17 December 2016

Japan Travel Guide (Tohoku Area) — Yamagata

Japan Travel Guide (Tohoku Area) — Yamagata

 Yamagata is located in the northeastern region of Japan, just 3 hours away by Shinkansen (covered by JR East 5 Days Pass Tohoku area priced at SGD280) from Tokyo station. Prior to my visit, I heard almost nothing about this place and I was super psyched to know more about this city!

We are all very familiar with Tokyo for its bustling streets and famous restaurants. However, if you would like to experience a different traditional beauty of Japan, bring an open heart and mind to the Yamagata Prefecture for a soulful experience.


In Yamagata stands a trio of mountains “Dewa Sanzan”, namely Mt Gassan, Mt Haguro and Mt Yudono which represents the past, present and the future respectively. Featured in the Michelin Green Guide, Yamagata and in particular Mt Haguro, provides the natural beauty from its landscape and is the source of Shinbutsu-Shuga a mix of Buddhism and Shintoism found only in Japan.

It is said that one should visit the three in the following order: Haguro, Gassan then Yudono.  It is believed that one will be “reborn” after going through this route as you regain your energy in life from the strength of the natural surroundings. On my first day in Yamagata, I was swiftly transported to Tsuruoka City, a 1.5 hours bus ride away from JR Yamagata Station to visit Mt Haguro.


Standing at 414m tall, Mt Haguro requires some hiking through a 1.7km long path consisting of 2,446 stone steps (split into 3 tiers of steps) to reach Sanjin Gosaiden shrine at the peak. We were led by the Yamabushi, also known as mountain monks dress in traditional costume for our climb along Sugi-Namaki (the cedar tree line) to the summit. Conch horns are being blown to protect the mountains and the people from evil spirits.

Other than for some rather steep sections, the hike was pretty comfortable with well carved out steps helping to ease the intensity of the hike. Do keep your eyes peeled and spot all 33 of the Chinese wine bottle carvings on the ground while you hike up. It is said that your wishes will come through if you find all 33 of them.


Our first pit stop was at the Jiji-sugi, the Grandpa Cedar Tree with an estimated age of 1000 years old. With a circumference of 10.5m, the tree stands tall and sturdy which serves as a reminder of the grandeur and longevity of the natural world. I remember just standing in awe as I admire the tall and majestic structure of the Grandpa Tree. There was also a Grandma Tree which was unfortunately destroyed by inclement weather in 1800.


At the end of the first tier of steps, we reached the Go-Jyu-No-Toh (The Five Storey Pagoda), a National Treasure constructed from years 931-937. The roofs of each of the five storeys were constructed equal size to stabilize and protect the structure, especially during the winter months where snow is in abundance. A unique feature of the pagoda is that it is not coated with any paint or built using any nails. Within the pagoda, there is a giant earthquake resistant damper pendulum that can absorb the seismic waves, and this has been widely adopted by many other structures around Japan such as the Tokyo Skytree.


At the end of the three tiered steps, we finally reached the Sanjin Gosaiden, where the original shrine was established by Prince Hachiko. As you climb up the stairs to the entrance of the main shrine, you will find the deities of all three mountains (Mt. Gassan, Mt. Haguro and Mt. Yudono) standing magnificently within the hall. Following the Japanese culture, I threw a coin in, bowed twice and clapped twice to pay my respects. The shrine is covered by a large rooftop, which further exemplifies the magnificence of the structure.


To commemorate the designation of the “Dewa Sanzan” as a national treasure under the Japan Heritage by the National Agency for Cultural Affairs, the Yamagata Symphony Orchestra had arranged for a concert to be held at the area outside Sanjin Gosaiden. To open the stage for the orchestra, the Yamabushi mountain monks blew the conch to signal the start of the concert. This was followed by the playing of some traditional instruments, a clear representation of  the well-preserved traditional Yamagata culture in today’s modern world.

Led by conductor Nagamine Daisuke, the symphony played tunes from world famous musicians such as Beethoven. The melodious music created amidst the traditional natural beauty from the surroundings of Mt. Haguro indeed made the experience very special and unforgettable. Despite the chilly weather, soaking in nature's beauty while appreciating the music was definitely a world class experience.


