On the second day of the Dewa Sanzan pilgrimage we tackled the mighty Gassan and the mysterious Yudono-san. The morning started early by taking the first bus to the Gassan car park from the bus stop outside our accommodation Haguromachi Touge. Important note for travelers, Japanese buses do not accept 5,000 yen notes. Once we had paid for our ticket we took the clearly marked trail to Gassan. We passed plenty of pilgrims dressed in white with splendid split toed boots based on traditional straw sandals but with a modern hiking boot soles. Halfway up we stopped at the small tea house for liquid refreshments. As we climbed higher is was possible to see Tsuruoka and the coast of the Sea of Japan. Following the gently climbing path the tiny stone shrine appeared balanced on the top of Gassan at 1984m. After receiving a blessing and a cleansing with a tiny piece of blotting paper I made my offering with claps and bows. This shrine represents death for followers of the Shugen-do sect. Close to the shrine there is a small refuge and it is possible to stay the night there.
Gassan is a shield volcano giving it a flatter shape than a stratovolcano, despite this the initial descent on the opposite side of the shrine was quite steep and rocky. Once the worst of the descent was over we found some wooden benches and stopped to eat the rice balls prepared for us by our temple inn. The summit appeared and disappeared as the cloud gusted across. After lunch we carried on past the trail that leads to the top of the ski lift and headed for the Seyaku emergency hut. After the hut the path turned down into a steep sided valley and we had to climb down a series of iron ladders and the jump from bolder to bolder following the path of a stream. Finally we reached the bottom of the river valley filled with wisps of sulfurous steam. We had arrived at the Yudono shrine symbolic of rebirth. The rituals of the shrine are a poorly kept secret but all are welcome to participate. After a pleasurable moment of contemplation in the shrine we strolled down the road to the car park and gift shops. Buses to Tsuruoka are infrequent so with the help of a very kind Japanese lady we managed to order a taxi.
This was truly a magical day of pilgrimage. The summit of Haguro (414m) is reached by climbing 2446 stone steps that wind through towering cedars teeming with guardian spirits. Throughout the journey there are wondrous things to see.
We rose at seven for morning prayers and a blessing from the priest who ran our hotel to ensure our journey would be an auspicious one. The walk started from a rustic torii gate in the center of Touge. Immediately we were plunged into the moss green shade of the Japanese red cedar forest and we quickly spotted white clad pilgrims making offerings at a multitude of shrines. We soon came across the red lacquered bridge which crosses the Haraigawa River and leads to the foot of the Suga waterfall. Shortly afterwards we came to Jiji-sugi, the Grandpa cedar tree, and stood staring up into the branches of this lofty giant. This tree is thought to be over a 1000 years old. It was only a few more steps before we encountered the 5-storied pagoda built from wood without nails. This graceful structure seems weightless when contrasted with the surrounding rocks and trees. After the pagoda the steps became steeper, but luckily there was the opportunity to take a rest at the charming Ninosaka Chaya tea house. We took a breather, sipping matcha tea and looking over the Shonai plain to the sea. The friendly ladies who run the tea house also offer pilgrimage certificates and souvenirs. Back to climbing steps once more, we passed the temple where the famous poet Basho stayed. His travels through this area are captured in haikus in the The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Finally we reached the red torii gate and the Sanzan-Gosai-den shrine which symbolizes birth. The temple has the thickest thatched roof in Japan and has wisely been surrounded by water jets for fire protection. Close to the shrine is the "Mirror pond" which has been used for centuries for purification rituals and the Bonsho bell, which is the third largest in Japan.
To recover from our exertions we ate a delicious bowl of vegetarian noodles in the restaurant above the gift shop close to the bus stop. We were now ready to visit the museum which has information on the Shugendo religion and the yamabushi. Perhaps the most interesting exhibit is the collection of bronze decorated mirrors retrieved from the depths of the "Mirror pond". We ended our day by making an essential visit to the Taketsunumi shrine to make an offering to the deity of safe travel and healthy legs. 100% auspiciousness guaranteed!