Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Mount Haguro

On October 31st, hubby and I visited Mount Haguro in Yamagata prefecture. Mt. Haguro is one of the three sacred mountains clustered together in the ancient province of Dewa. The three mountains are collectively known as Dewa sanzan. The other two mountains are Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudano. The area is a major pilgrimage destination for the mountain priests known as yamabushi and the followers of Shugendo sect. The practice of Shinto and Buddhist worship on Mt. Haguro was first established in A.D. 593 by Prince Hachiko, son of Emperor Sushun. Leaving Nara and sailing the Japan Sea, Prince Hachiko landed at Yaotome beach, present day Tsuruoka city. Under the guidance of eight local girls and a sacred bird, a crow with three legs, Prince Hachiko made his way up Mt. Haguro and established Dewa sanzan as a place of worship. Gassan shrine is located at the top of Mt. Gassan (1984 meters high) and Yudano shrine is located halfway up Mt. Yudano (1504 meters high). Mt. Haguro is the most easily accessible and the smallest of the three mountains with a peak at only 414 meters above sea level. A shrine named Sanjin Gosaiden is located at the top of Mt. Haguro. This shrine holds the deities from all three Dewa sanzan shrines thereby making it the most important and unique of the three. The shrines of Mt. Yudano and Mt. Gassan are closed during winter season due to snowfall and therefore prayers are collectively offered to the Gods of all the shrines at Sanjin Gosaiden which is open year round.

Mt. Haguro is located less than 15 km away from Tsuruoka city in Yamagata prefecture. The other two mountain peaks are some 20 km south from it. The base of Mt. Haguro is about 100 kilometers from our home and it took hubby and me 2.5 hours to reach there by our car. As we neared the mountain, we saw a huge beautiful grand gate named o-torii. O-torii represents the gateway to the entrance of the sacred precincts where shrine deities reside. The vermilion-lacquered o-torii was built in 1923. It is 21 meters high, 15 meters wide, and is the second biggest in Japan now.

We reached the base of Mt. Haguro at about 11.30 am, and so we had an early lunch at a small Japanese style restaurant and then visited the mountain. The lunch-set made using mountain vegetables (sansai) as the ingredients blended together very well and created mellow flavors.
Lunch-set made using mountain vegetables as ingredients

We can reach the shrine located at the peak of Mt. Haguro by car itself as the mountain is not so high. But the traditional approach to the shrine is via a walking trail that leads through a cedar forest over 2446 stone steps from the base to the summit of the mountain. This climb would usually take around one hour if we are in a reasonably good shape and do not dally too much. The climb begins at a torii gate located at the base. Just following this torii gate is another beautiful red colored front gate named Zuishinmon. Past this gate are the precincts of the Dewa sanzan shrine. After passing through Zuishinmon gate, we had to descend the first flights of stone steps over Mamako hill slope for about ten minutes or so. I was a bit surprised that instead of climbing up we were descending down! Immediately after the descent, we reached a place having many small shrines. Hubby and I prayed at these shrines.
Hubby standing at the base of Mt. Haguro in front of torii gate

Torii gate

Notice board next to torii gate showing the map of Mt. Haguro

Zuishinmon gate

Mamako hill slope descent

Many small shrines

Me ringing the bell of a small shrine

Hubby ringing the bell of another small shrine

On walking a bit further, we reached a beautiful red lacquered holy bridge named Shinkyo that crosses River Haraigawa. From the bridge, we got a beautiful view of the Suga Waterfall and rugged cliffs that made for a stunning scene.
A part of red-lacquered Shinkyo Bridge and River Haraigawa

Me standing on Shinkyo Bridge with Suga Waterfall in the background

The well-marked 1.8 kilometers pilgrimage stone steps trail to the summit of Mt. Haguro winds its way through a forest which is thick with ancient cedar trees that are 300 to 600 years old. These trees have a mysterious appearance even in full sunlight. The stone steps from Zuishinmon gate to the mountain summit as well as cedar tree lines (sugi-namiki) on both sides of the steps were constructed by Tenyu Betto, 50th chief priest of Dewa sanzan in 1648. It took 13 years to complete them and they are designated as national precious natural monuments. Along the long stone staircase steps are the ichi-no-saka, ni-no-saka, and san-no-saka areas of steep climbing.
Me standing at the beginning of ichi-no-saka staircase steps

