If you’re not familiar with the location of Yamagata Prefecture on Japan’s map – you’re not alone. Embarrassingly, after more than four years of living in Japan, I also didn’t know exactly where it was. If I had to guess, it was somewhere in the north. When the idea of going to Yamagata came up – I was immediately in, since I always like to visit new places. And what can I say? Yamagata exceeded my expectations.
Yamagata Prefecture (formerly a part of Dewa Province) is located in the Tohoku region, North-West of Honshu, along the Sea of Japan. The capital city of the prefecture is Yamagata City, but most of the surrounding land is considered the countryside. One of the first things I noticed, which made me fall in love with Yamagata as soon as I got there – is its variety. There are beautiful mountains, rice fields, and sea landscapes, so I immediately felt more peaceful and relaxed. We visited Yamadera, Mount Haguro, and Chido Museum. Here are some more details about these awesome places.
It’s probably the most famous place in Yamagata – and for a good reason! The prevailing name, Yamadera, literally means ‘mountain temple’, as it’s built on the top of a mountain. This temple was founded by the Tendai sect of Buddhism in 860AD and is officially called Risshakuji.
Travelling from Yamagata Station to Yamadera Station only took 20 minutes, with another 5 minute walk from the station to Konpon chudo Hall, the entrance to the temple. But then, after crossing the Sanmon gate, 1,000 steps separated us from the main temple’s building. Looking for a challenging spiritual journey? There you have it!
The route up is filled with small shrines, rocks covered with moss, lanterns, and beautiful forest vegetation. Although it sounds like a long journey, it takes between 30 minutes and one hour to get to the top. I recommend not seeing it as a workout, but trying to take the time to appreciate all the beauty around you. We went up slowly, took pictures, and sang with the sounds of the cicadas around us. Every once in a while we were given a reminder of how many steps were left – and it proceeded faster than we thought.
When we arrived at the main buildings of the temple on the top of the mountain, the view was truly amazing! Each and every corner revealed a gorgeous new viewpoint of the valley below. I couldn’t take my eyes off the temple rising from the rocky cliff.
The best view was revealed to us from the Godaigo Hall, where many business cards were hung (you didn’t think I’d miss the opportunity, did you?).
Don’t be afraid to try different trails and explore every corner of this beautiful place.
Mount Haguro in Dewa Sanzan
Our next stop was Tsuruoka city. It is the most convenient place to spend the night if you plan to visit Mount Haguro (or as the locals call it: Haguro-san) the next day. This mountain is one of three that make up The Dewa Sanzan (literally: The Three Mountains of Dewa), which contains Mount Haguro, Mount Gas, and Mount Yudono. All three mountains are sacred to the Shugendo religion, which is based on the Japan-native Shinto belief, as well as practices of Buddhism and Taoism. The practitioners of the Shugendo religion, the Yamabushis, worship mountains.
After taking the bus from S-Mall bus terminal (you can get a 2,000 yen round trip bus ticket there), we got off at Zuishinmon Gate, where the pilgrimage trail to the top of Mount Haguro begins.
The road to the summit was built over 13 years, starting in 1648. While walking through some 350 to 500 years old cedars, you’ll see many shrines and other structures along the way. The most noticeable one, without question, is the five-story pagoda.
The Five-story Pagoda
This pagoda in Haguro-san has existed since 1372. Wow, it has seen a lot! It is one of the oldest pagodas in Japan and is a designated national treasure. When paying the entrance fee, we had a short purification ceremony from the Kannushi (Shinto priest) at the tiny ticket stand. He was waving the ōnusa above our heads while we were bowing (a respectful gesture when entering a holy place).
We walked around the first floor of the pagoda and got a glimpse of the pillar from the window of the second floor. The woman at the entrance was so nice and explained the history of the pagoda to us. She said that the mountain used to be a place where both Shinto and Buddhism beliefs were present, but at the Meiji era (1868-1912), it was decided that the whole mountain will be referred to as only Shinto. That’s why this specific pagoda is a Shinto structure, while pagodas are originally Buddhist. That was fascinating as I’ve never seen a Shinto pagoda before!
The Tea House
In the middle of the pilgrimage trail, there’s a small rugged tea house, serving Matcha, coffee, and mochi. We arrived in perfect time, just as we realized we were only half of the way up. Aside from the refreshment of drinking Matcha and enjoying the local sweets – the view was no less than spectacular! On a clear day, you can see as far as the sea. Oh – and if you wish, the owner will also make you a certificate for climbing all the way up the mountain (That’s right – before you climb all the way up. They believe in you 😉).
A wonderful service!
After climbing to the top of Mount Haguro we finally reached the shrine. It is the biggest shrine in Tohoku and one of the biggest in Japan. Here, the three deities of the three mountains of Dewa sanzan are enshrined. The roof’s structure is very unusual, it’s around 28 meters high and more than two meters thick. It has been burned down a few times in the past, and was last rebuilt in 1818.
We walked around the main building and smaller shrines, and viewed the mirror pond, Kagami Ike, amongst other monuments on top of the mountain. After exploring, we headed to the bus stop to get down to the city again. We enjoyed the slow ride, the mountain view, and the fact we were the youngest passengers on the bus!
After traveling down the mountain we wanted to absorb some culture by viewing the local architecture. Therefore, we went to the Chido Museum, which is a collection of local houses, some Western-urban, and some local, that are kept at the museum for preservation. There are also two exhibitions of local folk-art and traditional items, such as clothing, working, and fishing tools.
I especially enjoyed visiting the former Tsuruoka Police Station, the Nishigawa District Office, and the Shibuya Household. The first two houses represent the time when Japan had just opened its gates to the West, so there’s a very noticeable Western influence. These buildings look like living memories of the past. We spent about an hour in the museum; an hour to an hour and a half should be enough time to cover all the buildings and exhibitions.
We stayed in one of Tsuruoka’s newest hotels, which turned out to be one of the most architecturally-impressive places I’ve ever been to. Designed by the Pritzker Prize winner architect, Shigeru Ban, the hotel is built on an elevated platform surrounded by rice fields.
All of the hotel facilities, including the lobby, onsen, and restaurant, are designed with irregular angles and the main and most prominent building material is wood. Wood is also present in the furniture, as well as the floor, doors, and some of the walls of the rooms.
We woke up to the view of the surrounding rice fields, and after climbing the mountain, we came back to take a long dip in the natural onsen. The next day we enjoyed a delicious breakfast, and as we told the staff we were vegan in advance, they prepared special dishes for us!
The place also has a gym, library, conference room, small shop, and a kid’s play dome. If you want to stay at a hotel that combines great design, high-quality service, delicious food, and an amazing landscape – Shonai Hotel Suiden Terrasse is my warmest recommendation.
More beautiful places to see in Yamagata Prefecture
Except for the two other mountains of Dewa Sanzan, there are many more places to visit in Yamagata if you are planning a longer trip:
- Zao Ropeway (and the trails around Zao summit)
- Lord Uesugi’s House
- Ken Domon Museum of Photography
- Ginzan Onsen
- Midagahara Marsh (only in June and July)
Yamagata is a beautiful prefecture to visit, especially if you’re one of those travelers that likes to go to destinations that are not very crowded or well-known. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this gorgeous place.