Before talking of what the monks/priests of Dewa Sanzan thought of the separation between Shinto and Buddhism right after the Meiji Government was put in place, let's have a little recap of the situation at the time.
1868, January 17th: The new government establishes a "Department of Divinities" (shingi jimuka) 神祇事務課), that aims to restore the "integrity" of Shintoism by separating it completely from Buddhism.
1868, March 17th: The amendment for the separation of Buddhism and Shintoism (shinbutsu hanzenrei 神仏判然令) has been declared. From that moment, every shrine is asked to "make their priests reject Buddhism's codes and any function relative to temples"
Against all expectations, there wasn't that much opposition to that amendment throughout Japan and most shrines/temples complied to it without that much complaining. This has maybe something to do with the fact that shinbutsushûgô taught monks that whatever the religion is, a "god" is a "god", be it a Buddhist god or a Shinto one.
It was also said that every shrine was supposed to take every Buddhist icons and veneration tools away as soon as possible. (source: 羽黒町史、下巻, p.266）
On top of all of that, the traditional Buddhist ceremony to celebrate the glory of the Emperor is also abolished in favor or Shinto rites and the government affirms its religious identity through the Saiseiicchi 祭政一致 : "the fusion of politics and religious (=Shinto) rites".
The government tries to "dereligionize" Shinto by putting it at the center of the education to form an unified belief in this new Japan that is again confronted to Christianity being imported from abroad. On the 8th July 1873, the Ministry of Education publishes its three main guidelines (三条の教則):
第一条 First article
一、敬神愛国ノ旨ヲ体スベキ事。Holding to your heart the love for your sacred (Shinto) country
第二条 Second article
一、天理人道ヲ明二スベキ事。Following "the right path"
第三条 Third article
一、皇上ヲ奉戴シ、朝旨ヲ遵守セシムベキ事。 Firmly respect the Imperial Court and worship the Emperor
In other words, Japan was all about Shinto, and even though Buddhism has been separated from Shinto and a lot of icons were removed from places it belonged for centuries, even thousand years until then, is still existing. The order for the application of the shinbutsubunri law in Shonai region was proclaimed in 1869, May 4th.
However, there is a peculiar event that happened 3 years later, in 1872, on February 7th. The priest in charge of Dewa Sanzan Shrine: Kangon 官田, went to Tsuruoka, and then traveled back to Haguro. Unluckily, he was struck by death before reaching Haguro, and was found dead around Noaramachi district 野荒町 (not far from the Otorii archgate). Even though Dewa Sanzan's religious institutions complied to the government's order of conversion, making them 100% shintô, the priest was buried according Buddhist rules.
How is that known?
He received a Buddhist posthumous name (kaimyô 戒名), which was: Reishuzan'in Sanzan Shikkô Bettô Seijakuin Gonsôzu Kangon Kakunorei 霊鷲山院室三山執行別当清寂院権僧正官田覚霊, which could not have been attributed without the poor man's wishes.
This is the proof that, even after shinbutsubunri being proclaimed in Japan, the Buddhist practices inside Shinto establishments still continued to live on, according the wishes of (some) priests at the time. (We'll see next time that not all of them wanted to keep Buddhist practices around, some were actually very happy of the shinbutsubunri).
See you very soon for another fun shinbutsubunri anecdote in Dewa Sanzan!
Today's article's sources were: 出羽三山の神仏分離、岩田書院 (p.11-45) and 羽黒町史、下巻, p.266