- The Holy Grounds of Shugendo on Gassan
- Roads blocked by snow… in June?!
- Making the reckless decision to climb the snowy mountain!
- Walking up to the top of the snow-covered mountain with all of my might
- Visiting the Gassan Shrine at the top of Gassan!
- Climbed the three peaks of Dewa in one day! Safe descent!
The Holy Grounds of Shugendo on Gassan
View of Gassan in the distance
from the foot of HagurosanGassan, the sacred holy ground of Shugendo, is 1,984 meters above sea level and is revered as a sacred mountain of Dewa Sanzan, along with Hagurosan and Yudonosan. The main Gassan Shrine was built on its summit and Tsukiyomi-no-mikoto, known as the Moon God who presides over the night, the sea, the soul, and the afterlife is enshrined there. Since the Heian period (794-1185), many ascetic practitioners and worshipers have gathered at Gassan, and the mountain has become a symbol of the night and death. As a result, Gassan Shrine was made to be the only national shrine of the highest rank in the Tohoku region during the Meiji era (1868-1912), and is treated with great respect by the government. Today, the main Gassan Shrine is open for a limited time from July 1 to September 15.
Stone monument inscribed
with haiku by Matsuo BashoFrom its summit, the Shonai-heiya and the Mogami region are visible, as well as the mountain range of Iide in the south, Chokaisan in the north, and beyond are Hachimantai and Iwakisan in Aomori Prefecture.. The water flowing from the foot of the mountains is known as one of the 100 best spring water in Japan. Matsuo Basho composed the haiku “How many cloud peaks have tumbled upon the moon mountain” when he climbed Gassan.
There are eight main trails that lead to the summit of Gassan. From the summit, it takes about three hours to reach Yudonosan, and along the way there are several places such as Gyojagahara that are known as famous places for ascetic practices. The most accessible course to the top of Gassan is the Shizu (Lift) Course where people ride a ski lift called the Gassan Lift.
Shizu Entrace (Lift) Course Elevation Difference MapThere, a mountain goer can pick up a car and drive to the base station of the Gassan Lift, which is located at an elevation of 1235 meters, and from there take the ski lift to the lift station at an elevation of 1505 meters. It’s a 3.7 km (479 m) walk to the top of Gassan from the end of the lift, which takes a little over two hours. On the way, pass through a peak called Ushikubi or “cow neck”. Gassan looks like a cow lying down when viewed from a distance, and it is said that the name “Ushikubi” comes from the fact that this location is right around what would be a cow’s neck.
Roads blocked by snow… in June?!
Gassan was the final leg of my one day plan to climb the three peaks of Dewa. I climbed Hagurosan early in the morning at 4:30 a.m. and headed back down the mountain just after 7:00 a.m. Then, I immediately headed for Yudonosan, and by the time I finished worshiping at the shrine, it was already around 11:00 a.m.
Going by the original plan, from there, I was planning to drive to Gassan, climb the mountain to its peak, and then go back to Tokyo before the day’s end. Therefore, I will have to catch the last flight out of Yamagata Shonai Airport and get there in time to catch the 7:50 p.m. flight. I then needed to arrive at the airport by 7:15 p.m. at the latest, return the rental car, and check-in by 7:30 p.m. The drive from Gassan to Shonai Airport takes approximately one hour, so I planned to finish my descent by 6:00 p.m. and head straight to the airport as soon as I got to the foot of Gassan. I thought I still had almost 7 hours to go, but my sense of security was shattered in the blink of an eye.
Road to Gassan closed due to snowDeparting from Yudonosan, I drove to Gassan relying on my car navigation system! The road to Gassan indicated on the navigation system that it was closed due to snow. It was already June, so how could this be true? I suddenly felt uneasy. Since it was a weekday, I immediately called the municipal office of Tsuruoka City in Yamagata Prefecture to ask about how to get to Gassan. Finally, someone from the road department spoke to me over the phone and told me that the most reliable way was to take the detour on the road to the Gassan ski resort. After losing about a half hour, I arrived at the ski resort at around 12:30 pm. I had a little more than five hours left before I had to leave for the airport.。
Reaching the snow blocked ski slopes of Gassan!Mountain climbing is always full of surprises, and Gassan in early June was a perfect example. Unexpectedly, Gassan was still in the middle of ski season. Even though it was a weekday, many skiers were enjoying snowboarding and skiing on the slopes. I was shocked to see so many skiers and Gassan covered in snow. And, I was disappointed at my lack of preparation. Looking down at my own clothes, I was dressed for summer wearing shorts, a shirt, and a running vest. Worst of all, I only had on my ankle-length trekking shoes, and a light windbreaker in my backpack. Here I was standing alone on the ski slopes of Gassan in my summer mountain trekking clothes.
