russet leaves usher in the months of autumn, temperatures remain relatively cool, conducive to rambling the three sacred peaks and exploring the colourful craters.
In the cold season (December to February), the park becomes a snow globe of activity, with skiers whooshing down the slopes, snowboarders performing tricks in mid-air, sleds slipping through the forests and fishermen waiting patiently for signs of life beneath the ice.
Boot up and journey into this enigmatic park with us to discover its best bits (as recommended by locals).
Off the beaten track not far from the centre of Inawashiro Town is Inawashiro Ski Resort (or Inawashiro Snow Paradise), located in the southern corner of the park.
A welcome escape from our fast-paced world, it is where you can enjoy uninterrupted skiing, especially on weekdays, and sweeping views. Under a cloudless sky and in golden sunlight, Lake Inawashiro, splayed out before you from the slopes, appears resplendent.
On the resort’s various trajectories — there are 18 courses in total, across two areas — novices appear just as much at home as accomplished professionals. More seasoned skiers fired up by the thrill of the unknown, might try the off-piste, powder slopes on days when snow flurries are thick and fast.
Replenish your reserves at the resort’s restaurant, serving ramen noodles, Japanese curry and deep-fried pork cutlets on a bed of rice.
Also within the park is Urabandai Lake Resort, where you’ll enjoy panoramic views of Lake Hibara and Mount Bandai.
Travellers come here to spend their time on the surrounding slopes. You can venture out for a hike—Goshikinuma Ponds is only a three-minute walk away—or hurtle down the bright white slopes of nearby Urabandai Ski Resort on a snowboard or pair of skis (both are available to rent). In winter, it’s also entirely possible to experience the pristine snow-covered wilderness with a sled.
After an action-packed day, soothe your muscles in one of the hotel’s hot spring baths, its rotenburo (outside bath) offering views across the lake. Then sit down to a kaiseki (multi-course dinner) of seasonal fare, featuring dishes like sashimi, soy milk-miso hot pot and aizu kozuyu, a hearty scallop and vegetable soup considered a local speciality.
In an area famous for its sake, sampling the sweet liquor is almost a rite of passage, and the resort’s nomikurabe (taster) set offers a memorable introduction.
Embroidering the foothills of Mount Bandai are the Goshikinuma Ponds, a cluster of some 30 volcanic lakes. Their formation is the result of the deluge of boulders sent down to the floor in the 1888 eruption. The disaster dammed up the local rivers and created the Bandai plateau, all the while mineral deposits rained on Urabandai (literally ‘behind Bandai’).
Light refracted off the prism of these residual particles effects a spectrum of vibrant reds, oranges, yellows, greens and blues – their intensity, heightened by algae and bacteria, varying in tone from season to season.
Bishamon Pond, the largest of Goshikinuma Ponds and one of its star attractions, is hemmed in by a beautiful forested lakeside that reflects a flush of vibrant reds and oranges onto the lake’s surface in autumn. Just as beguiling are the koi fish (amur carp) elegantly gliding beneath, their beauty magnified by the crystalline water.
Stroll its banks to the sounds of birds and gently rocking boats, while listening out for the crunching of fallen leaves, as the elusive Japanese serow (a deer-like creature) treads lightly across the forest.
Aonuma Pond (‘Blue Pond’) as its name suggests, is alluringly enigmatic. Its brilliant blue-green colour, except for the odd slither of copper along its shoreline, draws attention to saffron yellow pines rising steeply to form a precipitous stack.
Historically, Dewa Sanzan is a training ground for yamabushi: devotees of Shugendo, an ancient tradition of mountain asceticism incorporating elements of both Buddhism and Shinto. Together, its three peaks are considered an important pilgrimage site for Shugendo votaries and those merely seeking spiritual solace in nature.
Mount Haguro, located in the city of Tsuruoka, in the vast Shonai coastal plains, has remained at the centre of Shugendo for well over 1,500 years. This is where worshippers come to celebrate the present before going on to pray for the past at Mount Gassan and the future at Mount Yudonosan.
