The best kept secret of the Dewa Sanzan
Regarded as the most sacred of the Dewa Sanzan Mountains of Yamagata Prefecture, Mt. Yudono is a 1504m high peak that lies 8km from the summit of Mt. Gassan.
Katarunakare, Kikunakare. Don’t speak. Don’t ask. This phrase refers to the mountain regarded as the most sacred of the three Dewa Sanzan, Mt. Yudono. Mt. Yudono is a 1504m high peak on a ridge that lies 8km east of the summit of Mt. Gassan alongside the Bonji river that flows down through Asahi Town on its way to Tsuruoka.
Also known as “the shrine deep at the back of the Dewa Sanzan” (出羽三山の奥宮), Mt. Yudono has been a key feature of Yamabushi pilgrimages since Prince Hachiko opened the mountains for worship in the late 6th century A.D., and it is still revered by thousands of visitors to the region to this day.
-Accessibility varies from year to year due to heavy snowfall.
-Typically open from the start of May until the first week of November.
-You may email the city office to check if its open.
-Accessible via bus from Tsuruoka City.
-A rental car is highly encouraged as bus times are extremely limited
and there is a lack of cell reception on this mountain.
-Toll Road 400 yen
-Bus to the top 300 yen one-way, 400 yen return
-Blessing and to pay your respects at the shrine 500 yen.
-Bus to/ from Tsuruoka: 2,000 yen
-Bus to/ from Mt. Haguro: 1,500 yen
Basin for purification before entering the Shrine
Meander the Mysterious Mt. Yudono
Along with the other mountains of the Dewa Sanzan, Mt. Gassan and Mt. Haguro, during the Edo period (1603-1868) Mt. Yudono became an extremely popular destination among the Japanese as a rite of passage. Nishi no Ise Mairi, Higashi no Oku Mairi as the saying goes means ‘head west to Ise Grand Shrine, and head east to the depths’, referring to the Dewa Sanzan.
Due to its sacredness it is forbidden to talk about what Mt. Yudono entails, and in addition no photos or videos are allowed at the shrine. This makes the job of convincing you to visit quite a bit harder, but trust me when we say you will not regret it!
Let’s start with what we can tell you then: there is no shrine building, you are going to need a towel, and famed poet Matsuo Basho’s words may give you another hint of what you will experience.
The main shrine gate at the entrance
First, mostly natural features are worshipped in the Shinto religion, and although there is an actual Mt. Yudono peak, it is not the main attraction. Unlike most other deities in Japan that are worshipped in shrine buildings, there is a natural feature on Mt. Yudono that cannot fit inside a shrine, so the feature itself is considered a shrine.
The beautiful mountains and rivers where Mt. Yudono is situated
Secondly, you are required to be barefoot while you pay your respects to the ‘shrine’, and once finished you will need a small towel to wipe your feet. And lastly, in July of 1689 during the Edo period when famed Haiku poet Matsuo Basho visited the Dewa Sanzan he remarked “no speaking, left wet by Mt. Yudono, at the mountain foot”.
How do I pay my respects at Mt. Yudono?
Yamabushi on their pilgrimage to Mt. Yudono shrine
When you reach the carpark at the top, you will see a path that leads up into the hill with statues of cows and a basin on the left-hand side (the year of the cow is said to be a lucky year for Mt. Yudono). Purify yourself using the basin and then continue along the path that leads up, then down the hill.
Note that once you cross the line of paper seals in the image below, photos and videos are strictly prohibited.
The path to Mt. Yudono shrine
When you arrive, there will be a hut to your right, take your shoes off and leave them here. Then, walk straight ahead and you will see a priest in a small hut next to the gate to go in. The priest will collect 500 yen per person and ask you to bow slightly and will pray for you before giving you a white piece of paper in the shape of a human, and a small charm to keep. The piece of paper is to purify yourself before you enter the sacred shrine. Simply rub the paper on all parts of your body, then place it in the water next to you. You are now ready to continue to the most sacred part of the Dewa Sanzan! The rest is an experience we will leave for you to discover!
When’s the best time to visit Mt. Yudono?
The trail up to the shrine in early November.
As Mt. Yudono is in the middle of a mountain range the only time to visit is during the warmer months so that you aren’t inundated with snow! Mt. Yudono officially opens for worship in time for Golden Week, generally around the first week of May, and closes around early November. This means there is enough time to catch the autumn foliage, arguably the best time to visit! Another good time to visit would be during Mt. Yudono Shrine’s annual festival held on June 1st and called the ‘Yudonosan Kaizansai’.
How do I get to Mt. Yudono?
Fortunately for some, Mt. Yudono doesn’t require climbing 2,446 stone steps or uphill for three hours to get to. There is a carpark at the shrine gates of Mt. Yudono that can be reached from the highway between Tsuruoka and inland Yamagata either by bus or car.
Hiking to Mt. Yudono from Mt. Gassan
For those hiking the Dewa Sanzan, Mt. Yudono can be reached by first climbing to the summit of Mt. Gassan, then heading west along the Bonji River. There is a bus from Mt. Yudono that can take you back to central Tsuruoka or Mt. Haguro, however there are only about three each day and this will require some planning.
Buses to Mt. Yudono
Busses to Mt. Yudono run on weekends and public holidays from the beginning of June to the end of October. The bus will take you to the shrine gates, not all the way to the top, and from central Tsuruoka it takes about 80 minutes.
The parking lot and shrine gates on Mt. Yudono
Driving to Mt. Yudono
If you’re driving, a few minutes after coming off the highway (Route 112) there is a carpark and the toll road up to Mt. Yudono can be seen on the left. The cost to get through is 400 yen, and this will take you to the shrine gates where you can climb up from. From central Tsuruoka this is about an hour drive and is said to be 15-minutes from the Mt. Yudono Interchange, or 20 minutes from the Mt. Gassan Interchange.
The Shrine Gates to the Shrine
From the shrine gates it is either a short bus ride, or a brisk 15-20 minute walk up a windy road. Tickets for the bus can be bought from inside the building at the ticket office (which is more of a desk) on the left-hand side of the big building. There are about two busses every hour but the times vary, and tickets are 300 yen one-way, or 400 yen return, with the bus leaving from just in front of the building. Hold on to your ticket until you get off, when you will be asked to put your ticket in the little conveyer next to the driver.
Please note that when walking up the road you need to stick inside the yellow line.
The roads are very narrow and the bus drivers will appreciate it!
If the weather is good, we recommend walking at least one way. It takes about 20 minutes to walk up or down but as you do you will pass through the shrine gates, over a picturesque red bridge that crosses the Bonji river, and past numerous shrines and waterfalls. This walk is especially good amongst the autumn foliage, the perfect chance to get some photos!
Use this address to take you to the main parking lot before the ascent to the shrine.