Day 52, October 2016,
We spend a very wet night, with the car rocking in the wind, but the morning rain is intermittent. The toilet in this road station has a notice requesting visitors to keep the place clean and there is a picture of a cute, cartoon lady with a big, smile happily cleaning the bowl. In reality, the elderly lady cleaning the facility is a sour faced, harridan. She looks daggers at a youngish woman, from a large camper van, who comes out of the Ladies with a dog litter tray. This sort of thing is, understandably, frowned on by local road station personnel and should be avoided before it gets overnight stays banned.
Mt. Haguro 羽黒山
We set off for Mt. Haguro. Haguro-san is one of the three mountains that comprise Dewa Sanzan (three mountains at Dewa). The other two being Gassan and Yudonosan. Dewa Sanzan is a very important site for Shugendo, an ancient belief of mountain asceticism that became reshaped by the entrance of Buddhism into Japan. For Shugendo followers, Mount Haguro represents the present, Gassan the past and Yudonosan the future. To complete the pilgrimage to all three is to be reborn.
Here, there is an important Jinja (shrine) where the Gods of Dewa-Sanzan are enshrined. Yudonosan and Gassan, the other two mountains that form the sacred trinity of Dewa-sanzan, are inaccessible during the winter months so, conveniently, the Gods are grouped together on the one mountain not cut off by snow.This is certain to involve more walking than the American variety.
We arrive about 9:30 to start our climb up the stone stairs. We pass Gojyu-no-Tou (5 story pagoda) and, this time, head on up. There is some gentle pavement through the giant cedars but most of the way is very steep, stone steps. Each individual step is quite shallow, so it is like walking in low gear though, perhaps, not in a nice way.
The climb is enjoyable though, passing through the magnificent trees with small, wooden shrines dotting the way. We pass the temple where Basho spent the night, well the monument to Basho and the foundation stone, which is all that remains of the temple building he stayed in. He also wrote a poem there, which I haven’t read.
At the start of our climb, it was raining and cold but during our ascent the weather improves and there are patches of blue sky and very occasional sunshine. On the way up, there are 3 major stretches of steps and by the third we are getting tired.
Dewa Sanzan Shrine 出羽三山神社
On reaching Dewa Jinjya, the shrine at the top, we are surprised to find quite so many people as we saw few during our ascent. It is at this point we notice the car park. We doubt their righteousness. The Shrine itself is a large, red wooden structure with a magnificent, thatched roof and surrounded by yet more, but this time wooden, steps.
While we are admiring the temple, mountain mist wafts up through the torii at the top of the steps we arrived through, obscuring the near surroundings and wreathing all in mystery. After exploring the scene for a while, which included a small shrine with heaps of shoes, we begin our descent.
This is not so hard, but the steps are steep and sloping and possibly slippery. We have to concentrate on our feet, to the general exclusion of the scenery. This has its reward, as we notice some stones just very, very occasionally have some kind of inscription on them. One, for example, at the entrance to a food hall for monks showed 3 crudely etched sake cups and a tokkuri (sake bottle).
By the time we reach the bottom and the 5 story pagoda, we have travelled 1.7 km. up and the same down again. That is 2446 steps each way. This has taken us 3 and a 1/2 hours.
＊access to Mt.Haguro (Zuishinmon) ; bus 50min. from Tsuruoka city in Yamagata prefecture
; car 10km. from Tsuruoka IC, 15km
Michi no Eki Nishikawa
Off in search of lunch, which we eat by a river but it is not picturesque and then drive through the mountains looking for a road station. One has a kind of Turkish café and we consider staying there but it is not too attractive, so we head into Sagae to buy food for dinner. We check a road station with an onsen intending to stay if it is better that the Turkish café place. On arrival, we discover no onsen and little else, so we retrace our steps to michi no eki Nishikawa This is new, well equipped and I write this after a relaxing bath.
＊Mizusawa onsen at michi-no-eki ‘Nishikawa’ ; 300yen/adult
Revisit Early, October ’22
From the bottom entrance, you pass through a shrine gate (Zuishinmon) then descend some steep steps past some small shrines to a newly painted red bridge with a waterfall (Suga no taki) off to the right. The woods here are mixed but the Momiji (maple) is stubbornly green. Moving on, there is the famous pagoda standing magnificent in the trees.
This pagoda is due for restoration in 2023 and 4 so will be shrouded in scaffolding and sheeting for those two years. We’re lucky to see this pagoda in old, faded colour, again.
From the pagoda the ascent proper begins. Now, the huge shrine Sugi trees dominate the view. Well, the trees and the sheer flight of stone steps which they line.
There are, I think, 3 sections of very steep steps and 2 sections in between where the path levels out to a relative degree.
There were a number of people making the ascent on this holiday weekend. A surprising number of families with young children who, I must admit were handling the situation better than I was. It is 6 years since D., and I last made this climb and in another 6 it will almost certainly be beyond me.
Hagurosan Dewa-Sanzan Shrine
The shrine itself is something of a disappointment after such a climb. It is a large, red building newly thatched. Part of the structure was still covered by scaffolding. Just after you pass through the Torii at the top of the steps, there is a small shrine building on the left that has splendid carvings of dragons on the wooden pillars at either side.
Returning down the formidable steps, we decide to head towards Sendai. The forecast for tomorrow is heavy rain so we plan a museum day. However, our first choice michi no eki in the Sendai area is under renovation so the temporary toilets are the only option. Not fancying this, we hit the highway and speed to michi no eki Jobon no Sato at Ishinomaki which has an onsen.
Jobon no Sato michi no eki
This we discover is an iron element onsen the only one in this area. Later we find it is the 2nd most popular michi no eki on Jalan (travel company) ranking for 2022. It is also of course a 3-day weekend. These factors combine to make parking for us arriving well after dark impossible. Only disabled and EV charging space are available. We slowly circle the parking area hoping someone will leave but most registrations are far from local and the number of camping cars and shaded Hi-Aces suggest most vehicles are there for the night.
Eventually, we find a space at the onsen end of the car park. This is a problem as the facilities are at the other extreme and heavy rain and thunder are forecast. We have to accept it; I have driven too far already. There must be over 100 vehicles parked for the night.
I later realize that we have stayed in this michi no eki before as I remember the heavy lattice woodwork. I had favourable impression of the place then, but it was nowhere near as busy.
＊Futago no yu (onsen) : 600 yen / adult (650 yen from April ’23)
The author is a long term resident of Japan who has and continues to travel the country extensively. Avoiding highways where possible, the author has driven from Kagoshima in Kyushu to Wakanai in Hokkaido covering 20,000 plus kilometres and counting.