Long before winter sports enthusiasts were feeling the gravitational pull of Mount Gassan (literally, "Moon Mountain"), ascetic mountain worshippers called yamabushi climbed Gassan, Mount Yudono and Mount Haguro, the triad of mountains that constitute Dewa Sanzan, or the Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa - where "Dewa" is the old name for the area now occupied by Yamagata and Akita Prefectures.
Holy Heights: The Three Peaks of Dewa Sanzan
Photography is forbidden on the peak of Mount Yudono, where pilgrims leave money as a sign of their willingness to forsake worldly possessions for the sanctity of their faith, resulting in a trail of coins strewn along the path leading to the mountaintop shrine.
Near Mount Haguro stands Zuishinmon Gate, a temple gate that leads down to a bridge over an icy stream where pilgrims bathe to purify themselves. A short walk through centuries-old cedar trees brings you to the 600-year-old Hagurosan Goju-no-to five-story pagoda, the oldest pagoda in Tohoku. Ambitious travelers can then climb the 2,446 stone steps to Sanzan-Gosai-den Shrine at the 1,352-foot summit, where the spirits of all three mountains are venerated.
Tourists interested in experiencing the life of the yamabushi firsthand can arrange a stay in one of roughly 30 temple lodgings, or shukubo, on Mount Haguro. Just be sure to make reservations at least a month in advance.
Matsuo Basho, Japan's most celebrated haiku poet, was drawn to the area too, as is well documented in his masterpiece, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North):
"How many columns of clouds
Had risen and crumbled, I wonder
Before the silent moon rose
Over Mount Gassan."
- Matsuo Basho
Sacred Snow: Gassan Ski Resort
For those devoted to the art of sliding down frozen mountains, Mount Gassan is undoubtedly the holiest peak of this alpine triumvirate.
When most ski resorts are closing for the green season, Gassan is just getting started. The resort opens for its "winter" season in April, and typically stays open until July. This unusual season attracts hardcore skiers and boarders in need of a spring fix, and backcountry enthusiasts climb further afield from the lift to bomb powder in the trees well after the last cherry blossom has bloomed in Tokyo.
Visitors looking for some local knowledge and backcountry tour guides can duck into Tsutaya Ryokan just down the road from the ski resort. The traditional, family-run inn can arrange tours and shuttle services to the resort for guests, and also runs the Gassan Resort Inn, a more basic lodge near the lifts.
Gassan Ski Resort
Address: Shizu Ubasawa, Nishikawa Town, Nishimurayama District, Yamagata Prefecture
Web (Japanese): www.gassankanko.jp/pages/summer_ski.html
Season starts: Early April until July
Clear Water: Mineral Water, Microbrews & Hot Springs
Beer lovers can swing by Gassan Meisuikan - a brewery in the neighboring town of Nishikawa - to fill up on quality microbrews, or grab a few bottles of Gassan mineral water, which is also bottled right in the area.
There are also plenty of nearby hot springs to choose from after some spring and summer skiing. Katakuri Onsen, known locally as "Bombo," is just off the Shonai Asahi interchange on the Shonai Plain. The area is famous for its traditional farmhouses and production of sasanishiki rice, a strain known for its ability to retain its flavor even when cool, usually sourced from Sendai. For another option, Yamabushi Onsen (commonly called "Yupoka") offers a modern facility with an outdoor bath roughly seven miles to the north.