Sanjingosaiden (also known as Dewa Sanzan Shrine) sits atop the summit of Mount Haguro. With various pit stops along the way, as well as parking facilities nearby, the journey there is perfectly suited to the novice hiker.
Quite the contrary, the 1,984-metre (6,509-ft) ascent to the summit of Mount Gassan can easily devour a day. Its extremities in the clouds and near-absence of handrails and demarcated trails make it for the most part the domain of experienced hikers.
Novices might take the route from the nearest car park, located at the eighth station. At the top of the mountain is the Gassan Shrine, built about 1,000 years ago, which is widely worshipped by the general public as the god of agriculture and navigation.
Mount Yudono, with its towering red pagoda standing in stark contrast to the forested slopes, is the final destination on the Dewa Sanzan pilgrimage (or Sankan Sando, meaning ‘three gates, three passages).
Barefoot followers of Zen Buddhism come here dressed in white and clasping a horagai shell, in search of ecstatic inspiration. A series of steps seemingly leading to the sky meanders up the slope toward the mountain’s object of worship: a conspicuous rock spouting hot water.
In addition to Sanjingosaiden Shrine, Mount Haguro is home to the Gassan Visitor Center, the entry-point to the next mountain on the Sankan Sando: Mount Gassan.
Stop by to learn about local history, culture and flora and fauna, while warming yourself by the stove (especially after a winter hike). Don’t miss the field maps, 3D topographical diorama of the area and aerial photos of the park.
From here, you can rent a pair of snow boots — kanjiki being the authentic though less practical option. The comparatively basic design of this traditional Japanese snow boot, once the footwear mainstay for locals, is made from wood.
Back outside and across the road is a wheelchair-accessible nature path, circumnavigating a pictorial pond and the Wetlands Botanical Garden. Allow at least 30 minutes for both.
Depending on the time of year, the centre hosts outdoor events, including bird watching, nature observation parties, snowshoe trekking courses and guided tours along the park’s starkly modern boardwalks. Classes in carpentry, cookery (including soba noodle making), natural dyeing and paper-making are also offered here.
The gateway to the Dewa Sanzan: Haguromachi Touge (or Toge) is where many travelling to the area choose to base themselves. A trip here wouldn’t be complete without a stay in one of its shukubo (pilgrim lodgings).
Ascetic hermits have been staying in these humble albeit comfortable residences for hundreds of years. With around 30 or so set side-by-side along its streets, Haguromachi Touge exists solely to support their unremittingly austere way of life.
The willing and qualified yamabushi hosts of these traditional inns passed down through the generations, bless pilgrims before and after they venture into the mountains.
A part of the Hayasaka family for over 350 years, Daishinbo Pilgrim Lodge is a longstanding favourite, famed for its shojin ryori – vegetarian dishes based on the yamabushi training diet, made using ingredients foraged from the mountains.
The two-kilometre-long Hagurosan walking trail begins at Zuishimon Gate, located near Tsuruoka Shi. The gate marks the spiralling ascent, all 2,400 stone steps of it. Before entering, pay a visit to the Suga falls, where yamabushi priests of Sanjingosaiden perform misogi (a Shinto purification ritual).
Just beyond Zuishimon Gate is the affectionately named Grandpa Cedar (or Jijisugi) — a 43-meter-tall tree said to be around 1,000 years old; it’s also a natural monument. Further along is a magnificent five-story pagoda (or gojunoto) — a 29-metre-tall cedarwood structure and designated national treasure, around which curious stone statues of Buddha emerge from the leaf detritus.
Catch your breath at Ninosaka Chaya, a traditional Japanese teahouse amongst the trees, with matcha and mochi (Japanese rice cakes) on the menu. For those with some time to spare, follow the path leading to Minamidani, home to a picturesque lake beneath an ethereal canopy of trees.
Continuing along the main route, you’ll eventually arrive at the vermillion shrine on the mountain’s peak: Sanjingosaiden. The inner sanctum of the three mountains, it defies the gods enshrined in Mount Gassan, Mount Haguro and Mount Yudono. When Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono have been cut off by snow, a visit here counts as a pilgrimage to all three.