In the heart of Yamagata prefecture lies Haguro-san, one of the three sacred mountains forming the Dewa Sanzan (Three mountains of Dewa). Standing at 414m (1,358 ft), Haguro-san is the smallest and most accessible of the three mountains that are the center of Shugendo, a form of mountain worship that blends Buddhism and Shinto traditions.
The three mountains are usually visited in an order that represents their sacred attributions:
Haguro-san, Gas-san and lastly Yudono-san representing birth, death and rebirth respectively.
Both Gas-san and Yudono-san are quite remote and affected by heavy snowfall in winter, which makes traveling to them very difficult. Due to this, Gas-san and Yudono-san are only open to the public between July and October, whereas Haguro-san remains open throughout the year.
We decided to visit Haguro-san in October, when the weather had cooled down a bit, since ascending the 2446 steps to reach the shrine atop the mountain can be quite exhausting during the summer. The shrine can also be reached by car, but the path through the cedar forest is just too magical to pass up on.
We started at the bottom of Haguro-san, which you can reach by bus, getting off at "Zuishinmon", or by car. Zuishinmon marks the entrance to the cedar forest, where stairs lead you down Mamako Hill to some smaller shrines that are dwarfed by the majestic cedars surrounding them.
From there, we crossed Shinkyo bridge leading over Haraigawa River, in which pilgrims used to submerge themselves for ablution before continuing their pilgrimage up the mountain.
Next to the red lacquer bridge is a small path over the river which leads you to Suga no taki, a waterfall that is framed by small shrines.
A bit further down the path, we found the "Grandpa" cedar: Jiji-sugi. With a circumference of 10.5m at the base and an estimated age of over 1000 years, this cedar is both the biggest and tallest cedar on the mountain. Jiji-sugi is a "widower" since he lost his partner, the "Grandma cedar" several decades ago in a storm.
From there, you can already spot the famous 5 story pagoda, Gojū-tō, which is listed as a National Treasure. The pagoda is, unlike others you will find around Japan, left in its natural wooden state, which makes it blend into the surrounding forest. It is said to be the oldest of the pagodas in all of Tohoku and built without the use of any nails.
Once we passed the pagoda, we followed the stairs that lead through the forest, which can be described as a hall of cedars. The trees are just majestic and magical, with the autumn light giving them a warm glow. There are 33 figures carved into the 2446 stone steps that lead up to the mountain top and it is said that if you are able to spot all of them, you will be blessed with prosperity and enlightenment.
Haguro-san's main shrine is located at the summit and it holds all three deities from all the Dewa Sanzan shrines, making it the most important of the three mountain shrines.
The main building, Sanjin Gosaiden, has the thickest thatched roof in Japan with a thickness of over 2m. In front of it, is the "Mirror Pond" Kagami-ike, which is said to mirror the spirit of the gods. It is also literally filled with mirrors: hand mirrors which were submerged into the pond by visitors for their female relatives during a time, when females were not allowed onto Haguro-san.
On the east side of the Kagami-ike, you can find the second oldest structure of the Dewa Sanzan, the "Cherry blossom bell", Kanezakura. It has an inscription that dates it back to 1275 and it is listed as a National Cultural Asset.
From here, many pilgrims move on to Gas-san or stay at the shukubo (temple lodgings) which serves shoujin ryouri (Buddhist cuisine). We decided to walk back through the cedar forest and return to the Zuishinmon, where we had left our rental car. Be careful if you decide to walk downhill, as the stairs are very steep and there are no lights to illuminate them once the sun has set.
If you are looking for a very serene and truly magical experience, and if you are not shying away from climbing some seriously steep stairs, Haguro-san is definitely worth the journey!