In the far north of Honshu, Japan’s main island, is a region of quiet beauty and traditions that remains relatively unexplored by the crowds of tourists. Those who make the effort to get there (with high speed rails and a regional airport it isn’t that difficult) are rewarded with some of the delicious seafood and rice in the country. It’s also home to some of Japan’s most colorful festivals and the locals are eager to share their region’s fares.
One of Tohoku’s six prefectures is Yamagata, located just north of Niigata Prefecture along the coast. It's a hidden gem for travelers in search of authentic cultural experiences and outdoor activities. There are ancient temples, sacred trails and exciting festivals in the mountains and coastal areas of this diverse prefecture.
The Shonai Region (known as the “Shonai Heiya”) spreads west from the sacred Dewa Sanzan—a triumvirate of mountains that include Mt. Gassan, Mt. Haguro and Mt. Yudono. Yamabushido, a religious asceticism by mountain priests, is still practiced here today. Fertile rice fields stretch from the foot of these mountains to the Japan Sea where coastal towns such as Tsuruoka and Sakata have long been stops for traders and fishermen.
Sakata was a prosperous port on a trade route from Kansai called Kitamaebune dating back more than 300 years. As a flourishing business and entertainment center, Sakata produced and sold colorful traditional fabric, sweets and sake. Along with the goods from down south in Kansai, influence and culture also arrived in the form of maiko from Kyoto, apprentice geisha training to perform traditional songs, dances and the shamisen instrument. You can see them perform at 2 p.m. (except Wednesdays) at Somaro Maiko Teahouse, a historical building which once served high-end customers. With its vibrant red lacquered walls, inner courtyard and elegant woodwork, this 17th-century teahouse is worth a visit as it has been transformed into a gallery.
As central Sakata is fairly compact, it’s easy to get around on the free city bikes that are available to pick up and drop off at Sakata Station and ten other points around town. The city offers other attractions to ride to, including the nostalgic Shonai Museum of History of Rice housed in the old rice warehouses of Sankyo Soko, Sakata Fish Market and numerous ramen shops for which the region is famous for.
Further inland, the famous juhyo (snow monsters) at Zao Ski Resort have put Yamagata on the map with winter sports enthusiasts. However, before the snow falls there are a number of interesting activities to enjoy in the lowlands and along the sea.
Yamagata’s Diver’s Paradise
Tobishima is a 75-minute ferry ride from Sakata Port. The island features crystal clear waters and is popular for fishing, diving and snorkeling. From April to June, even inexperienced divers can swim with banded houndsharks. The gentle 1.5-meter-long sharks gather around caves or rest on the sea floor during the season. Diving is only permitted with a licensed diving company.
Spanning only 2.75 square kilometers, Tobishima is fairly flat—its highest peak is the 68-meter-high Mt. Takamori. While there’s plenty of marine life, Tobishima is also visited by birdwatchers as nearly 270 species of migratory birds nest here. Camping is not permitted but there are several cafés, restaurants and comfortable guesthouses.
Although Tobishima is accessible year round, the ferry is sometimes canceled due to strong winds or waves. Even if your ferry is cancelled, you can still enjoy the beach by driving south to Tsuruoka. Yunohama Beach is one of Japan’s oldest surf spots and is also a popular place for swimming and marine sports. Further south at Nezugaseki is an iconic lighthouse. From here, you can kayak while watching the sunset over the Sea of Japan.
With more than 230 waterfalls, Yamagata has the most of any prefecture in Japan. Shonai’s most picturesque waterfall, Tamasudare Falls, is 63 meters high and located at the base of Mt. Chokai. The waterfall’s volcanic rock cliff face was thought to be formed when the region still lay beneath the ocean. You can see a large vertical fissure, especially when there is low water flow.
Although it takes 40 minutes by car from Sakata, it is a short walk from the parking lot to the waterfall. Mitake Shrine is a few steps in front of the waterfall, which is beautiful year round, but especially stunning when it completely freezes in winter (snow shoes are recommended). During peak holiday seasons, the waterfall is illuminated at night.
Sea to Summit
The close proximity of Mt. Chokai to the coast has made Mt. Chokai Quasi-National Park home to one of the popular Sea to Summit race courses Hosted by Montbell, Japan’s largest outdoor brand, Sea to Summit is a kayak, cycling and hiking endurance race held at great locations throughout Japan during the green season. The Mt. Chokai Sea to Summit race is held annually at the end of August. Participants start at Nishihama Beach and kayak four kilometers before cycling to Hokodate parking lot (21 kilometers) and climbing the 2,160-meter-high Mt. Chokai (seven kilometers).
The sacred Dewa Sanzan mountains are the spiritual centers of shugendo—Japanese mountain ascetism that combines Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Secrecy and mysticism shroud these holy mountains and if you are lucky you may see pilgrims and mountain priests clad in white robes trekking the trails as part of their rigorous training. Visitors can view shrines and temples here but photography—especially at the Hongu area of Mt. Yudono— is strictly prohibited.
Other summer races include the Minato Sakata Triathlon Oshin Race in June (www.osin-triathlon.com), the Chokaisan Blue Line Hill Climb (www.nikaho-kanko.jp/hill-clim/) and the Nordic Walk (www.nordic-walk.or.jp) in July and the Gassan Ryujin Marathon in October (gassan-m.com)
Oishii Shonai Airport is only an hour from Haneda Airport and has four flights a day. You can also reach Shonai by taking the Joetsu Shinkansen (bullet train) to Niigata. From Niigata take the Inaho Express train which takes the scenic route along the Sea of Japan coast. You can also take an overnight bus from Tokyo and Osaka area. It takes about 6.5 hours from Tokyo and 10.5 hours from Osaka. For more information or to book your trip, visit www.en.shoko-travel.jp or Shonai Visitors Association at yamagata-shonai.com.