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.
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.
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.