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Sakata: A day in Tohoku’s hidden gem

Sakata: A day in Tohoku’s hidden gem

Sakata (酒田) is a place I chanced upon while trying to fill up an agenda-less half day on my trip. Located along the Sea of Japan in Yamagata Prefecture (山形県 Yamagata-ken), I was surprised that even my Japanese friends did not know of this place! Expecting a small and lacklustre town with few things  to do, I’m glad to say I was proven wrong! While Sakata is indeed smaller as compared to other Tohoku cities like Sendai or Morioka, it is perfect for immersing yourself in traditional Japanese culture that may be harder to come by in Japan’s more popular spots.


(Image credit: @ariaarts_12 / Aria Yeo)


I took a night bus from Kyoto (that was 14 hours long! Personal tip: just take trains if you can.) but you can get here via direct local trains and shinkansen as Sakata Station (酒田駅 Sakata-eki) is located conveniently between Niigata and Akita prefectures. Be careful not to confuse it with another Sakata Station (坂田駅 Sakata-eki) in Maibara City (米原市 Maibara-shi) of Shiga Prefecture (滋賀県 Shiga-ken)!


(Image credit: @ariaarts_12 / Aria Yeo)


Maps are placed conveniently around the city, marking out its main attractions for travellers. Most landmarks are accessible on foot, otherwise you could ride the city bus. However, if you would enjoy winding through Japanese streets on a bicycle, Sakata is the perfect place for cyclists with its broad and pretty much car-free streets.


(Image credit: @ariaarts_12 / Aria Yeo)


Maiko dance appreciation

(Image credit: @ariaarts_12 / Aria Yeo)


Approximately a 20-minute walk from Sakata Station, the Somaro Maiko Teahouse (舞娘茶屋 相馬樓 Maiko chaya sōma rō) is where you get to enjoy traditional dance performances by Sakata Maiko (舞妓 trainee Geisha) with the live accompaniment of a rich and refreshing resonance of the shamisen (三味線), a traditional instrument.


I purchased a walk-in ticket for a standard performance, but if you are keen on a more immersive experience, you could opt for a lunch set. While a little pricey, the lunch does offer you a more engaging private performance. Do make reservations if you would like such an experience!


(Image credit: @ariaarts_12 / Aria Yeo)


While waiting for the performance to begin, I was allowed to roam freely around the teahouse which has a history of more than 200 years. It exhibits some of Japan’s finest historical and architectural artefacts, including an interesting traditional emergency getaway and artworks by Takehisa Yumeji (竹久 夢二). On the upper floor, you can also sit and enjoy a quiet hour overlooking the teahouse’s quaint Japanese garden.


During the performance, I was too busy gaping in awe at how graceful and elegantly the Maiko danced to snap some photographs, but was granted the opportunity to take photos with them afterwards!


Somaro Maiko Teahouse (舞娘茶屋 相馬樓)
Address: 1-2-20 Hiyoshicho, Sakata-shi, Yamagata 998-0037
Nearest station: Sakata Station (酒田駅)
Opening hours: 10am–5pm (Performance at 2pm, last entry: 4:30pm) (Closed on Wednesdays)
Admission fees (Entry only): ¥1,000 (Adults), ¥500 (University/High school/Middle school students), Free (Elementary school students and below)
Admission fees (Maiko dance): ¥800 (Adults), ¥500 (University/High school/Middle school students), Free (Elementary school students and below)(Do check the website for prices on the lunch sets)
Tel: +81 234-21-2310


Sanno Club 

(Image credit: @ariaarts_12 / Aria Yeo)


A quick 2-minute walk from the Teahouse would bring you to the Sanno Club, where you can find the marvelous charms of a lesser known Japanese heritage unique to Yamagata Prefecture, called kasafuku (傘福). A kasafukuwith  kasa meaning “umbrella” and fuku meaning good fortuneis made up of many hand sewn ornaments hanging off an impressive red umbrella. Each ornament, attached with its own unique symbolism, represents the blessings and wishes its maker has. A white rabbit with bright red eyes, for example, is the wish for one’s children to be healthy, while a sakura flower wishes for everyone to be happy, and peppers are for warding off pricks from one’s daughters!


From grand majestic ones with hundreds of hanging ornaments, to smaller elegant ones with just a few refined threads, each kasafuku is made with thought for one’s loved ones. Intricately hand-stitched with needles, you can just tell how much love each one was made with. That’s what makes them so special.


If you make a reservation beforehand, you get to try making some ornaments of your own on the spot. If you are confident in your sewing skills, you can also purchase some pre-packed materials home and put together your own ornaments.


Sanno Club (山王くらぶ)
Address: 2 Chome-2-25 Hiyoshicho, Sakata, Yamagata 998-0037, Japan
Nearest station: Sakata Station (酒田駅)
Opening hours: 9:00am–5:00pm (Mar to Nov: Mon–Sun, Dec–Feb: Mon, Wed–Sun)
(Closed if following day of Tuesday is a holiday (Dec – Feb), and New Year holidays)
Admission fee: 800
Tel: +81 234-22-0146


Hiyoriyama Park

(Image credit: @ariaarts_12 / Aria Yeo)


If you are looking for a place with no entrance fee, the Hiyoriyama Park (日和山公園 Hiyoriyama Kōen) is another short 5-minute walk from the Sanno Club. Here linger the memories of Sakata as a strong port city, as it is where you can find Japan’s oldest wooden hexagon lighthouse still standing tall and strong, as well as a replica of a kitamae-bune (北前船 Northern-bound ships). Kitamae-bune was a type of cargo ship used actively during the 18th and 19th centuries and Sakata owed much of its prosperity as a port to these vessels.


(Image credit: @ariaarts_12 / Aria Yeo)


I was not able to stay due to my tight schedule, but Hiyoriyama Park would have made for a wonderful spot for a picnic with my favourite onigiri while admiring a stunning sunset view. If you visit during spring, you also get to enjoy the beauty of 400 proudly-blooming cherry blossom trees.


Hiyoriyama Park (日和山公園)
Address: 1-10 Minamishinmachi, Sakata, Yamagata 998-0063, Japan
Nearest station: Sakata Station (酒田駅)
Opening hours: All day
Admission fee: Free


Sakata is such a peaceful and quiet city, with a nice balance between traditions and modernity. I would recommend Sakata for a daytrip to give yourself a quiet break from the buzz of tourist-filled cities. Take your time to stroll, or bike, through this quaint city and enjoy a truly Japanese experience.


Where to next?

You can hop on a shinkansen to Akita Prefecture (秋田県) within an hour. From there, you can transit to Kakunodate (角館)—the samurai town where most Tohoku visitors would not want to miss. If pricey accommodations is a concern, you could travel to Omagari City (大曲市 Ōmagari-shi) for its hotels. From Omagari, it will just be a short 20-minute ride to Kakunodate by the local JR line.


Header image credit: @ariaarts_12 / Aria Yeo


Writer's profile: Aria enjoys solo-travelling and has a fondness for the perfect balance between nature and urbanism found in cities like Sendai and Morioka. She believes she has a good sense of humour but to keep this short you should just take her word for it.


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