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Yamagata Travel Guide • Just One Cookbook

Yamagata Travel Guide • Just One Cookbook

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Soaring mountains, ancient hot springs, behemoth snow-covered firs, unearthly pilgrimage trails, enchanting historic towns, and mouthwatering local cuisines—Yamagata, a prefecture in the southern Tohoku region, offers everything a visitor could ask for!

Five story wooden pagoda surrounded by cedar treesFive story wooden pagoda surrounded by cedar trees

Surrounded by the Sea of Japan to the west and towering mountains to the east, Yamagata—one of Tohoku’s top destinations—is celebrated for its breathtaking mountainous scenery. The prefecture offers a wealth of must-visit spots, from the majestic peaks of the Zao Mountain Range to the soothing hot springs of Ginzan Onsen.

A cultural center brimming with historical architecture and traditions passed down through generations, Yamagata is an ideal place for a spiritual getaway. Also not to be missed are the local cuisine and agricultural produce, especially its juiciest cherries when they are in season.

How to Get to Yamagata

Yamagata Station is easily accessible from Tokyo Station via the Yamagata Shinkansen. The journey takes approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes and costs 11,250 yen one way.

If the Shinkansen is not an option, the most convenient alternative is to fly to Sendai Airport. From there, take the Sendaikuko Access Line to Sendai Station, which takes approximately 25 minutes and costs 660 yen one way. Then, take the JR Senzan Line from Sendai Station to Yamagata Station, which takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes and costs 1,170 yen one way. You can choose between a local train and an express train, with the express train being about 20 minutes faster.

Person and dog playing in a park filled with pink shibazakuraPerson and dog playing in a park filled with pink shibazakura

From Yamagata Station, you can easily reach cities around the prefecture, such as Sakata and Shinjo, by bus or train. Alternatively, rent a car and drive through Yamagata’s serene landscape. While traveling, I stumbled across a riverside park filled with shibazakura that I would have never found without a car!

Yamadera

Yamadera, also known as Risshakuji Temple, is a mountain temple founded in 860. The entrance is just a five-minute walk from JR Yamadera Station, but be prepared for an arduous climb of 1,015 stone steps to the top. Before you start your ascent, I recommend enjoying some light food at one of the various restaurants and cafes at the mountain’s base.

Once you’re energized, begin the ascent, which is said to gradually release visitors from their worldly desires. Along the way, you’ll encounter various shrines, lanterns, and small monuments tucked away among the towering cedar trees.

Temple on a mountainsideTemple on a mountainside

One of Yamadera’s most notable aspects, aside from the picturesque scenery, is that the great haiku master Basho Matsuo composed one of his famous haikus, “Shizukesa ya iwa ni shimiiru semi no koe,” while journeying up Yamadera. The short poem gracefully conveys the area’s stillness, silence, and beauty.

The entrance to the top of the temple is guarded by a Niomon gate built in the 19th century. Inside, there are numerous temple buildings, including Kaisando, dedicated to the temple’s founder. The red Nokyodo Hall is nearby, sitting proudly on top of a mountain outcrop. Then, there is Godaido Hall, a traditional wooden Noh stage that boasts panoramic views over the Tachiya River Valley.

Mount Haguro

For those seeking a profound spiritual experience in the embrace of nature, Mount Haguro is the place to go. As part of the Three Holy Mountains of Dewa (Dewa Sanzan), the mountain’s beauty and sacredness have attracted visitors since the 6th century.

It marks the beginning of a sacred pilgrimage known as the ‘Journey of Rebirth,’ connecting the Dewa Sanzan. People pray for the present at Mount Haguro, the past at Mount Gassan, and the future at Mount Yudono. Those who undertake this journey are known as yamabushi, practitioners of the ancient religion Shugendo.

Embarking on the pilgrimage to Mount Haguro is not for the faint of heart. The journey begins at Zuishinmon Gate, where a 1.7km ascent of 2,446 stone steps awaits. I was not prepared for the climb, so I highly recommend bringing a towel, plenty of water, and suitable walking shoes. The stone stairs are very steep in some areas, so please be careful!

Five story wooden pagoda surrounded by cedar treesFive story wooden pagoda surrounded by cedar trees

Mount Haguro Pilgrimage

After 10 minutes into the journey, you’ll come across the vermilion Kyodagawa Bridge, leading to a serene five-story pagoda nestled among rows of towering cedar trees. The pagoda is a national treasure, while the surrounding cedar trees are designated as an official natural monument.