The day of the event was clear and radiant. Direct sunlight shone on the silvery white world, and the ultraviolet rays were sure to be very harsh. Therefore, in order to protect my eyes from sunburn, I tried to buy sunglasses at the ski lodge store, but they didn’t have any in stock. How was I going to be able to get on the ski lift wearing only light clothing and trekking shoes without any eye protection, walk alone under the blazing sun through the silvery white world to the top of Gassan, AND return on time?
Gassan Map (All Routes)
Making the reckless decision to climb the snowy mountain!
Gassan is a mountain which I may never have a chance to visit again. Basking in the grandeur of the mountain in front of me, there was no way that I could just simply give up on climbing the summit because I was only wearing summer clothes without sunglasses or gloves! I told myself that since I had come all this way, I would ride the lift anyway and see for myself what it was like near the end of the mountain so I bought a one-way lift ticket. The ski lift at Gassan is only for uphill boarding, and people are not allowed to ride downhill. If you don’t have skis, you will have to walk down the snowy mountain. I was warned, “If you don’t have skis, you’re gonna have to walk down that mountain.” But, I was determined to finish what I came here for so I decided to walk all the way down the mountain
This was the first time I was riding a ski lift alone without any actual skis on my feet while everyone else was wearing skis or snowboards! Once on the lift, I was thrown into a world of white and silver, and as the lift began its ascent along the mountain ridge. The ultraviolet rays of the sun reflecting off the pure white snowy mountains were so bright that I was worried that they would harm my eyes. Of course, I could not keep my eyes open, so I tried to close them just enough to be able to peer my surroundings through the slits of my eyes.
On my way up the Gassan lift with skiersAfter a while, as we approached the end of the lift, I got off the lift without skis and felt uneasy about walking on the snow, but barely managed to make it down the slope lightly jogging. Looking around, I saw a world of silver snow under a blue sky. However, the top of Gassan was nowhere to be seen. I asked a staff member working on the lift, “Where is the top of Gassan? He looked at me and said, “Are you going dressed like that? Where are your trekking poles?” I was too late, so I asked him, I knew there was no backing down now, so I quickly answered, “I’m experienced climbing, so I’ll be fine.” I answered too quickly. However, I did not know which way to go when I could not see the summit. The staff kindly told me, “The summit is on the back side of the mountain, up and down that peak. Then, as if to pin me down, he asked, “You’ll have to walk all the way down…are you sure you’ll be okay?”
It would be a little over five hours before the plane countdown. I was in a silvery white world, deciding that since I had come this far, I had no choice but to take on this challenge. I had no idea that this would be the start of a reckless snow climb and that it would be an arduous journey.
Walking up to the top of the snow-covered mountain with all of my might
I landed at the lift station on Gassan at exactly 1:00 p.m. and I started climbing up the snow-covered mountain with trekking shoes. Because the mountain is on the back slope of the ski resort, there wasn’t a soul to be seen, and the whole area was just a pristine silvery-white world. The surrounding temperature was a very warm 18 degrees Celsius, and I could feel the rough, sherbet-like texture of the snow with every step I took. Occasionally, my feet would get caught in the depth of the snow, causing the snow on the slope to collapse and I would lose my balance and fall. As a result, I had to put my bare hands into the icy hard snow, which was also very painful. I quickly learned the trick of walking with my feet firmly planted, but I still fell down sometimes.
