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Mt. Ubagatake trail (part of Dewa Sanzan)

Explore the Three Mountains of Dewa

The Three Mountains of Dewa, also known as Dewa Sanzan, located in the Yamagata Prefecture is known for many spiritual devotees. Each of the mountains represent the past (Mount Gassan), the present (Mount Haguro) or the future (Shugenja). It is a popular pilgrimage site where many believe that by praying at the shrines of all three mountains will bring spiritual rebirth. Mount Haguro’s Five-story Pagoda is  recognized as one of Japan’s national treasures.

Exploring the vast mountain ranges are not for the faint of heart. But there are some hiking trails for beginners worth trying. Experiencing nature in such a historic spot is just one of the many ways to appreciate the beauty and history of Japan!

Five Storey Pagoda at Mount Haguro

The birth of Dewa Sanzan as a pilgrimage site

Prince Hachiko, the first- born son of the 32nd emperor of Japan, Emperor Sushun, initially proclaimed Dewa Sanzan as a religious center in 593, over 1,400 years ago. The prince arrived in Dewa after fleeing from the Soga clan when hi father was assassinated. He then devoted the remainder of his life to religious pursuits to the point of going through enormous feats of endurance and a period of penance that led to his worshipping Haguro Gongen, the deity of the mountain. Prince Hachiko also worshipped at the Gassan and Yudono mountains which led to the enshrinement of all three deities at the temple located at the summit of Mount Haguro.

When Dewa Sanzan mountains was established as the center of ascetic religious beliefs, many people began to make yearly pilgrimages to pay reverence. The pilgrimages are significant to many religions and the mountains became a place to learn other belief systems particularly to shugendō. Many known people have made this pilgrimage including En no Gyōja, the founder of shugendō asceticism, and Kukai, the founder of the Shingon Sect.

Mount Haguro trail

Dewa Sanzan centering on Shugendo

The Three Mountains of Dewa are known to be the oldest site for mountain worship in Japan.  Shugendō (“the way of shugen, or gen-practice”), a highly syncretic religion that involves the merging of several originally discrete traditions, is said to have originated from these mountains.

Practitioners are called Shugenja or Yamabushi, literally meaning “mountain prostrate”. They undergo feats of endurance that are believed to help them transcend the physical world. A part of their training involves the long pilgrimage through the Three Mountains of Dewa. In the temples of Churenji and Dainichibo lie two monks who have succeeded in mummifying their own bodies through extreme diet and meditation. For more than a thousand years the Yamabushi mountain monks have followed these ancient practices and continue to pass on their wisdom to other followers to learn to train the body, mind and soul.

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Read all about Japanese immersion learning and studying abroad. Check out our eZasshi archives for more articles!