In a region of Japan generally known for challenging winters and high snowfall, Yamagata Prefecture is a snow sports hub and the home of Mt. Zao, the Tohoku Region’s largest ski resort. In keeping with its neighbors, Yamagata is widely known for its agricultural products, especially cherries, and its abundant hot springs, rural character, and natural beauty, not to mention an “off-the-beaten-track” appeal. Included in some of the most popular attractions are exquisite temples and shrines, sacred fountains, and awe-inspiring castles.
Yamagata’s substantial area of Natural Parks includes the Bandai-Asahi National Park; the Chokai, Kurikoma and Zao Quasi-National Parks; and six Prefectural Natural Parks. Visitors to these will find lush bastions of Japan’s former character of wilderness and rolling forests that would have predated the modern era.
Yamagata’s most famous dishes are the result of centuries of eating what was most available. Imo nabe, which is essentially a potato stew, is said to have been developed by locals who dwelled near a hot spring area. Perhaps one of the prefecture’s most well-known dishes that would almost certainly fall under the umbrella designation of “comfort food” is Dongara Jiru, a winter dish prepared from gray cod. This is traditionally a home-cooked meal made to serve several in its native region of Yamagata.
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Yamagata's Mount Zao Onsen Ski Resort is the largest in the Tohoku Region. It is also famous for being one the few places in Japan where you can see a "snow monster," a phenomenon in which heavy snow and winds are applied to trees, causing bizarre formations like icicles jutting up as though in defiance of gravity. The resort itself offers more than thirty lifts, gondolas, and ropeways, and its area encompasses runs suitable for skiers and snowboarders of all abilities, especially at the beginner to intermediate level. At night, the snow monsters are lit up around the summit. They can be accessed by gondola or ropeway, and you can observe the monsters lit up with differing kinds of lighting while walking outdoors, from a rooftop, or at a summit restaurant. Night skiing is also available, though only at the lower reaches of the resort, away from the mountains. In total, the longest run is just over six miles long and passes from the monster-infested upper reaches to the peaceful town below. After a day on the slopes, there are three open-air hot spring "onsen" facilities filled with natural volcanic waters awaiting skiers. Zao Onsen is of the most famous hot springs in all of Japan, and this truly puts a skiing trip to Mt. Zao in a league of its own.
Located in the mountains just northeast of Yamagata City is Yamadera, a scenic temple composed of a number of structures nestled directly into the mountainside. Founded over a thousand years ago in 860 CE, the oldest building still intact is Konponchudo Hall, the temple's main hall, which is constructed of beech wood and stones. Within the hall is a collection of Buddhist statues and a flame that is said to have been burning since Yamadera's foundation. Between there and the upper area of the temple grounds is a hike up the mountainside that takes roughly a half hour. The ascent spans 1,000 stone steps that are lined by lanterns and small statues and enclosed by the surrounding forest. There are a few buildings along the mountainside there, and the area affords wonderful views of the surrounding valley. Some of the best vistas are offered from Godaido Hall, a building that dates back to the early 1700s and hangs out over the cliff. This is especially true during the fall when the leaves change color, producing a striking scene. In 1689, the noted haiku poet Matsuo Basho composed a famous haiku while visiting Yamadera Temple, and no doubt countless others have tried to follow in his footsteps.
Mount Haguro is one of Japan's three sacred mountains of the ancient Dewa province. A path consisting of 2,446 stone steps meanders through a forest of massive sugi trees — that is, Japanese red cedars — many of which are 600 years old, on its way to the mountain’s summit. At the very top lies the Dewa Sanzan Jinja shrine, which is dedicated to the three deities of the three holy mountains. A vibrant vermilion adorns the walls of the shrine's main hall, and the roof is thatched and over six feet thick. . A few steps down from the summit is a building called Saikan, which is connected to the summit shrine. This building offers temple lodging that includes simple accommodations in a tatami room along with a Buddhist-style vegetarian dinner and breakfast.
Mount Haguro is one of the three most sacred mountains in Japan. At its summit, surrounded by the cover of towering Japanese red cedars, lies Saikan, a sprawling temple lodging that is directly connected to the mountain’s main temple. As soon as one enters Saikan, which was rebuilt in 1697, they will be whisked back into the past. Tatami mats cover the floors, and sliding paper doors partition the area into eight gender-segregated rooms. The inn is intended for religious patrons, but people of all affiliations are welcome. Shojin ryori is a traditional form of Japanese cuisine with hundreds of years of history that is typically served at monasteries. By definition vegetarian, these meals refresh tourists and are served for dinner and breakfast. Wake up in the morning, breathe in the crisp mountain air, and participate in the morning prayers. There is perhaps no better way to experience authentic Japanese culture.
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Yamagata isn’t the best known cherry blossom site in Japan, but it’s an area brimming with seasonal Tohoku charm well worth the visit.
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