On the left hand side of the beginning of the ichi-no-saka steep climbing area is a cedar tree named ‘Jiji cedar’ (old man cedar) which is a national treasure. The height of the tree is 48 meters and the trunk is 11.5 meters at the base. It is more than 1000 years old.
Jiji cedar tree

After walking further for about two minutes, we saw a beautiful and graceful five storied pagoda on the left hand side of the ichi-no-saka area. The pagoda was surrounded by cedars. It is traditionally said that the five storied pagoda was built by a military commander Taira no Masakado from 931 to 937. A classic text says that Fujiwara no Ujiie, a court noble, rebuilt it in 1372. The 600 year old pagoda is a five storied construction made entirely from wood and has thin wooden shingled roof. The pagoda is 29 meters high and was built without a single nail. It is designated as a national treasure. The pagoda looked so elegant in the forest and the autumn sunlight seemed to become more profound. We took several photos of the pagoda from various angles.
Five storied pagoda surrounded by cedar trees

Five storied pagoda

View of the pagoda from another angle

Detailed design of the wooden pagoda

Hubby and the pagoda

From the pagoda the climb to the mountain summit began in earnest. It is supposed to be easy to walk the trail and is actually not particularly steep. But I am not in a very good shape due to lack of daily-exercise. I was very tired while climbing the beginning of ni-no-saka steep area. So we gave up climbing by the traditional approach, descended back to the Zuishinmon gate, and then went to the summit of Mt. Haguro by our car.
Me standing near the end of ichi-no-saka stone steps

It took us about 15 minutes to go from the base to the summit of Mt. Haguro by our car. There was a toll road and we had to pay 400 Yen to reach the summit. On our way, we saw the beautiful colors of autumn all around us in the mountain. On reaching the summit we saw that there were many cars and sightseeing buses in the parking area. I felt a bit relieved to know that a large number of people used the modern approach of transportation to reach the mountain summit.
Autumn colors on our way to the summit by car

Even after reaching the summit, we had to walk for about 10 minutes to reach the main shrine. The way to the shrine was very peaceful. On our way we saw seven small shrines standing in a line.
Me walking towards the main shrine at the mountain summit

Five of the seven small shrines standing in a line

Just before reaching the main shrine, we saw the Buddhist temple bell (bonsho) and belfry (shoro). The bell, inscribed with the year 1275, is said to have been donated by the Kamakura Shogun, who was thankful for having repulsed the Mongol fleet the year before. It is the largest bell in Tohoku region and third largest in Japan. The bell is 3.14 meters tall with a diameter of 1.85 meters, and weighs 10 tons. The thatched gable roof of the belfry retains the style of early Edo period. In 1618, Mogami Genjiro Ienobu, the feudal lord of Yamagata, rebuilt this belfry which collapsed during a typhoon the previous year. Both the bell and the belfry are designated as national important cultural property.
Bell and belfry along with a monument in the front

Another view of the bell and belfry

Me standing in front of the bell and belfry

Adjacent to the bell and belfry is the main shrine worship hall building called Sanjin Gosaiden. This shrine is unique as it enshrines the deities of all the three scared mountains of Dewa, which makes it the most important of the three. This shrine can be visited throughout the year, even in winter. The date of its foundation is unknown, but the main building of the present shrine was rebuilt at the time of 75th Betto (the chief priest), Kakujun, in 1818. The building is 28.2 meters high, 26 meters wide, and 20 meters in depth. The thatched roof made from kaya trees is 2.1 meter thick. No other wooden building with a thatched roof is so large in Japan as this. This main shrine hall building is a splendid red-lacquered structure and it is designated as national important cultural property. We prayed in front of all the three mountain deities.
Sanjin Gosaiden shrine

Hubby standing in front of Sanjin Gosaiden shrine

Thatched roof of the shrine

Sanjin Gosaiden enshrines the deities of all the three mountains of Dewa

Signs showing three different shrine names

Altar area of one of the three deities

We stayed at Sanjin Gosaiden shrine for about 20 minutes and enjoyed the architecture of the building. On returning to the car parking area at the mountain summit, hubby again had lunch at a restaurant located nearby. Due to all the climbing we did earlier in the day, he was very hungry again and ate curry rice served with a pork cutlet.
Hubby eating curry rice

After hubby’s second lunch, we returned back home. It was a 2.5 hours car ride and I slept the entire way as I was rather tired due to climbing the stone steps of Mt. Haguro. We really liked our trip to Mt. Haguro. I especially liked the five storied pagoda and Sanjin Gosaiden shrine very much.

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