Episode 19.4: Hedonistic Zen Monk -- Dewa Sanzan
  When we reached the summit, we were thoroughly chilled and could
  hardly breathe.  The sun had already set and the moon had come
  out.  Making ourselves a bed of bamboo grass with twigs of
  bamboo for a pillow, we lay down and waited for the dawn...

                                                   Basho, TNRttDN

  息絶え身こごえて頂上に至れば、日没して月顕る。 笹を敷き篠を材

Dewa Sanzan!  The name probably says absolutely nothing to 98% of
my readers, but for the Japanese, the reaction will be more like
that of my innkeeper in Naruko, who clapped his hands and bowed
in reverence when I told him I was headed that way.  The area
consists of three mountains -- Haguro-san, the most accessible;
Gas-san, the highest; and Yudono-san, the holiest -- that have been
worshipped by yamabushi (mountain priests) and followers of Shugendo,
a syncretic Shinto/Buddhist spinoff, for centuries.

Getting there proved a little kinky.  I spent an hour hashing over
various plans with an incredibly helpful tourist office clerk.
I wanted to stay two nights at Dewa Sanzan, the other at Yudono-san,
but Yudono's accommodations were full so I resorted to plan B:
stay one night atop Haguro-san at Saikan, leave early the next
morning and cross both Gas-san and Yudono-san, then catch the 16:00
bus to Yamagata and stay at a cheap ryokan there.  Since there was
no way I'd lug all my gear all the way, I Takkyubin'd most of it
to Yamagata for all of 1000 yen.  I shudder to think how much
next-day express for a 20-kg backpack would cost in elsewhere...

After a quick visit to Zenpoji Temple, a large but compact and quite
nice temple complex near Tsuruoka, it was time to get going.  As
preparation for rain I purchased an rain-proof Teflon-coated
pilgrim-white "anorak" conviniently on sale for Y2900, then set off.
It was past 4 by the time I got to the bottom of Haguro-san and
started the climb.  First a leisurely stroll through the forest
through some astonishing scenery, huge trees, bright red bridges,
waterfalls, thousand-year-old pagodas, and then the climb itself,
an endless path of stone steps.  The path was quiet, few people
were going up at this time of day; I stopped halfway at a teahouse
where I was enthusiastically welcomed and (as always) quizzed by
the owner.  A little after 5 I reached the top, sweaty and hot but
not all that tired.
Carvings at Zenpoji
Suga Waterfall
Shinkyo Bridge
Haguro-san doesn't really have a sharply defined "peak", instead
the top houses a very large temple complex including my lodgings,
the pilgrims' inn Saikan.  It's a large and rather soulless place,
the staff seemed quite curt as they processed me in and took me
to my room.  Then again, with 300 guests nightly, perhaps it's
no surprise.   What did take me by surprise was my room: it was
HUGE by any standards, especially Japanese ones.  Most Japanese
rooms are 3 to 6 jo (tatami mats, 1x2m), mine was 28, with a nice
view out into the garden too.  Dinner was an admirable spread of
mountain cuisine, grilled fish with sesame tofu, sesame pickles,
sesame vegetables and lots more.  After dinner the reason why a poor
gaijin student paying a miserly 7000 yen per night got the emperor-
sized room became clear: the main dining hall was one paper wall away
and the people paying 10000 yen for their dinner alone were making
the most of it with lots of sake and beer.

I escaped for a stroll around the deserted temple grounds at sunset.
One sight tugged at my heart: a corner of the area was devoted to
Jizo, with dozens of statues dressed by mourning mothers watching
a hill covered by thousands upon thousands of wooden grave markers,
each one representing a dead child.  The Jizos were surrounded by
Doraemon figures, kids' sandals, picture books and other offerings.
I returned to Saikan just in time before a massive downpour, which
I sat and watched from my room, entranced by the view of the
neglected little Japanese garden in the rain.

Saikan at night

Each marker a dead child...
I didn't sleep very well and the morning's breakfast didn't go
down very well either.  At dinner most items were novel and tasty, at
breakfast they were bizarre and unpalatable.  The single most odd
item was floating in the miso soup: little presumably plant-
originated things that I can only describe as vagina-shaped, sickly
gray hairy ovals with a lengthwise slit in the middle, covered with a
thick layer of transparent jelly.  (Honest.)  They didn't taste like
much, and neither did the seaweed tofu nor the rice noodles, but
I couldn't help feeling as if I were at an Indiana Jones banquet.
For the first time in Japan, I left half uneaten, and so did most
other guests.

At 7 it was time to leave and trek down Haguro-san on the other
side to catch the morning bus.  The path went down the other side,
and it was deserted, muddy and slippery after the rain.  It was
still early in the morning and every mosquito, fly and random
creepy-crawly was looking for breakfast, ie. me.  I stomped down
in 40 minutes, unable to stop because I would have been devoured
alive.  The bus was on time and an hour later I was at Gas-san
Eighth Station.

