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Shonai Special #1: Day trip to Mount Haguro & Tsuruoka

Shonai Special #1: Day trip to Mount Haguro & Tsuruoka

Shōnai (庄内) is a coastal region located in Yamagata Prefecture (山形県) on the western part of Tohoku. It encompasses several cities and towns in the prefecture, with Tsuruoka (鶴岡) and Sakata (酒田) as the largest cities in the region.

 

I had been to several cities and towns in Yamagata, and personally, I relish every opportunity of visiting any new destination within the prefecture. Yamagata has an exceptionally unique terrain, where the prefecture is flanked by mountains on one side and the sea on the other, and it is also known as a “snow country” for its unusually high snowfall during winter.

 

Location of Mount Haguro and Tsuruoka. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

Last September, I had the privilege of exploring Shōnai and learning more about its natural grandeur, rich history and culture, and even local delicacies. To showcase the beauty of Shōnai, I will share with you my personal experiences of visiting the region in a two-part series, and here in the first part, I will recount my fulfilling day trip of visiting the sacred Mount Haguro (羽黒山 Haguro-san) and touring the charming city of Tsuruoka (鶴岡市).

 

The day trip turned out to be fascinating and memorable in more ways than one. So without further ado, let me show you how the day went!

 

Part 1: Mount Haguro

I spent two days exploring Shōnai, and on the first day, I visited Mount Haguro in the morning, and then the city of Tsuruoka in the afternoon. To reach Mount Haguro, I made my way from Niigata by train.

 

Starting the journey from Tsuruoka Station

Taking the Inaho limited express train from Niigata Station to Tsuruoka Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Tsuruoka Station (鶴岡駅 Tsuruoka-eki) is a train station along the Uetsu Main Line (羽越本線 Uetsu-honsen), and is the gateway to the Shōnai Region. Visitors from Niigata Station (新潟駅 Niigata-eki) can ride the Inaho (いなほ) limited express train or the Joyful Train KAIRI to get there.

 

Sea view from the train. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I hopped on the Inaho from Niigata Station, and even before reaching Tsuruoka Station, my day was already off to a great start. The Uetsu Main Line travels along the coastline of prefectures Niigata and Yamagata, and during my train ride, I got to enjoy an amazing view of the Sea of Japan. The weather was perfectly clear too, so I could see the deep blue sea stretching across the horizon!

 

Tsuruoka Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The train ride took around two hours, and upon arriving at Tsuruoka Station, I explored the station and the area around it since I had some free time. My advice to others coming to this station: take a closer look at the station building itself. The architecture is quite exquisite, as it features Western-style designs that caught my eye.

 

Next stop: Zuishinmon Gate

Taking the bus to Zuishinmon Gate. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After arriving at Tsuruoka Station, I headed to my destination for the morning: Mount Haguro, located in the northwestern part of Yamagata Prefecture. Visitors heading to the mountain can take a 40-minute bus ride from the train station and get off at Haguro Zuishimmon (羽黒随神門 Haguro-Zuishinmon) bus stop, which is the entrance to the stone steps along the slopes of Mount Haguro.

 

Haguro Zuishinmon Gate. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Mount Haguro is one of the Three Mountains of Dewa (出羽三山 Dewa Sanzan), which are a sacred landmark for followers of the ancient religion of Shugendō (修験道). Many of them would go on religious pilgrimages up the mountains as part of their belief, which include climbing up Mount Haguro’s 1.7km trail, which is made up of 2,446 stone steps.

 

There are two start points for Mount Haguro, one of which is Haguro Zuishinmon Gate which is located at the foot of the mountain. My journey up the mountain began here, and upon arriving at the gate, I was mentally gearing myself up for an arduous yet exciting climb up a mountain.

 

Mount Haguro’s greenery. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As I made my way up Mount Haguro on foot, I was completely stunned by the mountain’s vibrant greenery that was brimming with vigour. The trail was lined with numerous cedar trees that are a few hundred years old, and the entire area has also been classified as a National Treasure (国宝 kokuhō).

 

Although it was the end of September, the autumn foliage had not arrived yet, and the entire surroundings were still vividly green. I found it enchanting just how beautiful the surroundings were, and together with the cool weather and the fresh clean air, I had to make many stops along the way just to enjoy the natural scenery.

