After a leisurely day of restocking supplies and cleaning linens, I left the sleepy town of Tsuruoka and boarded a bus to the rustic shrine of Mt. Haguro, one of the 3 sacred peaks of Dewa Sanzan. The bus dropped me off in a massive parking lot, announcing a brief 15-minute break before heading off to the trailhead at Gassan 8gome. I briskly walked towards Haguro shrine, regretting for not opting to stay in one of the many tranquil shukubo at the base of the peak.
Haguro represents birth, and I definitely felt a strange sense of awakening in the early morning light. Gazing at the thick mass of thatch holding up the main hall (the thickest thatched roof in Japan, so I’m told), I tried to imagine what life must’ve been like for the yamabushi several centuries before. My reverie was short-lived, however, as the announcement for the departing bus drove me back into reality: I had a mountain to climb.
Arriving at the Gassan trailhead, I geared up and quickly made my way through the splendid marshlands. Even though I was carrying a full pack, the previous week of scaling peaks primed my muscles for the task at hand. I maneuvered through the tepid grasslands like a fox scuttling towards its den. 600 vertical meters was powered through in less time than sitting through a major motion picture. Victory was mine!
Unfortunately, thick clouds filed in from the north, blotting out the view in all directions. While scores or tourists were taking refuge in the nearby hut, I walked quietly alone towards the bleak collection of structures housing the summit shrine. I paid my respects to the gods, hoping for a safe passage for the remaining peaks. With absolutely nowhere to peacefully rest, I exited the shrine and climbed the rocks immediately behind, where I found the true summit marker of the high point. The majority of Hyakumeizan baggers go no further than the shrine itself, but I preferred the solitude of my current position.
Once leaving the top, I continued onto the saddle affectionately labeled 牛首 (the cow’s collar). Summer skiers skidded awkwardly down the last remaining patches of snow. Instead of following their lead, I pushed along the ridge further south, dropping out of the clouds altogether before reaching the emergency hut at the base of Mt. Yudono. I studied the map, thought for a good quarter of an hour, and used the ‘might as well since you’re so close’ reasoning to justify my sidetrip to Yudono shrine. That way I could truly tell myself that I completed the Dewa-sanzan. The kicker was that I had to descend and return to my present position in order to traverse further south to Route 112 (my best chance of hitching a ride to Mt. Asahi, my destination the following day).
The path dropped rather steeply down a ravine towards the shrine. Chains and small wooden ladders made navigation easier but I was starting to regret my decision due to the sudden loss of several hundred feet of altitude. Still, the detour was interesting to say the least. The deity is housed inside of a geyser gushing hot spring water through the center of the shrine. There was also a foot bath for visitors to soak their wary feet and I did just that. After a 10-minute refresher, I glanced towards my immediate right and spied a small snake slithering its way toward the murky waters. I recognize a sign when I see one and instantly started the climb back towards the hut.
Exhausted, I glanced at my watch. 2:30pm. Deciding it was far too early to call it a day, I dropped down a track following a small stream. The map showed this route eventually meeting up with route 112 in about 90 minutes. Of course about 10 minutes into my decent the skies opened up and poured for, remarkably, the first time in my entire trip. Why do I always stow rain gear at the very bottom of my pack!?! To make matters worse, the path became treacherously slippery due to the abundance of wooden bridges crossing countless ravines. It was during one such crossing that I lost my footing, bounced off the back of my pack, flipped completely over the side of the ravine, and landed feet first in knee deep water. How I landed on my feet I will never know but I’d like to think it had something to do with my trio of shine visits. The bridge was about a meter above the stream and I could’ve done serious damage if I’d landed on anything other than my feet.
Stunned, but otherwise unharmed, I pushed on towards my destination. 5 meters later I stumbled upon a rather large and frightened fox who almost had me jumping in the river again. Deciding I’d had enough punishment for one day, mother nature released her grip on my testicles and allowed the rain to let up. Arriving at the road, I pored over the map once again. A 5-minute detour to my left lead to a campground surrounding a small lake. Another mile down the road lie a hot spring, followed by another, larger campground beyond that. My plan was to have a bath and then continue onto the lower camp which would put in a better position to hitch in the morning. The bath water never felt so refreshing and I garnered up the courage and strength to hit the road again. Arriving at the campground, my heart sank when the bad news was broken to me: “It’ll cost 3000 yen to camp here,” buffed the superintendent. I explained my situation and the fact that I’d just walked over 20km. “There’s another campground further up that only costs 500 yen.” The warden was pointing to the exact campsite I’d bypassed to come here! The look of horror on my face must’ve gotten to him. “Don’t worry, one of the staff will give you a ride,” smiled the boss.
With potential disaster averted, I could now focus my attention on geting some rest. Just as I was sitting up camp, the sun came out, glistening the hills of Gassan directly above me. I dozed off shortly after sunset, dreaming about the last major mountain in my Tohoku journey: sunrise peak!