Keep an eye out for the Jisugi, a majestic ancient cedar tree believed to be over 1,000 years old. It is the thickest and tallest on Mount Haguro, a testament to its enduring spirit and natural beauty.

Throughout the trek, there are various shrines and 33 carved pictures; if you spot them all, your wish will come true! At the halfway point is Ninosaka Chaya teahouse, where you can rest and enjoy Chikara mochi (mochi for great strength). Unfortunately, it was undergoing refurbishment during my visit, so I had to push onward.

Just before reaching the mountaintop is a building called Saikan, which offers shukubo (temple lodging) for 11,000 yen, including a one-night stay and two meals. Visitors can enjoy traditional tatami rooms, decor, and shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) made with naturally grown mountain vegetables and mushrooms harvested on Mt. Gassan.

At the summit is an entrance to Haguro-san’s main shrine, which houses deities from all three Dewa Sanzan shrines. The museum displays various arts and artifacts related to the Dewa Sanzan. The main building, known as the Sanjin Gosaiden, was also under reconstruction at the time but boasts the thickest thatched roof in all of Japan!

You can actually drive up the other side of the mountain to the shrine’s parking lot if you are unable or prefer to avoid climbing all the stairs. However, I highly recommend the climb, as it was one of the few times when I felt completely disconnected from my normal life. Its tranquility and natural beauty were amazing… I only wish I had brought more water!

Local Yamagata Food

After all that stair climbing, it’s time for some food! Yamagata offers a plethora of unique dishes year-round to keep you energized throughout your travels.

Meat and taro stewMeat and taro stew

Popular dishes include Imoni, a taro and meat stew in a dashi and soy sauce broth commonly enjoyed in autumn. You can find imoni in many izakayas and restaurants, as it pairs wonderfully with rice. In fact, imoni is so beloved that there’s a festival known as imoni-kai, where a massive 6-meter cauldron of imoni is cooked to feed over 30,000 guests!

Cold ramenCold ramen

If you’re traveling in summer, what better way to cool off than with hiyashi (chilled) ramen? You might be familiar with hiyashi chuka, but this is slightly different. Imagine a bowl of ramen, typically served hot, but now served ice-cold. It might sound unusual, but the cold soup and ice make it a refreshing and satisfying dish, especially during hot and humid summers. Head to Sakaeya Honten, a famous ramen shop offering different dish variations, including options with vegetable, chicken, and wonton toppings.

Widely dubbed as the ‘Fruit Kingdom,’ Yamagata is famous for all kinds of fruits, particularly cherries. Cherries come into season during early summer, and farms open their grounds to the public for cherry picking. Keep an eye out for the ‘Sato Nishiki’ variety, known as the ‘red jewel,’ prized for its plumpness and perfect balance of sweetness and sourness. In a 2023 Tokyo auction, 500 grams of these cherries sold for a staggering 1.3 million yen! If you can’t travel during cherry season, like me, don’t worry! There are various cherry-themed souvenirs you can find around the area.

Zao Onsen

If you’re heading to Yamagata in winter, there’s no better place to visit than Zao. We also have a comprehensive Zao Winter Guide available here.

For skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts, Zao Ski Resort is a winter paradise. The season kicks off in early December and continues through late April or early May, depending on snow conditions. The peak of the season, with the heaviest snowfall, typically occurs between January and February. With 14 ski slopes, over 30 lifts, gondolas, ropeways, and numerous off-piste tracks, Zao is the go-to destination for winter sports lovers in the Tohoku region.

Another distinct feature of Zao is the snow monsters that form every winter. These are created by supercooled water droplets that don’t freeze even at temperatures below 0°C. They mix with the snow and freeze on the Aomori Fir Trees, creating these monster-esque snow-covered trees. You can admire them from the slopes, or take part in winter trekking through Mount Zao to see the snow monsters up close.

Wooden hot springWooden hot spring

After a day of winter adventures, there’s no better way to unwind than in one of Zao’s many hot springs. Whether you’re on a day trip or staying overnight, you’ll find a variety of public hot springs to choose from. Moreover, if you’re staying in a hotel or ryokan, chances are they’ll have their own hot spring for you to enjoy, adding a touch of luxury to your winter getaway.

Tendo

Just a 20-minute train ride north of Yamagata City is Tendo City, famous for Shogi, or Japanese chess. Tendo produces around 95% of all shogi pieces in Japan, and their passion for the game is evident throughout the city. Keep an eye out for manholes, sidewalks, and signs designed with shogi motifs!

