Yamagata is a prefecture located along the Sea of Japan, whose prefectural capital is Yamagata City. Famed for its agricultural products such as their delicious cherries, along with its natural sights and beauty from hot springs, to the sea of trees lining its multiple mountains. Here’s a list of things to do in Yamagata so you’ll never be bored and see the prefecture in all its green glory.
Risshaku-Ji is sometimes better known as Yamadera, and literally translates to ‘Temple of Standing Stones’. Located atop a weathered rock-hewn staircase for the past few centuries, the temple is guarded by a small lantern containing the sacred flame Konpon-chūdō, and is said to have been brought here from Kyoto centuries ago. Marked by multiple gates on your climb, the journey acts as a kind of meditative pilgrimage, tough but sure to open your eyes and mind to the power of nature, and in fact, you’ll be rewarded with a view of the entire mountain and bucolic countryside once you hit the top, with an 18th-century Pavilion located on the cliffside to rest your sore feet. There’s something almost magical about the place, and in summers, you can hear the whirring of cicadas as their buzz echoes through the range.
Website: Risshaku-Ji (in Japanese)
Considered the easiest mountain to access of the three mountains of Dewa Sanzan, Haguro-san only has 2,446 stone steps through ancient cedar trees in order to reach the summit. These are smooth stones made so from centuries of walking, and the climb itself only takes about 2 hours. On your way up, look out for a beautiful wooden five-story pagoda from the 14th-century, and when you finally hit the top, take in a deep breath and all the sights when you marvel at the red hall called the San-shin Gōsaiden, where the deities of the mountains are said to reside in.
Address: Haguromachi Touge, Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture 997-0211, Japan
3. Gassan Shrine
Literally translating to ‘Moon Mountain’, Gassan is a deeply spiritual mountain which houses a Shinto Shrine at the very peak established in 593. Before being allowed to enter the shrine, one has to first be purified by the priest, receiving his benediction before brushing yourself head-to-toe with a slip of paper, and then placing it in a fountain. It’s a sacred site, so no photos after you pass the gate.
Address: Nishimurayama District, 西川町月山沢, 990-0733 Yamagata Prefecture, Japan
Since Yama literally means mountain, are you really surprised to find yet another mountain here on our list of things to do in Yamagata? Check out Zao-san, a volcanic mountain range bordering the hot spring town of Zao Onsen, where you can experience some of the country’s most acidic thermal waters, while the big highlight of Zao itself remains the spectacular Okama Crater, which resembles a traditional cooking pot. In summer, come to Zao to gawp at Okama Crater’s size and the blue green water that rests inside it, while in winter, head to the town to watch it transform into a ski resort with plenty of frozen trees nearby,
Address: Zao, Katta District, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
5. Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum
Matsuo Basho is undoubtedly one of Japan’s greatest poets to have ever been born, and the Basho Memorial Museum on top of Yamadera is a museum completely devoted to his memory. Established in 1989 as part of the cultural building boom in Yamagata celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the city, the museum is just on the south side of the steep river valley facing Yamadera to the north, and focuses on the life of Matsuo Basho who perfected the art of haiku.
Many of Basho’s treasures and even his very own writing brush are displayed, along with great literary works from his time. The grounds themselves are also a sight to behold, with gorgeous gardens, and plenty of traditional Japanese style meeting rooms and tea rooms used by the public for tea ceremonies and other culture programs. The museum also often holds seminars on literature and haiku taikai poetry writing contests in both Japanese and English.
Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum
Yamagata used to be part of the Dewa Province during the warring states in the Edo period. Bunshokan is a historical building with red bricked corridor structures, and represents the typical Western-style architecture of the Taisho period. Bunshokan has undergone several extensive restoration works, and the building houses some exhibitions of splendid Taisho period clothes, as well as an exhibition of the history and culture of the Yamagata prefecture, with volunteer guides to show you around. There is also a relaxing garden space with a green lawn and brightly colored flowers to relax in.
Address: Hatagomachi, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan
7. Yamagata Castle
Yamagata Castle is a flatland style Japanese castle right in Yamagata’s city centre, and served as the headquarters for the daimyo during the Edo Period. A natural historic site, the castle has gone through multiple owners, with a roller coaster history of ruin and fame. After being sold to the government, many sakura were planted around the castle grounds in 1906 to commemorate the Russo-Japanese War. After World War II, the castle was transformed into Kajo Park, and has since gone through multiple restoration projects particularly on the East Gate, hoping to restore it to its early Edo Period condition by the year 2033. The castle was also listed as one of the 100 Fine Castles of Japan by the Japanese Castle Foundation in 2006.
Address: Yamagata, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan
8. Yamagata Museum of Art
The Yamagata Museum of Art opened in Yamagata in 1964, with its new three-story main building opening in 1985. The museum’s collection houses international and Japanese works by famous artists including Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and Takahashi Yuichi, as well as Yosa Buson’s impressive six-panel byōbu of 1779. When you’re done traipsing around the mountains, come here for a breather and to appreciate the finer, artistic leanings of Yamagata.
Yamagata Museum of Art
Website: Yamagata Museum of Art
More than mountains
Whether you’re gazing at the countryside from up high on a mountain or checking out the fascinating history of the city in its buildings, there’s something amazingly calming about being in Yamagata that will almost certainly awaken you spiritually and make you feel at peace with the world. Come for this city’s amazing history and soak in the natural scenery while you’re at it, you won’t be disappointed.