A lonely snowy mountain where
only one’s own footprints remainHowever, no matter how far I walked, the summit of Gassan back, one can see one’s footprints far off in the snow. Beyond that, there is a wonderful view and blue sky, but I no longer have time to enjoy it. The pace of walking in the snowy mountains is slower than I expected, the strain on my legs is greater, and time is becoming more and more of a concern. On top of that, the ultraviolet rays were making my eyes hurt more and more. Of course, I try to squint and never open my eyes wide, but even so, my eyeballs must be getting hit. My eyes hurt, my hands got cut and tingle from the ice, and my legs are tired. This is just like marching in the Hakkouda Mountains.
I must have walked nonstop for about an hour. As I approached the top, the snow melted and there were many areas with only grass and trees. I tried to walk on the grass and trees, but they were so tall that it seemed rather difficult to walk through them. After a while, I saw stone steps where the snow had melted. Then I climbed up the stairs and saw a long flight of stone steps leading to a shrine at the top of the mountain. Strangely enough, there was no snow at all around the summit. The last stone steps to the Gassan shrine were neatly laid out in a straight line, giving the appearance of an approach to the shrine.
Visiting the Gassan Shrine at the top of Gassan!
The inner shrine of Gassan Shrine where the stone monument of Hakko Ichiu was erected.
At 2:15 p.m., I reached the main shrine of Gassan Shrine, where the stone monument with the large inscription of the words “All Eight Corners of the Wolrd Under One Roof” was erected. That is the summit of Gassan. Being the off-season, there was not a soul to be seen, and it was a rare moment when I was the only one standing at the top of Gassan and had this beautiful mountain all to myself. The temple grounds were small, but it had such a dignified air to it as a sacred place set aside for worshiping and praying to God. There, I offered a prayer of gratitude alone to God. The surrounding scenery was spectacular, and I was able to experience a sense of accomplishment at the summit, and it was a moment of sheer bliss. I felt a little proud of myself for having worked so hard to reach the summit.
The Magnificent View from the Top of Gassan
After a while, I could see fog coming from the main shrine and the back side of the shrine. According to the weather forecast, it was supposed to be sunny during the day, but it was already almost 2:30 p.m. and mountain weather is always changing. Since I was climbing alone, I checked the compass on my cell phone to see which direction the lift and ski lodge were just in case I got lost. Then, I hurriedly decided to start my descent. Sure enough, it is easier to roll down a snow-covered mountain than to climb up. Even when you make careful steps, the snow tends to collapse in and throw you off your feet. How many times did I fall? Still, I persevered and continued to walk down the snowy mountain in a hurry to avoid being engulfed in fog, slipping sideways on the steep slopes.
Finally Returning back
to Gassan Lift StationAfter walking for what must have been an hour, I finally made it back to the lift station. The staff member who had advised me on the way up was still working at the lift station, so I waved to him to let him know that I had returned safely from the summit. The time was 3:20 p.m. I was relieved to have some time to spare. From this lift station, I was then forced to continue walking down the snowy mountain, while people skiing and snowboarding were passing me by. My eyes and hands were so sore with sunburn, and my knees were tired, but I kept on walking, sometimes falling flat on my back, but I did my best to keep moving toward the Gassan ski lift station. At 4:00 p.m., I returned safely to the starting point in one piece!
Climbed the three peaks of Dewa in one day! Safe descent!
I made it! Good job!As I sat in the car on the way to Shonai Airport, I suddenly felt a sense of relief as I reflected on the day. I was in Haguro in the early morning, then to Yudonosan, and finally completed the climb of Gassan. My sense of accomplishment after climbing all three of the Dewa mountains in one day felt exceptional.
Gassan, however, was a tough, painful, and arduous snowy mountain trek. Still, that one moment, that one moment when I was alone in the sacred atmosphere of the main shrine of Gassan Shrine at the summit, surrounded by the beautiful scenery of Gassan, was a precious and irreplaceable time, and from a slightly different perspective, it could be called a wonderful memory.
Words cannot fully express how wonderful it was to experience the feeling of total liberation being as close to the sky as possible basking in the presence of Mother Nature. All the hard work of climbing the three mountains of Dewa in one day was completely worth it! The memory of climbing Gassan in the snow will forever be etched in a corner of my mind.