A note.  The studlinessTM of a mountain is measured by its height:
thus, it is studlier to climb Gas-san (1984m) than, say, Kinkazan
(445m), but what should matter is the distance climbed.  I climbed
every one of those 445m myself, but in Gas-san's case, the first 1400m
were taken care of by the bus, leaving only 500-odd for me.  In the
end, clambering up Gas-san took me a little over 2 hours, with some
tougher spots but mostly just leisurely strolling across a high
plateau.  Most of the time the scenery reminded me of Ireland,
endless, green, rocky, misty plains in extending in all directions.
At the summit, I paid Y500 for the privilege of entering the shrine
and being blessed by the priest, then it was time to start the walk
down to Yudono-san.  All downhill, so it's a piece of cake, right?
Up and away...
...all the way to the top!
...and back down again.
Wrong.  The final climb up was a bit tough, but the first half-hour
of descent was downright mean.  My monopod turned into my walking
stick as I clambered down the randomly strewn boulders, getting
stuck in pilgrim traffic jams every two minutes as the poor people
going up struggled.  With the wind blowing up the mountain it was
bitterly cold.  Eventually the clouds cleared and stunning vistas
opened on both sides as the trail went across and down a ridge.  Half
an hour later the trail split, a staircase going up a hill while a
much smaller, rockier path turned to the right.  Most people went up,
but the signs for Yudono pointed to the right, so there I went.  The
trail varied between bad and horrible, a muddy, rocky, narrow path
deep in the bush.  The few people going up were all so tired they
could barely manage a "Konnichiwa".  It was hot again, I was out of
water (stupidly not having refilled at the last mountain hut), but I
stomped on until I reached a beautiful sight...  a little shed with
(praise the gods!) a tap for drinkable water.  Glug, glug, glug.

Refreshed, I plunged on.  The trail rapidly turned from horrible
to atrocious.  According to my map, the already steep 2-hour descent
between the summit and the shed was 300m, whereas in the next hour
the trail would drop 400m.  Cartographic error, right?  Nope.
The average descent angle varied between 30 and 45 degrees, with
some literally vertical sections fitted with rusty steel ladders
tens of meters long.  Legs shaking from exertion -- I'd been at it
for 6 hours at this point -- I climbed down, poking with my monopod
to detect loose rocks that would send me hurtling down if stepped
on...  while a old granny pilgrim as agile as a gazelle walked down
the ladders and sped past me.  The final descent was at a 45-deg angle
within a rushing mountain stream, hopping from slippery algae-covered
rock to rock.  I bow in reverence to the nutc^H^H^H^Hdevout pilgrims
who climbed up this route (and extend my tongue at the smart guys
who took the other path, where the last descent is taken care of
by a ski lift).

Unbelievable as it seemed, eventually the stream ran into the lake
of a dam and the trail became almost level.  After a pause to
catch my breath and wring the sweat out of my soaked towel/headband,
I continued down beside what was now a very picturesque mountain
stream to the end of the path, the Yudono-san Shrine.  Describing
the wonders of the shrine is forbidden, so I won't spill the beans,
but I will note that a) the guidebook descriptions I've read don't
do it any justice and b) it would make one hell of an onsen.

And that, really, was it.  The obligatory tourist mecca was a short
bus ride away, so I too bought my T-shirt, souvenirs and a curry rice
for lunch, before catching an "express" (ha!) bus to Yamagata and
collapsing at my ryokan.  All in a day's work.  My feet withstood
the battering surprisingly well, but because I bought the raincoat,
I got somewhat sunburnt instead.  Just the same, given that the
rest of the week it'd been raining more or less non-stop, I was in
fact amazingly lucky.

I had one day left and one more sightseeing destination to cover,
namely Yamadera (aka Risshakuji), the well-named Mountain Temple.
While not a part of Dewa Sanzan, being on the other side of the
central plain, the climb to get to the main complex took half
an hour and should be worth at least half a Hagurosan in studliness
points.  The temples were quite nice and the views were better...
and hey, Basho was there too, long enough to write a famous haiku
which describes the sound of the semi (an amazingly noisy Japanese
cicada) penetrating the rocks.  But while the chirping of the semi
has been a constant feature of summer in Japan, on this rainy
day they were silent.

Swiss cheese hillsides

Mountains and an umbrella
Then it was time to get back.  I was (again) going to hitchhike,
but (again) the weather pre-empted these plans; my original backup
plan was to take the Shinkansen from Sendai, but it turned out
that Yamagata had a Shinkansen line as well.  Or almost, anyway,
since Shinkansen trains ply a normal track at normal speed.
To save a few pennies I took a local to Yonezawa, then switched
and rode the rest of the way home at speeds that were utterly
amazing after getting used to the 40 km/h donkos of rural Toohoku.


Pictures | Next | Previous | Index