8 Incredible Things to do and Places to Discover in Yamagata Prefecture
Just over two hours by bullet train from Japan's capital Tokyo, Yamagata is one of the most scenic areas in the country, filled with incredible mountain scenery dotted with traditional temples and shrines hidden in the wilderness. The region is home to four distinct seasons throughout the year, each creating a unique picturesque view from the white blanket of snow in the winter to the different colors of spring's flowers and autumn's leaves.
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Catch a Performance at Somaro Maiko Teahouse
Dating back to the 17th century, Somaro is one of the few places outside of Kyoto where trainee geisha known as maiko practice and perform daily. The teahouse is a beautiful window into Japan's history and traditions, located in the town of Sakata on Japan's western coast, once a bustling port town full of merchants and businessmen. There is a daily performance at 2pm, however you can still walk around the building and see the maiko at other times during the opening hours of the teahouse from 10am to 5pm. Also note that Somaro is closed on Wednesdays but open every other day of the week.
A secluded hot spring town nestled in the mountains, Ginzan Onsen is a beautiful sight of traditional wooden ryokans lined up along the river that cuts through the historic area. A little difficult to get to, Ginzan is located in the north of Yamagata. The scenery surrounding the onsen town is filled with beautiful mountain landscape and valleys, one of the most underrated areas in the country for tourism.
Amidst the dramatic mountain scenery of Yamagata Prefecture lies this atmospheric temple nestled high up on a mountain peak, overlooking the beautiful surrounding scenery. Yamadera offers one of the most beautiful sights in the world, with a distinct scene for each season.
Literally translated to 'mountain temple' the name certainty doesn't disappoint, this temple is perched on the perfect vantage point, with beautiful views into the valley and mountains below. Most visitors to Japan don't tend to travel much further north than Tokyo, which is a complete shame as the region known as Tohoku is famous for having some of the best scenery in the country.
With a large ski resort and relaxing hot springs all over the mountain, Zao Onsen is the perfect place to head to during the winter months. During this time the surrounding scenery is covered in a thick blanket of pure white snow, which also creates a phenomenon known as 'snow monsters'. These trees that are completely covered in snow, makes the appearance of hundreds of huge white giants across the mountain, one of the most incredible sights you can see during the winter. With the low temperatures during the winter, relaxing in the hot springs at the end of the day is almost necessary here.
Running through most of the prefecture, the Mogami River has long since had a deep significance for the people of Yamagata. While much of the river and its valleys are lined with beautiful scenery, the section around Furukuchi through the mountains is the most popular, where it's possible to take a boat ride along some of its course. Most boat tours also allow for you to stop at points along the way to explore some of the incredible river valley scenery.
Known as the three sacred Mountains of Dewa, choose to climb up any of these spiritually revered peaks and you'll be well rewarded with scenic vistas and a refreshing natural atmosphere. If you're planning to visit all three, Mount Haguro represents birth, Mount Gassan death and Mount Yudono rebirth and are usually visited in that order. The iconic five-story pagoda is located at the base of Mount Haguro, surrounded by forest the old wooden structure makes for a beautiful sight.
Sixteen Rakan Rocks
Carved by a Buddhist monk in the 19th century, the Sixteen Rakan Rocks is a monument built to honor the memories of fishermen lost at sea and to pray for a safe return for those out in the ocean. Just outside the town of Yuza, facing the Sea of Japan, the statues are carved in the likeness of Buddhist monks who are said to have achieved enlightenment.
Dine on Yonezawa Beef
Kobe beef has seen a huge surge of popularity in recent years for its cuts of meat covered in marbling which makes for a delicious buttery tasting piece of steak that melts in the mouth. What most tourists don't seem to understand however is that Kobe beef is just one type of many among the native Japanese 'wagyu' beef. Along with Kobe beef and Matsusaka beef, Yonezawa beef from cows reared in Yamagata Prefecture is one of the most popular types of meat among the Japanese. You can find restaurants selling the beef all around Yamagata, but for the real meat enthusiasts, head south to the Yonezawa region.
Hidden deep in the forest at the foothills of Mount Chokai, Maruike Pond is known for its beautiful vibrant shade of blue that contrasts with the bright greens of the surrounding natural forest growth. The pond is a short drive from Yuza and the Sixteen Rakan Rocks and both can easily be done as a side trip from Sakata.
Well outside of the 'golden route' for tourism in Japan that's namely centered around Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, Yamagata offers a unique traditional side to the country along with beautiful scenery that's hardly visited by overseas tourists. Well connected by Japan's efficient train system, the northern prefecture of Yamagata is an underrated gem, highly worth taking time out to explore.