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Experience the Ishidan Stone Step Pilgrimage! Be Reborn in Mind and Body at Mount Haguro

The 2,446 stone steps along Mount Haguro's approach – on the Ishidan Stone Step Pilgrimage(石段詣/Ishidanmoude), you climb these steps wearing a white sash. Walking surrounded by mystical cedar trees refreshes the mind and body! We went to experience this "journey of rebirth"!

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Mount Gassan(月山), Mount Haguro(羽黒山), and Mount Yudono(湯殿山) in the city of Tsuruoka, Yamagata, were designated as sacred 1,400 years ago. Called Dewa Sanzan(出羽三山), these three mountains represent the past, present, and future. Going around to all three allows you to be spiritually reborn while still alive. In the Edo period, doing this spread among commoners as a "journey of rebirth" of the present, past, and future.

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The Ishidan Stone Step Pilgrimage is a worship plan allowing anyone to easily experience this "journey of rebirth." You climb the steps while wearing a white sash(注連/Shime), for an experience unavailable nowhere else.

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There are 2,446 steps, which take about an hour and a half to climb, so wear easy-to-walk-in clothes that can absorb sweat. Sneakers or hiking shoes are also recommended.

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First is registration. Located at the foot of Mount Haguro's foot, the Zuishinmon Gate(随神門) reception office. Here is where you complete the procedures for the Ishidan Stone Step Pilgrimage.

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Scan the QR code and register your email address. To ensure that the process can be accomplished smoothly, check beforehand whether you can scan QR codes with your smartphone.

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After email registration, receive your white sash. The sash signifies a boundary, and is said to originally have been used to prevent haunting by evil mountain spirits.

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Enishi-himo cords are sold at Zuishinmon and Sanshuden (summit) reception offices. These are colorful cords that can be tied to the white sash. They are blessed, of course, so they bring benefits!

The colors relate to different kinds of luck 

red: love, yellow: money, green: health, purple: academics, white: livelihood.

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These are 200 yen each, so you'll want them all! Tie them on with your wishes for a personalized blessed sash.

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Wear the sash around your neck, and you're good to go!

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Pass through Zuishinmon, the shrine domain entrance, marking the start. Along the approach are many shrines. Locations are marked on the map you can receive during registration, so if you have the time, visit each one for maximum blessings!

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The route involving climbing from the foot to the summit to worship is recommended, but if stamina is a concern, you can first travel by bus or car to the summit to register and pay your respects, and then descend the stone steps on foot at your own pace. You can also register at Sanshuden at the summit.

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Pass Zuishinmon Gate, then descend Mamakozaka slope(継子坂) to the red bridge over Haraigawa River(祓川) called Shinkyo Bridge(神橋), which marks the boundary between the sacred mountains and the secular world. People are said to have purified themselves in this river before worship long ago. The Suga Falls(須賀の滝) dropping into the Haraigawa River are magnificent!

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Near the ancient sugi cedar tree stands the National Treasure Five-storied Pagoda, which worksite rebuilt about 600 years ago and is said to be the oldest in the Tohoku region. Its solemn presence amidst cedar trees is awe-inspiring. Its beauty has earned it two Michelin stars.

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The path is flat up to this point, but here the ascent on a slope called Ichinosaka(一の坂) begins. Gird yourself and steadily climb each stone step! The 2,446 stone steps and rows of 350- to 500-year-old cedar trees have been recognized with three Michelin Green Guide stars. The quietness and cedar scent make this place quite mystical!

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You're already short of breath – it's quite the climb, and you may be sweating slightly, too. Reaching the top of the Ichinosaka slope brings brief respite, but then you immediately confront the precipitous slope called Ninosaka(二の坂). The sudden steepness is daunting! The longest and steepest section of the approach, Ninosaka is also called Abura-koboshi (油溢し"oil-spill slope"), as legend holds that the warrior monk Musashibo Benkei spilled sacred oil offered here due to the slope's severity. This slope may be a trial.

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This is truly grueling! It may even have you dripping sweat, just like with actual mountain-climbing. Rest periodically and proceed slowly at your own pace.

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After you manage to crest Ninosaka, an oasis appears as your reward! This is the Ninosaka Teahouse(二の坂茶屋)! How could you not stop here to rest your legs?

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The Takagi family operating the teahouse climbs these steps daily to make homemade rice cakes and green tea for visitors. What a welcome treat! From the teahouse you can see the panoramic Shonai Plain, a breathtaking sight. One could just sit and forget the passage of time.

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These are signature mortar-pounded rice cakes(力餅/Chikara-mochi). Just let the sweetness permeate your tired body. Feel power restored! "Chikara" means "strength," and these are truly strength-restoring rice cakes.

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Rejuvenated and ascending Sannosaka after overcoming Ninosaka, your mood is sure to lighten. You're almost there.

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Midway up the slope of Sannosaka(三の坂) sits Haniyamahime Jinja(埴山姫神社), a shrine dedicated to matchmaking. Here, one prays for good relationships – these stone steps are full of blessings!

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The Haniyamahime Jinja Shrine talismans sold at the Zuishinmon at the foot and Sanshuden at the summit include a red cord. Tying this around the shrine's grate while praying is held to bring great fortune. May you have the best of luck with romance!

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You've climbed this far, and you're nearly at the goal! Before the summit sits Saikan(斎館). Here you can enjoy shojin Buddhist vegetarian cuisine that has a long history at Mount Haguro. The dishes look beautiful, too, and make for a deeply soothing experience. They're surprisingly filling and sure to satisfy your stomach! The cuisine is by reservation only, so plan ahead if you want to visit after paying your respects at the shrines.

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You've finished climbing the steps! Pass under the large torii, and you're at the summit!

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You've reached at the summit! Before your eyes lies Sanjingosaiden(三神合祭殿), where the deities of Gassan Jinja, Dewa Jinja, and Yudono Jinja shrines are sanctified. Pay your respects to them here together to receive "journey of rebirth" blessings.

After paying your respects, proceed to Sanshuden(参集殿). Report your finish to the staff and complete the procedures. Now you've achieved your goal of completing the Ishidan Stone Step Pilgrimage! You've succeeded in climbing the stone steps and paying your respects at the shrines!

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At the summit are many shrines, including Hachiko Jinja(蜂子神社), dedicated to Prince Hachiko(蜂子皇子). Leisurely exploring the grounds and paying your respects at each is recommended.

Your legs may be tired, but your mind is clear and refreshed. You might feel a large sense of accomplishment at having climbed to the top on your own and paid your respects, experiencing the "journey of rebirth."

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Focusing wholly on making your first ascent may have left no attention for the many shrines along the approach. There are 33 pictures carved into the steps as well – maybe on your second and third visits you can pay your respects at these shrines while climbing slowly, and looking for the pictures as you hike. Beautiful fresh greenery in spring and summer and lovely autumn foliage make visits enjoyable throughout the seasons. You'll definitely want to take up the challenge again!

Copyright - DEGAM Tsuruoka Tourism Bureau (General Incorporated Association)

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