Japanese Prefectures – Yamagata (山形)

Yamagata – Skiing, pilgrimages and time to relax

Welcome in the prefecture of Yamagata, a mountainous region with a spiritual and natural history. Join us in our trip and discover the different reasons to visit this lovely prefecture.

Yamagata

A typical sight in the Yamagata prefecture.

Geography and history

Yamagata is located in the north-western part of the Tōhoku region and is bordered by the Sea of Japan in the West, the prefectures of Niigata and Fukushima in the South, the prefecture of Miyagi in the East and the prefecture of Akita in the North. All of these borders are natural borders made by various mountain ranges. Due to Yamagata’s mountainous geography, the biggest share of its population lives on the central flat plain around the capital of Yamagata City. Besides having a lot of mountains, about 17% of Yamagata’s land is registered as Natural Parks. The prefecture is mostly known for its fruit, especially the Yamagata cherry and pear are famous.

A map of Yamagata.

A map of Yamagata.

As expected, the history of this prefecture is again comparable with the history of the other prefectures in this region. Yamagata was originally inhabited by the indigenous Ezo people who basically were all native people living in the northern part of Japan. This day, these people are called the Ainu. Up until the start of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Yamagata was part of the Dewa Province and was ruled by the famous Fujiwara clan. They transformed what is know Yamagata City into a flourishing castle town that thrived thanks to its production of the red safflower and its post station. After the Meiji Restoration, the prefecture got its name and grew out to be the prefecture it is today. It is interesting to note that Yamagata is known for its dialect, Yamagata-ben, sadly, in most of Japan it is seen as a lesser form of Japanese and it is often used in popular media to create the setting of a backwards and rural town.

Yamagata City.

Yamagata City.

Must-see locations

The first location that is simply a must-visit is the Yama-dera, which is literally a temple on top of a mountain that looks out over Yamagata city. This temple was founded in 860 as a temple for the Tendai school of Buddhism and a way to bring Buddhism to northern Japan. To get to the temple on top of the mountain, you have to hike up a mountain trail for 30 minutes and you’ll see an amazing temple complex and view over the city. Along the path are various small temples and once you arrive at the top, you can find the famous Kaisando Hall that was built in memory of the founder of the temple. There is also the Godaido Hall that has an observation deck where you’ll get an amazing panoramic view of the valley.  If this climb of about 1,000 steps is too difficult, you can always enjoy the different shops, buildings and Konponchudo Hall, which is the main hall of Yama-dera. This wooden building is the oldest of the complex and it is said that the flame that is burning inside, has been burning since the founding of the temple. For the people with an interest in Japanese poetry, the famous Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō once visited this place and wrote a haiku about it.

The breathtakingly beautiful Yama-dera.

The breathtakingly beautiful Yama-dera.

There are quite some mountains in Yamagata, so of course there are also quite some mountain shrines. The most famous ones in Yamagata are without a doubt Dewa Sanzan. These three mountains are a centre of the Shugendo school like Kumano Kodō and each have a shrine on its top. The followers of this school do pilgrimages from mountain to mountain in a specific order.The first mountain is called Haguro-San and it represents birth, the second one is called Gas-San and it represents death and the third one is Yudono-San and represents rebirth. This Shugendo centre is also known for its extreme test of belief and endurance. At the Churenji and Dainichibo temples, two monks have preserved themselves as mummies with the help of an extreme diet and meditation. Even though this practice is forbidden today, these two monks are seen as living Buddhas.

A five-story pagoda on the route to one of the three mountains.

A five-story pagoda on the route to one of the three mountains.

This one is for the winter sport lovers out there. Mount Zao is a mountain on the border between Yamagata and Miyagi. During the winter it transforms in one of the most famous ski resorts in Japan and one of the only places to see ‘snow monsters’. These snow monsters are actually trees that are fully coated in snow and ice, transforming them in silhouettes of monsters on the ski slopes. The longest ski course starts at the place where most snow monsters are and is 10 kilometres long. After skiing your heart out, you can always relax in the local onsen and enjoy the snow monsters that are lit up from a distance. During the rest of the year, you can visit the local onsen town and Okama Crater that we talked about in our article about the Miyagi Prefecture.

A collection of snow monsters!

A collection of snow monsters!

The last location that simply is a must-see is the hot spring town called Ginzan Onsen. This secluded town is found in the mountains of the Yamagata prefecture. It used to be a town that was built close to a silver mine. These days however, it is a famous relaxing town filled with different onsen houses and historical ryokan, or Japanese inns. The buildings are made in a historical architectural style with a lot of wood and  plaster, reminding the visitors of a Japan that used to be. One ryokan however, is redesigned by the Japanese architect Kuma Kengo and was rebuilt in a modern style, turning it into an exception of the normal street view in Ginzan Onsen. Tourist can also hike on a natural path and find the old silver mines that have a part that is accessible for visitors. The path winds past a beautiful waterfall and gives a stunning view for nature lovers.

The town with the modern ryokan designed by

The town with the modern ryokan designed by Kuma Kengo.

How to get there?

Yamagata has two airports that have connections with Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo. Furthermore, due to the extensive railroad network in the Tōhoku Region, you can easily get to most places in the Yamagata. You can even get there by Shinkansen from Tokyo. If you’d rather go by car, it’s possible to hit the road and reach most places. Be careful however, because there are a lot of mountains in Yamagata, it can be hard to reach some places and it is definitely advisable to research the accessibility of the places you want to visit!

A roadmap of Yamagata.

A roadmap of Yamagata.

This was our short intro to Yamagata. We hope that we have showed you the different reasons to visit this lovely place. If you want to know more about travelling to Yamagata, leave a comment, send us a mail or please visit this page.

We will be back with another Japanese prefecture in July when we will tell you more about Fukushima.

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