From Sennizawa, the tori gate area of Mt Yudono pictured above, we boarded a bus (JPY300 for round trip) to the Yudonosan Jinja Shrine (JPY500 entrance fees) which is accessible from May to October (no access during winter period). Being the most sacred out of the three mountains, we could only enter the shrine barefooted and photography is largely restricted to the entrance area. A purification ritual was performed by the priest before we could enter the shrine. The sacred object at the natural shrine is a rock from which hot steam and spring water appears. It is unexplainable as to why this had been occurring over decades but it is believed that this is the result from the work of nature the sun and the plants surrounding it. We ended our shrine visit after soaking our feet in the natural hot spring water.

The tranquility and serenity of Mt Yudono is something that i’ve never experienced before, perhaps a direct result of not being allowed to be engaged with our cameras and with no reception on our mobiles.


I was welcomed to Yamagata Prefecture with the local “Shojin-Ryori” Ascetic Cuisine, a vegetarian Buddhist cuisine unique to Dewa Sanzan. “Shojin” means devotion and “Ryori” means cuisine. This was created from the diet of Yamabushi (mountain monks) who practised sustainable living and influences from Kyoto’s culture. It is said that this diet reflects the relationship between humans and nature and the ingredients are all sourced from the mountains. In consuming Shojin-Ryori, it not only replenishes the body but is also believed to be an acknowledgement of the gods and spirits living in nature that provides us with the food.

Shojin-Ryori was a ten course meal packed neatly within a three tiered bento box. As I disassembled the layers, I was greeted with small elegant-looking dishes packed nicely in each layer. Since the ingredients are gathered from the mountains, it changes with the season and you might find different variations of it throughout the year. My set included different varieties of root vegetables, mushrooms, mountain vegetables, tofu, mochi and others. As I ate, I realized that the flavors of each dish came through the ingredient itself, unlike from the additional seasonings that we are used to. While I do enjoy having meat in my meals, I did enjoy this vegetarian meal as the ingredients were very fresh and clean tasting. To end it off, we washed down all these with a side of extra comforting hot miso soup.


Onsen hotels are a must at Yamagata, and Tsuruoka is home to 20 small and large onsen. I stayed one night at Hotel Mankoen with traditional Japanese style rooms and a common onsen on the first level.

My ryokan was very spacious and comfortable with my own private bathroom. Futon is provided and the fluffy sheets and blanket granted me an amazing rest for the night! Basic amenities are also provided in the room - toothbrush, soap, shampoo, hairdryer, hot water, cold water, tea, heater and towels. As like many other onsen hotels, wifi is available at the lobby.

The onsen is separated for different genders and it's operated 24/7 (cleaning time between 1130pm-1230am). Get dressed in the yukata that is available in your room, put on the room slippers and bring along towels. At the onsen room, there will be lockers or shelves to place your clothings and personal belongings. For the onsen, there is an indoor onsen with soap for showering. As for the outdoor onsen, it is a slightly smaller sized pool. When I visited in autumn, the weather was just perfect for the outdoor onsen as your body gets heated up by the water but your head will be cooled by the cold temperature. It was my first Japanese onsen experience and thankfully, I was in the onsen by myself most of the time and I could rest and relax in the tranquility of Yamagata’s nightfall.

Food at Hotel Mankoen is splendid. For dinner, we had an extensive spread of grilled seafood cooked over a hearth, alongside appetizers, fresh sashimi, snow crab and more. It was a very indulgent dinner menu and I filled my belly (a bit more than I should) that night. Breakfast the next morning was equally fantastic. There was a live mochi making station where you can order many different flavors of mochi. I had the peanut mochi to be safe but there were many interesting flavors such as strawberry and chocolate. The breakfast was rather nutritious as well with a spread of salmon, eggs and multiple other side dishes.

Overall, I enjoyed my stay at Hotel Mankoen and the cleanliness of the hotel was spot on!

From not knowing about Yamagata prior to my trip and experiencing so much during my short two days one night stay, it was a timely reminder to go out of my comfort zone to explore the less travelled places. There are still so many areas in Japan that I would like to visit and these places may not be as well publicised by the social media platforms that we are familiar with. I hope that this post will shed some light about Yamagata in the Tohoku region that you can consider visiting on your next Japan trip. Looking forward to more future opportunities to uncover the different beauties that Japan has to offer!