Yamagata Gifu Japan

Keywords: yamagata, sakata, tsuruoka, dewa sanzan, haguro, gassan, yamadera, shonai, shonai eigamura, okuribito, rice, mogami river, mogami, winter sports, zao, zao onsen, snow monster, yamabushi, yunohama, prefecture
Description: Yamagata's mountains are paradise for lovers of the great outdoors who enjoy hiking across the many peaks in summer or skiing down the icy slopes in winter.

When Japan’s famous haiku poet, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), was bitten by the travel bug, his Wanderlust took him north and deep into the Tohoku region. During his 5-month arduous journey he also ventured through the Province of Yamagata, where he penned some of his best-known haiku (a form of Japanese poetry).

Yamagata, literally “mountain-shape”, is now one of the six prefectures in the north of Honshu Island that are collectively referred to as Tohoku. As the name hints, two-third of Yamagata is covered by mountains. These mountains are a paradise for lovers of the great outdoors who enjoy hiking across the many peaks in summer or skiing down the icy slopes in winter.

Mighty Mogami River, one of the three most rapid rivers in Japan, cuts through the prefecture from East to West before it flows into the Sea of Japan near Sakata City. In the old days this waterway was an important traffic artery. Rice harvested on the fertile Shonai plain was shipped down the rapid currents of the river by boat to reach the harbor in Sakata, which was one of Japan’s major ports for marine trade during Japan’s Edo Period. There rice was loaded onto sea-bound boats and shipped across the ocean as far as Kyoto and Edo (former name for Tokyo). This rich merchant history is omnipresent in the streets of Sakata even today and Shonai still is a major rice growing area in Japan.

The former castle town of Tsuruoka, located to the south of Sakata and inland, exudes the feel of a former center of power and administration. It was the seat of the Sakai, the daimyo (overlord) of this area in Japan’s feudal era. To this day the descendants of the Sakai are still influential in business and politics and they are held in high esteem by the locals.

The Sea of Japan coastline is dotted with nice beaches and sunset spots. Yunohama, for example, is popular with couples who enjoy a romantic sunset at the ocean shores before enjoying a hot spring bath in this seaside-cum-onsen resort of Yunohama.

Zao Onsen, another famous hot spring resort in Yamagata, comes to life in the colder season when the Zao Mountains attract droves of skiers and snowboarders. Zao Onsen is one of Tohoku’s major ski resorts, yet it is not as overrun by tourists as some other winter sport resorts in Japan.

What’s more, in February each year Zao Onsen plays host to an extraordinary natural spectacle when the “Zao Snow Monsters” make their fearsome appearance. Find out for yourself what this monster show is all about!

Yamagata’s mountains are also visited by pilgrims and seekers of various kinds. Take Dewa Sanzan, the Three Mountain of Dewa. These mountains are sacred to followers of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, and followers of Shugendo, an ancient tradition of mountain ascetism that is still being practiced today. Visiting the area you might catch sight of some yamabushi – followers of Shugendo – in their strange-looking robes and while blowing their conch shells.

Risshaku-ji, colloquially just referred to as Yamadera, literally “Mountain Temple”, is holy to followers of the Tendai branch of Buddhism, and Dainichibo, founded by Japanese Saint Kukai, is a pilgrimage Mecca for followers of the Shingon branch of Buddhism.

These places are outright “power spots” where, independently from any religious persuasion, everyone can experience the earth’s energy. The somewhat mysterious history and the natural beauty of these places contribute to drawing visitors in their ban. You will find yourself getting intrigued enough to want to delve into Japan’s spirituality which is so often forgotten in the buzz of neon-lit Tokyo.

If you are a cinematic fan, then Yamagata is for you too! The Shonai Eigamura (“Shonai Movie Village”) is a large outdoors set where many of Japan’s well-known samurai movies are filmed. Yamagata’s most famous movie export, however, does not show sword-swinging heroes, instead it features the quiet, and now rare, occupation of a traditional undertaker in Japan.

Okuribito (“Departures”), set in Yamagata’s Sakata, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in the 2009 Oscars. Some of the main movie sets have been preserved and they are there for you to explore at leisure.

It is safe to say that Yamagata offers something for everyone whether you worship the sun, the snow, nature, movie stars or deities!

If you have any questions about any of these places and activities, please get in touch at alena.eckelmann@japantourist.jp .

I look forward to hearing from you and to sharing experiences with you in this wonderful part of Japan.

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