5 Best sites in under-rated Yamagata
These stunning spots will introduce you to the little known prefecture, and maybe a different side of yourself
Known as Japan’s cherry capital, Yamagata prefecture is far from the bustle of the big city. Orchards and greenhouses break up patches of rice fields, which are surrounded by layer upon layer of mountains, allowing Yamagata (山形) to live up to its name: “mountain shape.”
Perhaps most impressive of Yamagata’s many mountains is Gassan, whose snow-covered (for most of the year) peak stands out above others. Although open for summer skiing until the end of July, it’s the hiking opportunities that will make you fall in love with this Gassan. Well-maintained wooden plank trails wind through a carpet of velvet green that transforms into a mottled mosaic of color in fall. On a clear day you can see all the way to Mount Chokai and the Sea of Japan. Take a simple ski lift to start your trek and surround yourself with quiet. From the main summit, you can continue on to Yudono and Haguro, the other two peaks of the sacred three mountains of Dewa (出羽三山).
Embrace mountain animist culture by tracing the 2,446 steps of Mount Haguro’s ancient path. Lined with 300-year-old cedar trees, the wide steps make their way from Gojunoto, a five-story pagoda that is a national treasure, to Sanjin Gousaiden, the summit’s main shrine complex. Throughout the surrounding area, hundreds of smaller shrines house sacred objects from nature. The Ideha Culture Museum explains shugendo, or the “way of training and experience” practiced by mountain monks that combines pre-Buddhist mountain worship, local folk rituals, Shintoism, Taoism, and esoteric Buddhism.
quick train ride from the provincial capital, Yamadera is a favorite destination for visitors. The vertical rock face of the temple complex and the stunning vistas from the summit do no disappoint. It’s no wonder that monks from the Buddhist Tendai sect chose this spot as a training ground (in 860 AD!) and Matsuo Basho, Japan’s well-known poet, penned one of his most famous haiku here. You can also enjoy a beautiful hiking trail from nearby Omoshiroiyama Kogen station through a seemingly mystical gorge.
Winter sports abound at Zao from early December to April, where long (up to 10 km!) and wide ski courses provide plenty of sport for everyone, beginner to expert, with gorgeous scenery thrown in. In February, strap on some snowshoes to romp around in the jyuhyo, or snow monsters formed by Siberian winds coming off the Sea of Japan. In the summer, hike to or around the rim of Okama, a volcanic crater. At the end of the day, don’t forget to take full advantage of the healing sulfur waters of Zao’s many onsen.
Ginzan-onsen in the tiny town of Obanazawa is often described as a “time slip” in Japanese. Indeed, nostalgia seems to float about the relaxed atmosphere of the wooden inns, or ryokan. Here you can truly step out of your routines and fall into a different pace while you listen to the calming flow of the stream running through main street. The classic interior of the local ryokan coupled with exquisite multi-course dinners and long soaks in the natural hot spring baths will replenish any weary heart.