Head to one of the shogi shops, where you can write kanji characters on your own shogi piece (reservations required). I recommend Shogi Mura, which charges ¥1,210 per person for an approximately 40-minute writing experience.

Ningen Shogi festival under cherry blossomsNingen Shogi festival under cherry blossoms

The shogi fun doesn’t end there! During peak cherry blossom season, a special event known as Ningen Shogi is held at Tendo Park for just two days. Visitors gather around a 16-meter by 14-meter chessboard with humans acting as the shogi pieces. The games are set 400 years ago during the Edo period when war was still rampant throughout the country. All players dress in Edo-style clothing, from kimonos to samurai armor.

Ningen Shogi festival under cherry blossomsNingen Shogi festival under cherry blossoms

Throughout the two days, there are various performances, talks, and, of course, the shogi games themselves—all set against the backdrop of beautiful pink cherry blossoms! For shogi enthusiasts, Tendo is a must-visit, especially in April.

Takinoyu Hotel

For accommodation, Takinoyu is a fantastic option at a reasonable price. This unassuming hotel is located on the side streets of Tendo. It’s not until you step inside that you’re whisked away into a relaxing retreat. And, of course, since you’re in Tendo, there is shogi-themed decor throughout the hotel. Even shogi matches are played inside special rooms!

The front lobby is spacious and includes a souvenir shop, a welcome drinks corner, and a lounge overlooking the central courtyard. There’s even an actual shogi board available for playing!

Be sure to pick up one of the onsen tamago sets and cook it in the shogi piece-shaped pot using natural hot spring water. Then, head to the hotel’s outdoor courtyard to sit and relax with your onsen tamago.

Takinoyu Hotel Room

The room itself, while maintaining a traditional ryokan aesthetic, is not lacking in modern comforts. Instead of futons, you’ll find comfortable Western-style beds, and there’s an automated toilet and bathroom for a more relaxed stay. However, the highlight of your stay at Takinoyu is undoubtedly the onsen.

Whether you choose the giant public onsen or one of the three private onsens, which can be reserved upon check-in, you’re in for a truly rejuvenating experience. Two of the private hot spring tubs are even shaped like a cherry and a shogi piece, a nod to the Yamagata theme!

For dinner, there is a selection of sukiyaki, shabu shabu, a course meal, or a Yonezawa beef and Yamagata beef-tasting meal, which I opted for. You can savor the succulent meat along with a variety of side dishes, including sashimi, stews, and dessert at the end.

Japanese breakfast place with riceJapanese breakfast place with rice

The breakfast buffet also has a wide selection of Japanese dishes and Western dishes to fill you up for another day of adventure.

Ginzan Onsen

One of Yamagata’s most famous spots is Ginzan Onsen, a remote hot spring town nestled in the mountains. The picturesque town, whose name directly translates to ‘silver mine hot spring,’ originally prospered from silver mining but transitioned to tourism with the development of dozens of hot springs.

Hot spring townHot spring town

The town center is a pedestrian-only zone with parking available 5-10 minutes away. Three to four-story ryokans, hot springs, and various shops line the Ginzan River, creating a picturesque scene reminiscent of something out of a Studio Ghibli film.

Hot spring town illuminated at nightHot spring town illuminated at night

One of the main charms of Ginzan Onsen is its traditional Japanese architecture, built during the Taisho Era (early 20th century) using timber framing and white plaster. The most recent structure, Fujiya Ryokan, was refurbished in 2006 and designed by world-renowned architect Kengo Kuma, who aimed to seamlessly blend it with the surrounding townscape.

Hot spring town illuminated at nightHot spring town illuminated at night

The quaint hot spring town truly comes alive in the evening. As the gas lamps ignite, the intricate facades and traversing bridges become illuminated, enhancing their beauty.

During the warmer months, after your hot spring bath, you can stroll outside in your yukata as if stepping back in time to the Taisho Era. In winter, heavy snowfall clings to the rooftops and pathways, softly glowing under the flickering gas lamps. While I visited in spring, I highly recommend planning a trip to Ginzan Onsen during winter. Just make sure to bring plenty of warm clothes!

Whether you seek adventure, relaxation, or a deep dive into Japanese culture, Yamagata has it all. Next, I’ll have a complete Yamagata food guide so you know the best eats during your next trip! Stay tuned!

101 Places to Visit in Tokyo ebook101 Places to Visit in Tokyo ebook



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