In the Boshin War’s aftermath, a common, derisive saying among the victors talking about the defeated, war-ravaged Tohoku region claimed that “North of Shirakawa, a mountain’s worth a hundred copper mon” (Shirakawa ihoku Issan hyakumon 白河以北一山百文). This began a depiction of Tohoku people in modern Japan as ignorant, potentially disloyal country bumpkins.
Of course, just like any part of Japan, Tohoku has plenty of which it can rightly boast, people and places alike. And to their credit, northerners have rolled with the Boshin victors’ saying and reclaimed parts of it as a point of pride since the Meiji era.
There are two particularly noteworthy examples of this. Sendai-born journalist Ichiriki Kenjirō (1863-1929) used it as the inspiration when he dubbed his newspaper Kahoku Shinpō 河北新報 (“North of Shirakawa News”) in 1897. It remains the major newspaper serving Miyagi Prefecture, and is still run by the Ichiriki family. Meanwhile, Morioka-born Hara Takashi (1856-1921), famed as the first commoner Prime Minister (heimin saishō 平民宰相) in the Taisho era, took his pen name of Issan 一山 (One Mountain) from this pejorative saying. Having seen and lost the Boshin War and endured the first wave of postwar discrimination, Hara used his status as a high government functionary to start ameliorating government discrimination against the people of Tohoku. And among the many mountains of which Tohoku can boast, the Dewa Sanzan– the Three Sacred Peaks of Dewa– are some of the most famous, and in their religious role, most sacred.
A Remote Site of Ascetic Pilgrimage
The Three Mountains are divided between Tsuruoka City and Shōnai, a town on the north side of Yamagata Prefecture. Before the modern era, Yamagata Prefecture’s territory, along with that of neighboring Akita, was part of Dewa Province (Dewa no kuni 出羽国), from which the Dewa Sanzan gets its name.
The trio of peaks, Hagurosan, Yudonosan, and Gassan, have been a site of religious pilgrimage since at least the Heian era. The mountains have been dotted with an assortment of shrines, temples, and other religious structures since those days. They first appear in written documentation in the Azuma Kagami in an entry from Jōgen 3 (1209).
Getting to the Peaks
The peaks were truly remote. To people from closer to Kyoto, they might have even seemed to be in another world. Indeed, in those days, what we now call the Tohoku region had entered the Yamato court’s control only relatively recently. It was a frontier in the early Heian. By the late Heian, it was ruled by the Northern Fujiwara clan, who merged Yamato and Emishi roots of legitimacy to control the region as a semi-independent kingdom. By 1209, it was under the control of the Kamakura Shogunate. yet it was still hard to access. The roads going north– along with those that interconnected different parts of the region itself– were fewer and less developed.The peaks were truly remote. To people from closer to Kyoto, they might have even seemed to be in another world. Click To Tweet
As an Edo period saying in what’s now Yamagata had it, “Sendai and the nape of the neck are close but far away” (Sendai to bon no kubo wa chikakute tōi 仙台と盆の窪は近くて遠い). Understandable, in an era before modern highways and rail lines that cut through the mountains!
It was this remoteness that made it especially fitting as a site of pilgrimage for ascetics. And it is the Haguro tradition of mountain asceticism– Haguro Shugendō– which is the local form of ascetic practice.
Getting to Know Haguro ShugendōShugendo encompasses a variety of practices including divination and what might be broadly termed as sorcery. Click To Tweet
Shugendo is not limited to the Three Peaks. Some of its other locations, like Mount Koya, can be found in the Kansai region. It is an ancient, syncretic faith that harmonizes Shinto, Buddhist, and mountain worship traditions. Its practitioners are called yamabushi (山伏) — “those who are hidden in the mountains.” Shugendo encompasses a variety of practices including divination and what might be broadly termed as sorcery. Yamabushi train in part by braving the elements, under waterfalls and on mountain cliffs like those at the Three Peaks.