 

Suga no Taki (left) and Haraigawa Shinkyō (right). (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

My tip to all visitors to Mount Haguro: look out for Suga no Taki (須加の滝) and Haraigawa Shinkyō (祓川神橋). The former is a remarkable waterfall, and the other is a sacred, red-lacquered bridge that stretches over the Haraigawa River (祓川), and they are located next to each other. The scenery surrounding them was simply spectacular!

 

A five-story pagoda and a thousand-year-old tree

The iconic Five-Story Pagoda. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After walking for another few minutes, I finally found Mount Haguro’s most famous symbol: the Five-Storey Pagoda (五重塔 Gojūnotō). Standing tall in the heart of Mount Haguro’s pristine cedar forest, this structure is built entirely out of wood and is said to be over 600 years old, making it the oldest pagoda in the Tohoku Region.

 

Me with the pagoda (left) and a close-up view of the structure (right). (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I was completely awe-struck by the pagoda’s sheer grandeur when I reached it. It stood imposingly while being surrounded by tall cedar trees, and what amazes is its intricate design and architecture that has withstood the test of time for centuries. Another thing that astounds me about the Five-Storey Pagoda is how it has also endured all the harsh winters that Yamagata Prefecture is known for all these years.

 

Note: the Five-Storey Pagoda is scheduled to undergo restoration works from early May 2023 to spring 2025. During this period, the pagoda will be covered by scaffolding and curtains, and hence will not be open to the public for viewing.

 

Jiji-sugi. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Another significant symbol of Mount Haguro is Jiji-sugi (爺スギ Grandpa Cedar Tree), located just next to the Five-Story Pagoda. Unlike the other surrounding cedar trees, this one is of particular importance: it is over 1,000 years old, making it one of the oldest in the forest.

 

Close-up of Jiji-sugi. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Jiji-sugi conspicuously stood out from the other trees in the forest, and it was incredible to see a tree that is over 1,000 years old still standing strong after all this time.  I found it unfortunate that its counterpart tree, Baba-sugi (婆スギ Grandma Cedar Tree), is not standing alongside it anymore after it fell down to a windstorm in 1902, and I hope this tree remains standing for more years to come.

 

The climb begins

Following the trail up Mount Haguro. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After admiring the striking pagoda and 1,000-year-old cedar tree, it was finally time for me to follow the trail up Mount Haguro and start my ascent. Seeing how cool the weather was, I was hoping that the climb would be a fulfilling experience for me, especially when it is something I don’t get to do often.

 

Admiring the vivid greenery along the trail. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The entire trail is divided into three sections: Ichi-no-Saka (一ノ坂 First Slope), Ni-no-Saka (二ノ坂 Second Slope) and San-no-Saka (三ノ坂 Third Slope), each with its own steepness. Ni-no-Saka is the steepest part, and visitors who have completed this section can take a rest at a teahouse that serves as a resting point. It also serves tea and mochi that will help to perk visitors up for the rest of the trail.

 

Indeed, the second section of the trail was the hardest part and I was left breathless after reaching the end of it. Although I was exhausted by the trail, the amazing greenery that I got to see made the experience worthwhile.

 

Another tip for visitors who want to follow the trail: wear proper footwear and bring along a raincoat or umbrella. The stone steps on the trail can be very slippery during wet weather, especially during the second section where the gradient is pretty steep, so visitors should also watch their steps along the way.

 

Reaching the top of Mount Haguro

Reaching the end of the trail at last. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After approximately 90 minutes of continuous hiking up the trail, I finally reached the top of Mount Haguro. Although it was a relatively short trail, it was a real test for me who doesn’t hike often, and I felt incredibly content that I was able to finish it.

 

Dewa Sanzan Sanjingо̄ Saiden. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

At the top of Mount Haguro sits Dewa Sanzan Sanjingо̄ Saiden (出羽神社三神合祭殿), which is the mountain’s main shrine. It is where all the deities of the Three Mountains of Dewa are enshrined, and visitors can come in to pay their respects. When I visited the shrine, it was undergoing restoration works but still open to the public, and I felt like it was a nice reward for me to see it after the hiking trail.

