Mount Haguro is a holy place of such atmospheric dimensions with its towering, 600-year-old cryptomeria that one might imagine–or just as easily believe–the spirits of the mountain are quietly watching all who pass through their wooded realm. There are plenty of believers on the 2466 stone steps leading to the top. Some are travelers who perhaps casually practice the native, animistic faith of their culture but whose piety grows as they ascend; a journey with promise of sensory pleasure becomes a pilgrimage with implications of the spirit because the surroundings seem to demand it. Others are more disciplined and participate in special retreats nearby involving meditation and other arduous training before taking the climb. Those who practice Shugendo as a way of life are the yamabushi–the ascetic mountain monks–and they, too, are easily spotted on the mountain with their conch shell horns. Others, still, are simply tourists with their cameras and travel lust–and maybe a taste for sake. That’s fine as well. Neither the mountain, nor the nearby city of Tsuruoka with its seven breweries, will complain.
This internationally acclaimed travel destination in a quiet city of a quiet prefecture is part of the Three Mountains of Dewa, the other two mountains of which we described in detail in Sake Today issue #11 (Mount Yudono and Mount Gassan) as a part of our Yamagata prefecture travel feature. Haguro deserves individual focus in part because it is the most popular and easily accessible of the three. It’s also the most sake-friendly in the group–if you need to reward yourself for those 2466 steps later, it will not be hard to do. If you don’t have the stamina or physical means to climb, that won’t be an issue either. A toll road allows buses, taxis and private cars to drive to a parking area a short walk from the shrine and temple complex near the summit. Haguro is the only mountain of the three accessible in winter, too.
Most visitors do start from the bottom, at the Zuishinmon gate of weathered scarlet color. A sign reflecting the changing times asks people not to use drones on the climb. A ten-minute jaunt into the forest past stone lanterns, a waterfall, and a footbridge brings you to Gojû-tô (the five-story pagoda), which is made without nails and completely out of wood. It’s the oldest surviving pagoda in the Tohoku region (Japan’s northeast) and awe-inspiring to see in the ancient forest.
If you are as hale as the yamabushi, the climb will take you a few hours. The stairs are not steep, but neither are they uniform in size or perfectly level, making it somewhat challenging. The surrounding trees, meanwhile, are filled with the sounds of birds, frogs and other insects, especially the pulsating drone of cicadas in summer. Thankfully, there is a rest area about halfway up offering refreshments like tea. Plan on some peaceful repose here to take in the sights, sounds and scents of the forest.
Just a few dozen steps before reaching the end of your winding, upward journey is a pathway leading through some gates into the courtyard of a structure known in abbreviated form as Saikan. This facility offers shukubô (“temple lodgings”), which are simple though not spartan, basically involving some bedding in a large tatami room and access to a bath. It also has shôjin ryôri, the traditional vegetarian meals of the yamabushi. You do not need to stay here to enjoy a meal (though you absolutely need to make a reservation by phone). Costing only a few thousand yen, the meals feature multiple dishes whose ingredients have been harvested from the mountain’s environs. They are quite good and have influenced Tsuruoka’s cuisine as a whole, helping it to earn UNESCO recognition. A few varieties of local sake are available with your meal and will certainly help draw out more flavor in the food.
Sanzan-Gôsai-den temple is the centerpiece of the summit and is surrounded by quite a number of shrines to various gods–the syncretic blend of Buddhism and Shintoism is on full display on these grounds. The temple’s massive thatched roof and supporting architecture are eye-opening, even after the long climb through a mesmerizing forest. The Dewasanzan Historical Museum, located on the grounds, pays homage to the history of Dewasanzan and the yamabushi that have practiced Shugendo here for hundreds of years. Information in English is available, albeit limited.
Buses from Tsuruoka Station take about 40 minutes to reach Zuishinmon gate and continue to the summit parking lot if you aren’t one for the stairs. The small town outside the lower gate, Toge, has a handful of humble guesthouses lining the main thoroughfare. They generally serve local fare and carry what you might expect to drink with it: plenty of local sake.
Unfortunately, most of the local breweries do not have tasting rooms, nor is there any kind of community tasting room that offers selections from each of the seven. If you are intent on making a brewery visit, however, we recommend Watarai Honten, which has a formal tasting room and retail shop, as well as a small museum featuring its history inside the brewery itself. It’s a short walk from Uzen-Oyama station, which is one stop past Tsuruoka.
There are two festivals each year which offer visitors a healthy selection of the local sake. The four breweries located in the Oyama neighborhood co-host the “Oyama New Sake & Brewery Festival” each year in the winter to feature–you guessed it–the year’s new sake. It’s usually held in February and the breweries open their doors to their public for quite a festive day. The Shônai Sake Festival (named after the region) takes place in the summer. This year, it will be held on Saturday, July 1st from 11am to 6pm in front of Tsuruoka Station. There will be 18 participating breweries from the region serving over 100 different kinds of sake. It costs only ¥2500 at the door (¥2000 in advance) and if you come wearing a yukata, you’ll get a special gift.
An ideal itinerary would involve climbing Mount Haguro the day before, lodging nearby, and filling up on some great local sake and food the next day. You definitely don’t want to try that climb after a few hours of sake.
Tsuruoka, like many provincial towns in Japan, is challenged by aging demographics and infrastructure. Shuttered businesses are not uncommon and nightlife is subdued, though local pubs proudly serve local sake in general. If you are looking for more to do in the town during the day, we recommend Gyokusen-ji, a temple compound not far from the base of Haguro with elegant gardens and a tea house inside; and Zenpô-ji, a sprawling temple complex with an impressive pagoda, haunting statues and sculptures, and other incredible architecture.