Tsuruoka is a prefecture of Yamagata is described as the ‘hidden Japan’. It is slightly off the mainstream tourist radar but offer three sacred mountains, two mummiefied living Buddhas and an aquarium listed in the Guinness World Records.
The Shangendo sect was banned for being superstitious in 1872, however the religion was preserved in the Dewa mountains- especially Mount Haguro. The Shugendo monks, yamabushi, consider the Three Mountains of Dewa as being sacred. The three mountains, Mount Haguro-san, Mount Yudono-san, and the tallest, Mount Gas-san represent the past, the present and the future; or birth, death and rebirth. A hiking trail leads visitors through a cedar forest filled with shrines, to the oldest wooden pagoda in the Tohoku region. The Goju-to pagoda is five storeys high and built in 937.
Traditionally Shugendo practitioners preform acts of endurance in a way to transcend the physical world, these acts includes long pilgrimages and endurance of the elements. Visitors can stay at a traditional temple lodge and experience yamabushi-do or mountain ascetic training. This training involves meditating under cold mountain waterfalls and eating traditional vegan meals called shojin ryori, made from mountainous vegetables. The ritual starts off with experiencing death and rebirth by ascending and descending nearly 2 500 on Mount Haguro. Participants then enter the spirit realm on Mount Gassan at 1984 meters tall, followed by a purifying ritual in the hot springs of Mount Yudono.
The mountain monks’ annual rituals take place in late August, mid-September and at the end of the year.
In the nearby Churenji and Dainichibo temples is evidence of the Shugendo’s most extreme tests of physical endurance. Here two monks managed to become living Buddhas through extreme dieting and meditation. The self-mummified monks starved themselves until they were mummified and then was buried alive. This practice is banned today but these living Buddhas are believed to bring protection and good fortune to those who visit them at the Yamagata temples.
During winter only Haguro-san is open while Mount Gas-san offer summer skiing opportunities – the mountain is closed in the winter due to too much snow! All three shrines are open between July and Mid-September, making this the best time to visit.
Tsuruoka Park is famous for its annual display of cherry blossoms. It is also home to the world’s largest jellyfish collection. The Tsuruoka Municipal Kamo Aquarium in Yamagata Prefecture, known as the Kurage Museum, with its 50 plus species of jellyfish holds the Guinness World Record. The 5-meter wide tank in the Kuragem Dream Theater is especially impressive to see as it hosts about 5000 moon jellyfish bathed in blue light.
Amongst the 50 species of jellyfish is the flower hat jelly, with fluorescent yellow and pink tentacles, the halo-encasing jelly fish that generally lives at around 100 meters in the ocean and the lion’s mane jelly fish, one of the world’s largest species. The aquarium also has the ‘Immortal’ jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii) which can return to the polyp stage and regenerate its sells to renew its life span.
The Kura-netarium breeds jellyfish. Here visitors can learn how jellyfish develop and grow at the ‘All About Jellyfish’ display. Tiny day-old jellyfish can be viewed through magnifying glasses or microscopes. There are also four presentations each day that speaks about how jellyfish feed and describe their life stages. Visitors can also see freshwater fish native to the Shōnai region and sea lions.
The aquarium has a restaurant that offers a panoramic view of Shōnaihama beach along with a number of dishes that contain jellyfish in the ingredients. Jellyfish ice-cream, anyone?
*A version of this article first appeared at www.zafigo.com