 

Tama-konnyaku. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Just before hopping on the bus and wrapping up my trip to Mount Haguro, I make one serendipitous discovery: tama-konnyaku (玉こんにゃく)! It is a dessert made from konnyaku jelly broiled in a soya sauce broth and topped with a dash of mustard, and is a delicacy from Yamagata Prefecture.

 

I never expected to come across this during my visit to the mountain, and it was the perfect pick-me-up to continue with the second part of the day, and reward for completing the hiking trail.

 

How to get to Mount Haguro

Visitors can take the Shonai Kotsu (荘内交通 Shōnai Kōtsū) bus bound for Gassan-Hachigome (月山八合目) from the S-MALL bus terminal in front of Tsuruoka Station. For those who would like to climb the 1.7km trail from the bottom of Mount Haguro, they can get off at Haguro Zuishimmon (羽黒随神門) bus stop, and the one-way journey takes around 40 minutes. For those who want to start from the top instead and climb down the trail, they can get off at Haguro Sancho (羽黒山頂) bus stop instead, with a one-way journey time of around 50 minutes.

 

Lunch special: Toriniku Soba

Toriniku Soba. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After spending the whole morning walking up the trail towards the top of Mount Haguro, my energy was depleted and I needed something really fulfilling to regain it for the rest of the day. And then I learned that Tsuruoka’s specialty is toriniku soba (鶏肉そば), and I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to try it after hearing about it!

 

Toriniku soba is made from buckwheat noodles in a soy sauce broth, and is topped with a generous serving of locally grown chicken. It is a hearty dish that warms the body, and when I tried it for the very first time, I was taken aback by the simple dish that had unexpectedly deep flavours. Needless to say, I felt completely reenergised after enjoying it, and I was off to the second part of the day.

 

Part 2: Tsuruoka City

Exploring Tsuruoka on foot. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

For the second part of the day, I went on an excursion around Tsuruoka and explore different parts of the city on foot. Did you know? The city was selected as the UNESCO “Creative City of Gastronomy” and is the only city that bears that honour in Japan.

 

It is home to three Japan Heritage (日本遺産 Nihon-isan): Dewa Sanzan’s “Journey to Rebirth”, the Samurai Silk (サムライゆかりのシルク Samurai Yukari no Shiruku), and the Kitamae-bune’s Maritime Road (北前船寄港地・船主集落 Kitamae-bune Kikō-chi Senshu shūraku).

 

Tsuruoka is one of those cities that had flown under my radar in terms of travel destinations, and I was pretty excited to learn more about the city firsthand. For the first destination, I paid a visit to one of the city’s most significant historical monuments.

 

A visit to a former school

Chido Clan School. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After lunch, I walked over and paid a visit to the Chido Clan School (旧藩校致道館 Kyūhankō Chidōkan). The school was first opened in 1805, and students at the school learned mannerisms, knowledge, and virtues based on Ogyū Sorai’s (荻生徂徠) Confucian teachings.

 

Inside the Chido Clan School. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I had never walked through a former Japanese school before, and it was interesting to learn more about Chido Clan School’s foundational beliefs. Times were drastically different back then, and I could understand how this former school has been preserved as part of the city’s heritage.

 

Chido Clan School (旧藩校致道館)
Address: Bunei-100 Kamiyamazoe, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0346
Access: 30-minute walk from Tsuruoka Station (鶴岡駅)
Operating hours: 9am–4:30pm (closed every Wednesday; if Wednesday is a national holiday, it will be closed on the following day)
Entrance fee: None

 

Inside a former merchant’s house

Heishindo Merchant House. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After visiting the Chido Clan School, I walked over and visited another historical monument in Tsuruoka: the Heishindo Merchant House (丙申堂 Heishindō). Originally built in 1896, the building used to be the house for the Kazama Clan, which was one of the wealthiest merchant families in Tsuruoka during the Meiji Period for their support in the city’s silk industry.

