At the start of the trail leading to the top of Gassan. It took a couple of hours by bus to get here, and, as you can see, the weather was perfect.
The official start of the trail is the Eighth Station, a few minutes uphill from the parking lot. The torii 鳥居 arch signifies the spiritual importance of the mountains.
The significance of the rabbit statue was lost on me, but Jizō-sama 地蔵様 protects both travelers and the souls of dead children. For such reasons, I always pay my respects whenever I encounter his statue(s).
The first stage of the trail uphill passed through marshland. The hut in the background was where the above-mentioned torii was located.
The way up consisted of a very gradual ascent, in contrast to the later descent down to Yudonosan-jinja Shrine 湯殿山神社.
Scattered patches of ice in mid-September were a reminder why public transportation links were only in operation for a short time during the summer months. This area is buried under heavy snow in winter.
By the time I reached the 9th station, an hour or so into the hike, the fog had started to roll in. I soon went from being drenched in sweat to thanking myself for having the foresight to bring along a heavy sweater (though in the end I never actually donned it).
Gassan is noted for its alpine flowers
After 2½ hours, I made it to Gassan-jinja Shrine 月山神社, which sits atop the mountain. Photography inside the shrine was prohibited, but I don't think the gods would be upset if I write about what went on after entering the premises. After paying ¥500 (about $5), a priest first purifies you by waving a paper banner over your head while reciting a prayer, then hands you a paper figurine. You rub the cutout over your head, shoulders and body, then place it into some water and enter the inner shrine compound. Following prayers and a circuit around the interior, you then make your way out of the shrine (but not before purchasing some amulets - I've amassed a small collection over the years).
1984 meters (6509 feet) above sea level. By the this point, the clouds were swallowing up Gassan-jinja. A few moments later the shrine couldn't be seen at all.
Halfway to Yudonosan-jinja. It had now taken me almost three hours to cover five kilometers (3.1 miles) uphill. How long could a 5K descent take? Four hours, as it turned out.
Ready for the downhill trek. Or so I thought...
The first stage of the descent was slow-going, owing to the steepness, the large stones that had to be stepped over carefully and the large numbers of hikers on their way up to Gassan. The scenery more than made up for it.
The trail ahead of me soon branched off to a ski lift, which explained why there were so many going in the opposite direction (i.e. hiking up to Gassan).
Looking back toward Gassan, the shrine was no longer visible. No turning back now...
Soon after passing the branch leading off to the ski lift, the trail widened out and leveled off, and it appeared it was going to be as gentle a trip down to Yudonosan-jinja as the ascent was up to Gassan-jinja. It wasn't long, however, before the trail split. The easy-looking trail continued uphill, but the sign indicating the way to Yudono-san pointed to the right and a rough-looking, narrow path barely clinging to the side of the mountain. A group of middle-aged female hikers, after confirming that I knew in which direction I was headed, told me to 気をつけて - "Be careful". They were right.
The trail soon veered away from the mountainside, but the steep, stony path only got harder. Each step was a potential sprained ankle or retorn knee ligament. At one point, the side of the trail gave out from under me, and I almost fell into the thick brush. It soon became apparent why there were only a few hikers on this trail, contrary to the impression I had gotten from reading guidebooks.
The scenery, of course, was never anything but incredible. The ridge in the distance was part of the same range as Gassan, showing how far I'd come.
If I had to choose a religion to follow, it would probably be Shintō 神道, and the idea that a god (or gods) reside in natural objects.
The large red torii at the entrance to Yudonosan-jinja. Note the oversized straw sandal in the background, denoting this as a place of pilgrimage.
A well-earned beer enjoyed while waiting for the bus back to Tsuruoka. The small dish held a complimentary serving of myōga 茗荷, or Japanese ginger. Interestingly, the word with different characters 冥加 can mean "divine protection or blessing", thus making it a highly appropriate snack, for I have been born (Haguro-san), died (Gassan) and reborn (Yudono-san).