By Febry Fawzi
Yamagata prefecture offers beautiful outdoor environments which promise heaps of adventure as well as cultural discoveries. From hiking mystical forested temples built into the mountains, to snow sports in a hot springs resort, Yamagata has plenty of surprises sure to keep you coming back for more.
Starting out to the north-east of Yamagata City, any visit to the mountain temple complex of Yamadera, founded in 860, offers a magical experience to those willing to make the climb. Literally built into the mountainside, Risshaku-ji Temple is the jewel in Yamadera's crown and acts as the perfect reward to those who reach Yamadera's summit. Take in the panoramic views of the surrounding valley whilst resting having accomplished over 1,000 steps to the top – a task even more arduous in winter, but easily achievable providing you are dressed warmly and wearing appropriate footwear to traverse the snow-covered, occasionally icy paths.
Abe Dojo Sword Experience
Under the tutelage of one of Japan's truly great samurai champions, Yoshihiro Abe, gain insight into the 1,000 year-old history of the samurai and participate in a live sword cutting demo for yourself with The Samurai Experience at Abe Faction Saber Way in Yamagata City.
Abe-san started learning from the age of 14 when he started to learn the art of sword drawing ('batto-jutsu'), becoming an apprentice at 28 and winning a tournament the year after, and many more competitions and awards since. As you would expect, his prestigious collection of Japanese swords (Nihonto) amounts to more than 50 Katana blades.
At his Yamagata dojo, workshop participants can learn about Japanese swords, learn how to fight and defend in interactive demos and gain insight into the etiquette and formalities involved in the way of the samurai. Instruction is in Japanese so having an interpreter is advised.
The hot springs resort of Zao Onsen provides a mix of winter activities and unparalleled relaxation opportunities. For sports enthusiasts, Zao Onsen boasts 14 slopes and 12 courses sure to entice skiers and snowboarders of any level, as well as range of family-friendly snow parks and multi-lingual signage throughout.
In clearer weather, a winter phenomenon known as 'Snow Monsters' can be seen from the resort summit or when riding the Zao Ropeway Sancho Line. Sub-zero temperatures, heavy snowfall and freezing winds give rise to the trees taking on peculiar shapes, with many spectators often taking advantage of the evening light-up to witness the mystical illuminations.
At the foot of the mountain, the actual Zao Onsen is a famous hot spring area known for its sulphuric water, with a number of hot spring ryokans operating in the area, as well as day baths and foot baths for those only here for a day. A soak in the onsen waters is sure to sooth a tired body after any hike or ski session, but Zao also provides a few novel ways to see out the night too.
Try the local Jingisukan style of barbecue, where grilled mutton is prepared over a convex skillet alongside vegetables. Following that, why not pop along to the Yamagata Sake Museum in the vicinity for a sake tasting under the guidance of a sake connoisseur.
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