Region
Tohoku
Island
Honshu
Largest City
Yamagata
Population
1,244,040

Yamagata

More than a winter wonderland

Winter is coming. But so is spring, summer and fall at this rewarding year-round destination.

Outside of winter not many people venture into the hills of Yamagata, located in the southwest of the already remote Tohoku region. This is despite the abundance of hot springs, mountaintop temples, natural parks and a giant game of human chess vying for tourists’ attention during the rest of the year. Yes, the skiing at Zao Onsen ski resort, with it’s famous ‘ice monsters’, is epic but it’s not the prefecture’s only attraction – make the effort to discover the rest, the rewards are plenty.

Carve through ice monsters at Zao ski resort.

Slalom through the ice monsters at Zao ski resort.

Whatever the time of year, the Zao National Park is worth a trip. Skiing or boarding through rows of snow-covered trees known as ‘juhyo’ or ice monsters is a winter highlight, while the hiking and open-air hot springs are beautiful through the warmer months.

There’s a ropeway for viewing the landscape from above, or you can try zooming in up close with a paragliding session.

Mongolian barbecue is the local speciality, known as ‘Jingisukan’ (Ghengis Khan). Meat-phobes need not apply.

Yamagata city is the prefectural capital and makes a nice home base for exploring the prefecture. It’s big on festivals, both typical and novelty, including the summer Hanagasa matsuri or ‘flower-hat festival’ where groups of dancers perform in flower-adorned straw hats, and the Taro and Beef Stew Party festival held in fall. Next door is Tendo city, famous for producing 95% of the country’s chess pieces. The Ningen Shogi, a giant human chess tournament, is really fun to see if you’re around in spring.

Yamadera temple in Yamagata Prefecture in the Tohoku region

Ah this silence / sinking into the rocks / voice of cicada

To the northeast lies Yamadera Temple, officially known as Risshaku-ji, a spectacular mountaintop temple complex where Basho famously composed one of his most popular haiku. The temple area is vast, covering the whole of Mount Hoju, making for some serious poetic inspiration as you trek around.

The three sacred peaks of Dewa Sanzan are said to have the oldest history of mountain worship in Japan. You can spot white-robed ascetics, called yamabushi, performing ritual training practices among the cedar-covered slopes. If you’d like to take on the challenge of bathing in ice water on top of extreme food and sleep-deprivation as a pathway to purity you can join in the annual training session open to newcomers. Arranging this will take some digging around but the Yamagata Tourism Information center are happy to help serious applicants.

Places to visit

Carve through ice monsters at Zao ski resort.

Zao Onsen

Making stripping worthwhile since 110 A.D.

Ginzan Onsen

Mountain onsen village for luxury lovers or budget backpackers.


Higashizawa Rose Park

The beauty of 20,000 roses — best in summer and fall!

Mount Haguro's pagoda.

Mount Haguro

The most visited and accessible summit of the “sacred mountains” in the area of Dewa, an ancient province.


Yamadera Temple

One thousand steps to Yamagata’s most iconic spot.

Yamagata’s Ningen Shogi (Human Chess)

A grand battle of human-sized Japanese chess under 2,000 cherry blossoms — a unique event to see while traveling in Tohoku.


Takimikan

A quick dip for daytrippers in Ginzan Onsen.

mummies

The Mummy at Ryusui-ji Dainichibo Temple

Join a Buddhist ritual and see a real-life mummy at this temple in Yamagata


mount gassan

Tsuruoka

Whatever way the jellyfish go...

Other Destinations in Tohoku

Lake Towada in Autumn, in Aomori and Akita, Japan

Akita

The best way to enjoy Akita is simply to go outside and be among it.

Cherry blossoms along the moat surrounding Hirosaki castle, Aomori.

Aomori

The northern tip of Tohoku, Aomori prefecture is the boundary between the known and unknown Japan.

To-no-hetsuri in Fukushima, Japan

Fukushima

Ignore the bad press or miss out on this boundless, breathtaking natural landscape.

The miracle pine tree in Iwate remains a symbol of hope for those affected by the 2011 tsunami.

Iwate

The local people say that Iwate is a place where you forge your own path. Take their advice and enjoy this re-emerging - and rewarding - destination.

Matsushima, Japan coastal landscape from Mt. Otakamori. Miyagi Prefecture

Miyagi

With vibrant Sendai at its core, Miyagi makes the ideal base for exploring the remote corners of Tohoku.