Following In the Steps of Bashō to Dewa-Senzan

[Fifth in a series of posts about a recent trip to Japan]

Five Story Pagoda Haguro-san

Dewa-Senzan is the modern name of the three sacred mountains consisting of Haguro-San, Gas-San and Yudono-San. Shrines were built on all three mountains to honor the “kami” (spirits) of the moutains; here, yamabushi, mountain ascetics, came for training. Haguro-san is thought to represent birth, Gas-san death, and Yudono-san rebirth.

Our plan was to undertake the 2,466 stone steps to Haguro-San the next day, and tackle Gas-san and Yudono-san the day following. While the stone steps only take about a thigh-burning hour, Gas-san and Yudono-san are rigorous, depending on the route you take. The longest route is 20 km (12 miles), with a steep three mile climb to the shrine at the peak of Gas-san and an equally long, steep (and sometimes slippery) descent to the third shrine. (It’s usually recommended to start up Gas-san from the 8th station.)

In Bashō’s time, Dewa was the name of the province, and according to him the name came from bird feathers that were given by this province as annual tribute to Edo. Bashō first climbed Mt. Haguro, as we did, where he said the temple belonged to the Toei-zankanei Temple of Edo, which “holds up the light of law for All-Round Enlightenment.”

Five hundred years ago, monks’ quarters were lined up “roof to roof,” living here as they followed “rough training” and rituals to encourage one another in Buddhist ways. Shugen, or rough training, requires retreat into the mountains to undergo self-imposed hardships in an attempt to achieve a divine state of mind. Bashō said, “The spiritual benefits of this soulful place are such as to fill people with veneration and dread.” Bashō declared the mountain to be felicitous.

Many of the aspects that Bashō described are in evidence still, though he visited while snow remained on the ground and cherry blossoms were budding. He felt Mt. Yudono (with an elevation of almost 5,000’) was very high and wondered “whether we’d entered the orbits of the sun and moon.”

Bashō stopped himself from writing about Yudono-san, the third mountain, noting that “the training rules forbid the disclosure of details on this mountain to anyone else.” The request for secrecy persists today. He wrote these poem cards based on his visit to the area. The last reference, about wetting his sleeves, is a traditional way of saying that he was moved to tears by what he experienced on Yudono-san:

coolness: a faint

three-day moon over

Mount Haguro


many clouds peak col-

lapse and the moon

Over the mount


in the bath chamber I

can’t speak of I wet

my sleeves

His friend, Sora, wrote:

at Mount Bath Cham-

ber, in tears I step on

coins on my way


Sora was referring to the requirement to give up all of one’s money before entering the three holy shrines, thus he stepped on the coins left by other pilgrims.

Why did Bashō walk around Japan? According to Hiroaki Sato, in practical terms, his house had just burned down in a fire, and it changed his point of view, leading him to accept the Buddhist teaching that life is like “a house on fire” and there is no fixed home in this world for anyone. (Apparently Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, does not adhere to Buddhist philosophy.)

He also wandered to seek “poetic truth,” often using seasonal themes as metaphors for bigger ideas. Patrons made it possible for him to focus on his artistic products, so writing was also a way of securing income.

In ancient times, Japan had many places that were repeatedly described in poetry, known as uta-makura, or “poetic pillows.” Dewa-Senzan is one of those places.

To Bashō, places had moods. He described Matsushima (near Tokyo) as “smiling,” while Kisikata was “resentful,” resembling “a soul in distress.” Haguro-san felt like serenity.

Statue of the poet Basho

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