Japan: Why Dewa Sanzan is loved by pilgrims

When you seek enlightenment, you could do worse than a pilgrimage to Japan’s largest island Honshu and in particular to Tohoku.


Tohoku, a region in the northeast of Honshu, is blessed with glorious natural beauty of majestic mountains, lakes and steaming hot springs amid ancient cedar forests. The mystical landscape lends itself as the abodes of the according to the local belief. Against this setting lies three holy mountains that together are known as Dewa Sanzan. They are regarded as one of the most sacred in the country.

This is where of Japan lies in its traditional and religious culture and where ancient mountain worship is still very much practised. Against this background we embarked on an epic journey to trace the footsteps of pilgrims who are followers of Shugendo, a folk religion of animism with influence, Shintoism and Taoism.

In essence, Shugendo seeks the path of enlightenment through strengthening the bond between man and nature. They believe nature is a manifestation of the gods and should be treated with reverence.

The circle of life

Mountains and forests have paramount importance in Shugendo. The Dewa Sanzan mountains of Mt Haguro (419m), Mt Gassan (1984m) and Mt Yudono (1504m) are the centres of pilgrimage in the region. The followers known as Shugenjas or Yamabushi (mountain monks) have been following the rites of worship for the last 1400 years.

Followers embark on long pilgrimages and practise austere feat of physical endurance of natural elements as an ascetic of passage to gain spiritual power. We had the privilege of experiencing the immersive ceremony of Shugendo first hand by tracing the foot steps of the pilgrims and visiting the three sacred mountains that represent spiritual birth, death and rebirth at Mt Haguro, Mt Gassan and Mt Yudono respectively.

We arrived at Mt Haguro as dusk was setting in when we entered the sacred through the torii, a wooden gateway that is found in all sacred in Japan. A long flight of stone steps known as the Ishi-Dan led down to an enchanting forest with towering cedar trees along the ancient pilgrim route. The 1.7km trail built in 1648 has 2,446 steps leading to the Sanjin Gosaiden shrine at the summit.

There are 33 carvings etched on the steps and it is believed that if you can find all 33, your wishes will come true. We followed the sacred path as far as the 600-year-old Goju-no-to, the Five-Storey Pagoda, a gazetted treasure. In the gloom of the forest, the ancient Pagoda exuded an air of veneration that lent to the belief that a deity of the forest lives in it. Along the way there were shrines that house the gods that will protect humans against that may lurk in the forest.

Close encounter

When we arrived at Sanjin Gosaiden, the main shrine at the summit, we were met by a Yamabushi dressed in his traditional religious garb of a loose coat of black and white checks worn over baggy white trousers. He sounded a hora, a religious conch trumpet, as a welcome and to ward off bad.