Almost precisely one month from now I will be stepping off the Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo to catch a short bus ride to Zaō Onsen for my first snowboard turns in Japan.
Mount Zaō is home to Japan’s famed “snow monsters”–slopes of evergreen trees covered in the frozen mists blown in from the Sea of Japan. Tourists come from all over the world to behold this unique winter wonder. As I contemplated transforming my first trip to Japan into a winter sport excursion, Mount Zaō and these incredible natural formations were a key in the proverbial ignition. How could I pass up an opportunity to nest myself among these remarkable natural sculptures and pay homage to such miracles of nature?
As I have projected my imagination forward in time and eagerly conjured visions of arriving at this mysterious mountain location, I’ve worked my attention outward from Mount Zaō specifically to the surrounding Yamagata prefecture and learned of the entire region’s historical significance as a sacred community of mountains. Along with Mount Zaō and Mount Ryuzan, Yamagata is home to the Dewa Sanzan (Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa)–Haguro-san, Gas-san, and Yudon-san. The Dewa Sanzan represent birth, death, and rebirth in the ancient syncretic religion of Shugendō, whose practitioners are the ‘yamabushi’ or mountain worshipers.
Shugendō is a historical blending of various strains of Shinto, Buddhism, and even the primitive shamanistic practices of the region’s traditional folk communities. Though it was outlawed during the Meiji Restoration, it survives to this day, experiencing a revival in the post-WWII period. Shugendō is not isolated to Yamagata and the Dewa Sanzan but the region and mountains are without question the epicenter of the sacred religion. Every year thousands of Japanese citizens pilgrimage to the three shrines situated on each mountaintop. The practice and significance of mountain worship has only deepened over time in the life of the Japanese people.
As I step on to the Yamagata Shinkansen at Tokyo Station, having hopefully shaken off the first few heavy layers of jet lag, I wonder if I will choose to divert slightly from my itinerary to Zaō Onsen and hail a taxi or train to Yamadera, the site of Japan’s original mountain temple–Risshakuji?
The site is made doubly famous by Matsuo Bashō’s famous haiku written while on pilgrimage to the temple:
sinking into the rocks,
Or would I dare to divert even more drastically to visit Haguro-san, the easiest and quite frankly, the only open shrine of Dewa’s three sacred mountains during the winter months?
What is it about the knowledge of these high places that calls to wanderers and explorers like me? Why do I feel challenged by the ideals of dedicated ascetics like the ‘yamabushi’–who pit their spirits against the elements? Is it possible to answer such questions in a lifetime?
Between these two contemplative diversions lies Ginzan Onsen, a mountain haven filled with relaxing luxuries, hot springs, and quaint storefronts, all wrapped up in the restored woodwork of an ancient lantern-lit silver mining town. Ginzan Onsen is hailed as one of the must-see winter destinations of Japan. A simple Google Image search for “Ginzan Onsen” says it all trust me. Have at it.
All of this is to say that Yamagata is a special prefecture in Japan. It holds power in nature. As I have set forth to dive a little deeper into the itinerary I have set for myself, it represents the first instance of the country calling to me from the periphery of all those best laid plans and daring me to second-guess myself as I am loathe to do when I set foot in a new country. You see, I am susceptible to wandering down unbeaten paths in foreign lands and intentionally seeking out chance encounters. It has rarely gotten me into trouble (knock wood) and only created indelible memories.
But one must be careful. In Japan we are not far from the mountain deities, ancient oni, with whom the ‘yamabushi’ are all to familiar with. If we tread before their shrines we owe them the utmost respect and humility. In between now and then I will search my inner thoughts, and should I decide to skirt their enticements, I certainly will not be the less for it. Mount Zaō is a worthy destination, and will leave me forever changed. All the more so because the famed “snow monsters” may be running up against a natural clock of extinction. Who knows if I will ever get the chance to marvel at these animistic wonders in quite the same way again?
In my next post I will take you to the inevitable next leg of my planned journey–to Yokote and the annual Kamakura Snow Festival. Let’s go!