There's a belief that once you enter the sacred grounds of Mount Haguro in Yamagata Prefecture, that you essentially die and when you leave, you leave reborn and purified. Mount Haguro, part of the legendary Dewa Sanzan The Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa, represents the present, Mount Gassan the past and Mount Yudono the future. This is a particularly holy and sacred part of Yamagata and an area steeped in ritual, tradition and profound spirituality.
As you approach Mount Haguro, you enter through a huge red Torii gate which can be seen for miles around. As you enter through this sacred symbol, you feel a marked lull, a moment of transcendence and a tangible alteration in atmosphere and surroundings. One of the most special elements of this tour is being led by the renowned Yamabushi or ancient mountain priests of Japan. Traditionally their role was to assist people in finding their innate nature and of teaching discipline and the ways of warriors. Nowadays the Yamabushi lead and navigate visitors through these sacred mountains and lead by example. Humility, silence and introspection are learned here and by observing the Yamabushi and their actions we learn about ourselves and our nature, something which is more vital than ever in the current global climate.
Before the trek, there is a special ceremony undertaken with the Yamabushi who present you with the sacred white robe which they have been wearing for centuries. With a slightly odd white ensemble and headgear the Yamabushi lead with their trekking sticks as ascending Mount Haguro isn't for the faint hearted. 2,446 stone steps await you and in inclement weather this can be tough going. With the expert guidance of the Yamabushi, however, and intermittent stops for a breather and a much-needed drink, it's not particularly hard going and can be navigated and achieved even by amateur trekkers.
It will come as no surprise that the sights and views afforded from Mount Haguro are spectacular. The forest at the mountain base is lush and verdant with centuries-old trees and one of the most beautiful pagodas in Japan, the glorious wooden five-story goju-no-to which lies peacefully and delicately within the woods. The Yamabushi communicate with each other and their guests through magnificent conches which are frequently blown to announce the location of each group. They are beautiful instruments and their truly unique sound stays with you forever as the sounds drift aimlessly into the ether.
As you trek through these sights and sounds, and as the steps become slightly more steeper and you can see for miles around you, you have a truly profound moment of clarity. An epiphany, if you like. Nothing soothes the soul like being in the center of nature, being surrounded with life at its simplest and most authentic forms. Complement this with the humility and grace of the Yamabushi and you have one of the most special and memorable experiences of your lifetime. And what awaits trekkers at the peak of Mount Haguro? Only the stunning Dewa Sanzan Shrine replete with one of the country's thickest thatched roofs. It's a striking scene and a beautiful way to end the trekking section of this tour.
This particular tour involves eating with the monks of the Dewa Sanzan Shrine where attendees are introduced to shojin ryori (a unique vegetarian cuisine, with a 1,400year history) from this region of Yamagata. For centuries, the ascetic “Yamabushi” monks of Yamagata have ventured deep into the mountains of Dewa Sanzan, seeking a heightened spiritual awareness through a deepening of their physical and mental connection to the natural world around them. Shojin ryori was born out of the monks’ need for simple but nourishing meals, made with locally foraged ingredients.
The monks developed a multitude of techniques for collecting, preserving and cooking these edible wild plants, roots and mushrooms. Many of these techniques are still used in daily cuisine in Yamagata today. Visitors can experience a sample of shojin ryori during the hike with these legendary monks up the slopes of Mount Haguro during this specific tour titled, “Trek with the Yamabushi: Mount Haguro.” Get in touch with nature and find yourself through the sights, sounds and tastes of the Dewa Sanzan mountains.
Trekking Mount Haguro, being led by the sacred Yamabushi and the experience of shojin ryori in a mountain-top shrine is one which stays with you, in both your waking and spiritual lives. The Yamabushi culture of acceptance (their symbolic cry is Uketamo meaning accept) and their modesty is something to be admired and emulated. It's no wonder that the people of Yamagata revere Mount Haguro and Dewa Sanzan, it's a spiritual hub and a magical land of past, present and future.
By Paul McInnes(Japan Travel)Tokyo-based journalist and travel writer.