Whatever way the jellyfish go...
Nestled in the northeastern mountains of Yamagata, Tsuruoka is a sometimes overlooked city with unusual gems and sacred grounds. It’s home to Dewa Sanzan (The Three Mountains of Dewa), a truly mystical place and the biggest draw to the expansive city that includes coastline along the Sea of Japan. Tsuruoka was also deemed a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy back in 2014 for its abundance of unique mountainous vegetables. Yet, even more rarities are in store.
The Three Mountains of Dewa
Mount Haguro, Mount Yudono and Mount Gassan (the tallest of the three) symbolize the present, past, and future and are considered sacred by Shugendo monks who practice a strict brand of mountain worship. The mountains’ hiking trail leads you through a dense forest of cedar trees and shrines to the five-storied pagoda Goju-to, the oldest wooden pagoda in the Tohoku region built in 937.
Stay at a traditional temple lodge and try your hand at yamabushi-do (mountain ascetic training), doing rituals like meditating under the cold mountain waterfalls and eating shojin ryori, traditional vegan cuisine made from mountainous vegetables. First, experience “death and rebirth” by ascending and descending the almost 2,500 stairs on Mount Haguro. The ancient pilgrimage route then leads practitioners to the spirit realm, represented by Mount Gassan (1984 meters). To complete the experience, purify yourself in the hot springs of Mount Yudono. The yamabushi (mountain monks’) yearly rituals take place in late August, mid-September and at the end of the year.
Mummies of Tsuruoka
Imagine starving yourself to skin and bones and then being buried alive underground until you were mummified, this is how the sokushinbutsu (self-mummified monks) became living relics. These “living Buddhas” are said to bring good fortune and protection to us mere mortals and can be visited at these Yamagata temples.
Tsuruoka Park and Kamo Aquarium
Tsuruoka Park is one of Japan’s “Top 100 most beautiful cherry blossom spots” with 730 sakura trees from late to mid-April. In mid-August catch the Shonai Taisai festival which sees a parade of samurai armor-clad men and women in kimonos celebrating the area’s Edo period history.
You might be surprised to find that Tsuruoka is home to the largest jellyfish collection in the world. This aquarium has over 50 different species, a Guinness World Record, with its crown jewel being a five-meter-wide tank with 5,000 moon jellyfish.
From April through the end of June you can ski on Mount Gassan — yes, there’s snow. The mountain is actually closed in winter because there is too much snow and the temperatures are dangerous for skiers, so summer is best. While it’s not a famous ski resort in Japan, it certainly is a rare “summer skiing” experience. Last, drop by the Chido Museum for local history, interesting residences with Japanese gardens and a few national treasures.
A perfect alternative to Japan’s crowded cityscapes, escape to the countryside in Tsuruoka.