 

Heishindo’s roof (left) and ancient safes (right). (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I felt like time had stopped when I stepped into the Heishindo Merchant House. The house has been carefully preserved since its completion, and it is also selected as a Tangible Cultural Property (有形文化財 yūkei bunkazai). There were two things that stood out for me about the house: one is the 40,000 stones that are laid on the rooftop that showcases the modernist Japanese architecture of Shonai from the Meiji Period, and the other is a collection of antique safes from Europe that the Kazama Clan used to store their valuables. Another outstanding feature is the inner garden where visitors can have a seat and simply enjoy the sheer serenity of the atmosphere!

 

Heishindo Merchant House (丙申堂)
Address: 1-17 Baba-cho, Tsuruoka-shi, Yamagata 997-0035
Access: 20-minute walk from Tsuruoka Station (鶴岡駅)
Operating hours: 9:30am–4:30pm (closed during winter)
Entrance fee: ¥400 per adult

 

A peek inside Tsuruoka’s history

Former Tsuruoka Police Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

As the sun was beginning to set, I made my way to the final historical building: the Chido Museum (致道博物館 Chidō Hakubutsukan). Luckily, the museum was a stone’s throw away from the Heishindo Merchant House, so I was able to walk over (briskly) to the museum before closing time.

 

Opened in 1950, the museum was conceived by a descendant of the Sakai Clan, who once ruled the surrounding region many years ago. The museum was opened to share the local knowledge and culture with all visitors, and is home to an Important Cultural Property: the former Tsuruoka Police Station (旧鶴岡警察署庁舎 Kyū-tsuruoka Keisatsu-shochōsha).

 

The former police station immediately caught my attention as soon as I entered the compound of the museum, especially with its conspicuously sky-blue exterior colour and Western architecture. It was fascinating for me to learn that the building used to be white in the past, but has been painted blue because it was revealed that its true original colour could have been blue all along.

 

Former Nishitagawa Government Office. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The museum also has other Important Cultural Properties, such as the Former Nishitagawa Government Office (旧西田川郡役所 Kyū Nishitagawa-gun yakusho), and the Former Shibuya Family Residence (旧渋谷家住宅 Kyū Shibuya-ke jūtaku), the latter being a historical house relocated from a mountain village in Yamagata that was built to withstand the prefecture’s heavy snowfall.

 

Chido Museum (致道博物館)
Address: 0-18 Kachushinmachi, Tsuruoka, Yamagata 997-0036
Access: 30-minute walk from Tsuruoka Station (鶴岡駅)
Operating hours: 9am–5pm (closed every Wednesday during winter, and during the New Year holidays)
Entrance fee: ¥800 per adult

 

Closing

The Shonai Region has something for all kinds of visitors. Whether it’s for those seeking to escape from the bustling city life, or those looking forward to its splendorous natural beauty, or even those wanting to know more about its gastronomical offerings, it is a region that may not be often mentioned by travellers to Japan, but it is a hidden gem that has so many things to discover.

 

After just one day of travelling to Mount Haguro and Tsuruoka, I felt like I had found out so many things that made Shonai amazing, and yet I had only scratched the surface when it comes to fully understanding its wonders. For the second part of this series, I will be sharing my personal experience of visiting Sakata (酒田市 Sakata-shi), which is another city in Shonai that had plenty of surprises too. Stay tuned for the next article!

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you want to visit Mount Haguro and Tsuruoka and will be coming from Niigata, then you can check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At ¥27,000, it is cheaper than a round trip ticket from Tokyo to Tsuruoka (more than ¥27,000).

 

The pass can be used at the automatic ticket gates, and you can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains, and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Another pass that you can consider, if you want to explore the Tohoku Region as well, is the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At ¥30,000, it makes for a great choice for those travelling to multiple places in the region.

 

The pass can be used at the automatic ticket gates, and you can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains, and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Shonai Showcase ft. Chef Okuda @ JAPAN RAIL CAFE

Join us for Shonai Showcase. (Video credit: JAPAN RAIL CAFE)

 

If you want to find out more about the different exciting destinations in the Shonai Region, join me for at Shonai Showcase @#StayAtホーム. You can watch the recorded event in the video above, or on Facebook as well as YouTube. See you at there!

 

Header image credit: 山形県, illustAC

 

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