Occasionally overlooked in favor of other prefectures with better publicized attractions, Yamagata prefecture provides an incredible opportunity to take a step back and experience a level of depth and authenticity that is difficult to forget.
With so many places to visit in Yamagata prefecture it was a struggle to narrow it down, but below are a few must see places grouped by region to help you plan your next trip:
Zao Onsen: Well known as a ski resort in the winter months, Zao Onsen is a traditional hot spring town for the rest of the year offering a relaxing mountain escape with 47 different hot spring sources and the well-known Okama crater lake. The sulfur hot spring waters of Zao Onsen are the second most acidic in all of Japan. The waters are said to be restorative for skin conditions and wounds, where traditionally after a long farming season and harvest, farmers would come to the onsen to soak in the waters and heal their cuts and callouses.
Ginzan Onsen: Ginzan Onsen is nestled in the mountains of Yamagata prefecture situated at the mouth of an old silver mine. In fact, it was a hundred years after the silver mine was established that the miners discovered the hot spring waters. Now the town has been wonderfully preserved with the appearance and ambience of the Taisho era in Japan. During the day the waterfall at the back of the town rushes in the sunlight and in the evening the town is transformed by the illumination of gas light lamps along the main thoroughfare and residents of the ryokan strolling in their yukata.
Dewa Sanzan: Dewa Sanzan is comprised of Hagurosan (414 meters), Gassan (1984 meters) and Yudonosan (1504 meters) - the three sacred mountains of worship. Ever since Prince Hachiko established the mountains as a religious place in the year 593, it has been a revered power spot drawing pilgrims from all over Japan and the world including adherents in training dressed in the traditional all-white mountain monk (yamabushi) attire. The philosophy of Dewa Sanzan is the unique blend of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs (Shinbutsu-Shugo) found only in Japan, which incorporates a designated national treasure five storied pagoda, a number of invaluable, cultural properties, and the lush and pristine natural environment with 600 year-old cherry blossom trees along the street and waterfalls earning 3-stars in the Michelin Green Guide. Hagurosan is accessible all year round while Yudonosan and Gassan are closed in the winter months due to heavy snowfalls.
Yunohama Onsen: Situated on the Japan Sea coast of Yamagata prefecture, Yunohama Onsen was, as the legend goes, originally found by local fishermen who saw a large injured turtle bathing and recuperating on the warm sands of the beach. Since then Yunohama Onsen has become famous for its fresh seafood, bathing and spectacular sunsets.
Kamo Aquarium: The Kamo aquarium prides itself on its jellyfish collection and holds the Guinness World Records title for having the largest number of varieties in the world. In addition to the fantastic jellyfish displays, the aquarium also exhibits a number of unique fish from the local area and some playful seals that perform before the crowds daily.
Chido Museum: In the early shogunate period, the Sakai clan were designated as the feudal lords over what is present day Tsuruoka City. Remnants of their castle still stand today and have been well preserved along with other existing buildings and artifacts that now comprise the Chido Museum. The museum consists of seven original buildings that have been carefully maintained and house many original items dating back to the 1600s. The current director of the museum is actually the 18th generation direct descendant of the Sakai clan and is reverentially referred to as tonno-sama by the locals. There is certainly something to be said for seeing and hearing the explanation of his family from the living link to the past.
Boating on Mogami River: Running through the heart of the prefecture from the mountains in the east to the Japan Sea in the west, the Mogami River has become known over time as the Mother of rivers in Yamagata. Historically the Mogami River has been used as one of the main waterway thoroughfares as well as providing vital irrigation to the many farms and orchards throughout the prefecture. The river cruise allows you to appreciate the age-old Mogami River in a unique way in a motorboat with the modern comforts of enclosed glass windows, Wi-Fi, and air-conditioning in summer and kotatsu in winter. Along with the modern trappings, the boatmen are dressed in traditional clothing and provide for a fantastic atmosphere with commentary on the history of the river and renditions of songs of old sung by boatmen across the years.
Somaro: During the Edo period, Sakata City flourished as a major port with the kitamaebune (Japanese merchant ships) taking local safflower dyes and rice to Kyoto and Osaka and returning with cultural and fashionable items of the day. The result of this profitable trade route was the introduction, despite the vast geographic distance, of certain Kyoto cultural influences. Somaro - part museum and part tea house - epitomizes that influence by training and hosting traditional maiko performances as well as maintaining important historical items from the time.
Sankyo Soko: Sankyo Soko consists of 12 traditional warehouses that have been maintained in their original form and are still used today as they were originally intended. The warehouses are located on a waterway that connects to Sakata Port and were used as storage for agricultural products bound for Osaka and Kyoto. In this bustling port city, these warehouses were the center of commerce and trade that transformed Sakata City into the "Osaka of the East". One warehouse now has been transformed into a historical museum, documenting the history of the warehouse and the rise, including how to grow rice, the life of farmers and more. A lovely boulevard of Japanese zelkova trees and stone pavers behind the warehouses also attracts many visitors and has been used as a shooting location for a number of television series and movies because of its traditional feel.
Yamagata is serviced by two airports, Yamagata Airport and Shonai Airport. Flights from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to both Yamagata Airports operate daily, with JAL flying to Yamagata Airport and ANA flying to Shonai Airport. The flight time is approximately 50 minutes. In addition, the Yamagata Shinkansen takes approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes from Tokyo Station.