During my Spring 2018 visit to Yamagata Prefecture as a reconnaissance for the Tohoku Basho Trail walk, I caught glimpses of what seemed to be sections of a remnant old trail from bus windows. Kanji characters on the odd dilapidated sign read ‘Rokujuri-Goe Kaido’, meaning the 60 Ri Traverse Road. Looking at this more carefully, a ‘Ri’ is an old distance measurement equalling 3.97km, ‘Goe’ means mountain crossing or traverse, and ‘Kaido’ means an old highway from the Edo period. So my translation is the ‘238km mountain crossing old road’. But where did it go and was the trail still walkable?
There are hundreds of ancient trails throughout rural Japan, relics of pilgrimage routes, trade routes for transporting goods back and forth by carriers on foot, oxen and mules, for officials on government business, and frequently for marauding armies. The deeper into regional Japan you go, the harder it is to find these trails and usually the less preserved, and finding a multi-day trail that is cohesive and not hidden under highways and train tracks is a challenge. With the aging population and demise of agricultural communities, the knowledge of the old trails is being lost.
I began some months of enjoyable online research into the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido in preparation for walking this trail in the autumn of 2018 as a side adventure to the Tohoku Basho Trail.
I discovered that the trail was at least 1300 years old, and connected Tsuruoka on the coastal Shonai Plains with the inland towns of Mogami and Okitama, and further on towards Tokyo in the south. It traversed the old province of Dewa, which once incorporated most of Akita and Yamagata prefectures.
Dewa is famous for the Dewa-Sanzan (the three sacred mountains of Dewa) which were at the centre of mountain worship practices of the Shugendo sect. Mt Haguro (Black Feather Mountain) temple complex is the most well-known, situated at the top of 2446 stone steps. Mt Gassan (Mountain of the Moon) is a mysterious high peak, snow-covered all year round, and Mt Yudono (Spring of Rebirth) is the third mountain. In a simplistic explanation, the pilgrimage to Dewa Sanzan is a ‘journey of rebirth’ where Mt Haguro represents the present and fulfilment of earthly desires, Gassan symbolizes death and the past, and Yudono symbolizes rebirth, the future. The Rokujuri-Goe Kaido seems to be the lower altitude access road to all three mountains, with Mt Yudono the pilgrim’s goal. For most of the year the alpine route is covered in deep snow.
History of the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido
The first mention of the trail was in 712, recorded in a war chronicle as the shortest land route between Yamagata and Dewa Province. In 1587, Lord Mogami and his army invaded Shonai over the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido. Poet Matsuo Basho passed this way in 1689, writing some memorable haiku poems about the sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan. In 1832 the Shonai feudal lord Sakai, his family and 300 vassals travelled this road to pay compulsory homage to the Tokugawa Shogun in Edo (present-day Tokyo). From 1932, a new prefectural road for vehicles was built, signalling the demise of the old foot trail. In 2007, the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido was designated as a ‘Scenic Byway of Japan’ by the Japanese government.
Tracking down the trail
Enlisting the help of my friend Katsuhiro Shoji from the Yamagata Prefectural Tourism Authority a map in English was happily revealed. Apparently this trail was restored in 2007 and was in reasonable condition, walked occasionally by local hikers, nature study groups and pilgrims.The local Asahi district tourism office provided up-to-date information about the state of the trail, revealing several sections closed by landslides after the heavy rains of summer 2018. The trailhead was shown as Kobo-no-Watashi, which was once a wharf on the Akagawa river, but we started several kilometres further on at Honmyoji Temple due to the landslide section. Having previously experienced the beauty of walking in the Japanese mountains in autumn, I set a date for my group at the height of autumn colour at the very end of the season, before the trail is closed from the first weekend of November. Past experience of lesser-known trails in Japan has shown that signage can be non-existent and trails confusing with many side paths, so the next step was finding a guide. Thankfully Shoji-san found me a local volunteer guide, a sprightly 78-year-old who skipped over those mountain trails like a teenager.
Our two day walk on the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido began near Honmyoji Temple, to skip the landslide section. The walk to Tamugimata village started through wet pine plantation forests on a slippery trail on quite steep slopes. The weather was cool with showers and we were grateful for our wet weather gear. As the trail climbed, the deciduous trees showed off their autumn glory and we were immersed in gold. We emerged from the forest round lunch time at the sombre graveyard and stone lanterns of Churenji, a significant and Shingon Buddhist temple from 833. Our damp and cold group was kindly invited inside to eat our picnic lunch by the heater, where we promptly disgraced ourselves by dropping rice balls on the tatami, and melting a beanie on top of the heater! Despite our poor form, we were shown the most significant elements of this ancient temple – some magnificent painted ceilings and the tiny, crusty body of a self-mummified priest!
Setting off again, we walked through quiet rural hamlets, where jizo stone monuments watched over us, drank from a travellers’ spring, and admired a venerable sugi cedar tree. Late in the afternoon we saw the valley of Tamugimata below us in a setting of golden forests, but clouds obscured the snowy peak of the sacred mountain Gassan. Our inn for the night was the only accommodation in the district, a roadside establishment run by a cheery family who cooked up a storm for the weary walkers.
The following morning we walked down to the village to see the remaining three storied farmhouses with their graceful thatched roofs, an architectural style unique to the area designed for access from the top floor windows during winters with very deep snow, and for keeping animals on the ground floor during long winters and silkworms in the attic in summer. With a long walk and ascent today we didn’t stay long in Tamugimata. A little further up the road, our guide had a treat in store – instead of taking the foot trail off into the hills, we continued up the paved road to Natasu-daki, a spectacular 90m waterfall thundering from all the rain on the opposite side of the valley, set in the golden autumn landscape.
We walked up hill and down dale: through golden beech forest, past stone monuments, fording streams and climbing ever steeper slopes until we caught a glimpse through the mist of the red Torii gate of Mt Yudono, our destination. Pockets of snow lay on the mountainside indicating our altitude, and after a very beautiful walk, we emerged from the forest.
The entry to the sacred natural hot spring and sheer red rock face of Mt Yudono is further up the valley beyond the enormous red torii gate. However, the esoteric practices required of pilgrims will remain a mystery and rebirth have to wait till next visit as our warm, dry bus was waiting to take us back to Tsuruoka city, down through the golden landscape of Yudono.
I subsequently discovered that it’s possible to do a third day on the Rokujuri-Goe Kaido, continuing on to Shizu Onsen. Forestry workers told me that there is a trail (for experienced mountain hikers only) down from the summit of Mt Gassan to a mountain hut called Nenbutsugahara, and onward to Hijiori Onsen, but this can only be done in July and August, and a local hiking guide would need to be found. Similarly, walking the high alpine trail to the summit of Gassan is done in summer.
Rokujuri-Goe Kaido Trail summary:
Day 1 Honmyoji Temple to Tamugimata Village
Day 2 Tamugimata Village to Mt Yudono Torii gate
Day 3 Mt Yudono Torii gate to Shizu Onsen