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Shonai Special #2: Day trip to Sakata

Shonai Special #2: Day trip to Sakata

Located in the north-western part of Yamagata Prefecture (山形県) is Shonai (庄内 Shōnai), a coastal region known for its unique cuisine, exceptional natural scenery, and rich history and culture. Tsuruoka (鶴岡) and Sakata (酒田) are the largest cities in the region, and they can be accessed easily via the Uetsu Main Line (羽越本線 Uetsu-honsen) from Niigata (新潟).


Last September, I had the pleasure of paying a visit to the Shonai Region, discovering its natural beauty, and learning more about its history and culture. I spent a total of one-and-a-half days in the region, and I spent the first day climbing up to Mount Haguro and walking around the city of Tsuruoka.



My cycling route in Sakata. (Image credit: Google Maps)


On the second day, I had the chance to explore Sakata, a city that I didn’t know much about prior to arriving there but was eventually charmed by its unexpectedly beautiful sights and profound heritage. For the second part of the Shonai Special mini-series, I would like to share my brief yet memorable visit to the city, and show you why it is definitely worth visiting if you are ever making a trip to Yamagata.


Want to know what’s in store in Sakata? Then read on!


Going on a cycling adventure in Sakata

Inside Sakata City Central Library. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


My day in Sakata began very early in the morning, as I had a number of places to visit before catching my train at noon. My first trip was to the Sakata City Central Library (酒田市立中央図書館 Sakata shiritsu chūō toshokan), a modernistic library whose remarkable architecture stood out to me the moment I arrived in the city the evening before.


Rent a bicycle to explore Sakata! (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


I was a little worried that I didn’t have enough time to explore all the exciting places that Sakata had to offer on foot, since I had barely 3 hours. Luckily, I found out that the library had a bicycle rental service, which was apparently one of the best ways to explore the city. Better yet, I had never been on a bicycle tour in Japan, so imagine how I was at the thought of my first bicycle tour!


After a quick briefing on the do’s and don’t of renting a bicycle, I headed to the library’s bicycle yard and chose my bicycle. It was a while since I last rode one but it didn’t take that long before I found my rhythm, and I was off to the first place of interest for the day.


To Homma’s former home

Visiting the Historical Homma Residence. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


My first destination was the Historical Homma Residence (本間家旧本邸 Honma-ke kyūhontei), a historical building built in 1768 by Homma Mitsuoka, the third-generation descendant of the Homma Family, an influential clan in the city for their businesses in commerce, finance, and land ownership.


The building was meant for the Sakai Clan, who ruled the Shonai Domain that included Sakata, and the clan used it as lodging for the inspectors of the Tokugawa Shogunate during their visits to the city. Once the inspections were over, the Sakai Clan would return it back to the Homma Family who would use it as a merchant house.


Historical Homma Residence’s annex. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


It was fascinating to learn how Homma was once regarded as one of the wealthiest landowners in Japan. The building is designated as a Japan Heritage (日本遺産 Nihon-isan), and much of the residence has been carefully preserved to this day, from the tatami rooms to the rustic kitchen.


Historical Homma Residence (本間家旧本邸)
Address: 12-13 Nibancho, Sakata, Yamagata 998-0045
Access: 15-minute walk or 5-minute cycle from Sakata Station (酒田駅)
Operating hours:
   9:30am–4:30pm (March–October)
   9:30am–4pm (November–February, closed from mid-December to late January and on days with special exhibitions)
Entrance fee: ¥800 per adult (¥900 per adult from 10 April 2023 onwards)


Not your ordinary rice storehouses

Sankyo-Soko Rice Storehouses. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


After visiting the Historical Homma Residence, I pedalled off to my next destination, which is regarded as the symbol of Sakata: the Sankyo-Soko Rice Storehouses (山居倉庫 Sankyo Sōko).


The bridge to Sankyo-Soko Rice Storehouses. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


The storehouses were only a stone’s throw away from the Historical Homma Residence, and during my cycle, I crossed over the Sankyo Bridge (山居橋 Sankyo-bashi). The scenery around the bridge caught me by surprise, and I had to stop for a while just to admire the views before making my way to the storehouses.


The storehouses in the shade of beautiful zelkova trees. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


Originally built in 1893, the storehouses are an important part of Sakata, which used to thrive as a port for rice shipments. There are a total of 12 storehouses altogether, and nine of them are still in use today.


What enamoured me about the storehouses was their construction and layout. They feature double roofs which help to insulate heat, which is important for storing rice, and a row of zelkova trees (欅 keyaki) also help to provide shade for the storehouses and shield them from strong winds. And not only that, but I saw firsthand how beautiful the scenery was with the trees juxtaposed next to the storehouses. The ambience was so relaxing; I could have a seat and enjoy the scenery all day!


The complex also features Sakata Yume no Kura (酒田夢の倶楽), where local Sakata produce and foodstuffs are on sale, and a booth that showcases Shonai Region’s history and rice cultivation.


Sankyo-Soko Rice Storehouses (山居倉庫)
Address: 1 Chome-1-8 Sankyomachi, Sakata, Yamagata 998-0838
Access: 10-minute bus ride or 15-minute cycle from Sakata Station (酒田駅). If you are taking the bus, get off at the Sankyo-soko-mae (山居倉庫前) bus stop.
Opening hours:
   Shonai Rice Museum: 9am–5pm  (until 16:30 in December, closed from 29 December until the end of February)
   Yume no Kura: 9am–5pm (March–November) / 9am–4:30pm (December–February, closed on New Year’s Day)
Admission: ¥300 for Shonai Rice Museum, free for Yume no Kura


A classy restaurant-turned-cultural centre

Sanno Club. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


My next destination was yet another important historical building that was part of Sakata’s cultural heritage. Located just a short cycle away from Sankyo-Soko Rice Storehouses is Sanno Club (山王クラブ Sannō-kurabu), which has a history that stretches back more than 100 years ago.


At Sanno Club’s entrance. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


It first opened in 1895 as an upscale traditional Japanese restaurant where patrons would get to enjoy lavish meals and performances by geigi (芸妓 Japanese female entertainers engaging in various Japanese arts). The restaurant closed many years ago, and the building has been renovated and reopened as a cultural centre where visitors can learn more about Sakata’s history and the culture of Japanese traditional restaurants.


The highlight of the Sanno Club can be found on the second floor, where visitors will be dazzled by brilliant displays of kasafuku (傘福), which are cloth dolls of various colours and shapes that are hung on canopies that resemble umbrellas. It is a unique exhibition that is simply beautiful to look at, and is one of the highlights of Sakata.


Sanno Club (山王くらぶ)
Address: 2-2-25 Hiyoshicho, Sakata, Yamagata 998-0037
Access: 8-minute bus ride from Sakata Station (酒田駅)
Opening hours: 9am–5pm (Closed on Tuesdays and New Year Holidays)
Admission fee: ¥800 per adult


A scenic hilltop park with a breathtaking view

Entrance to Hiyoriyama Park. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


After a quick visit to the Sanno Club, I was wondering where else I should go since I still had a bit of time left on my hands before my final destination. When I checked the map of Sakata that morning, I noticed that there is a park known to have spectacular views, and I thought that maybe I would discover more than just the great scenery there.


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


After a few minutes of cycling, I reached Hiyoriyama Park (日和山公園 Hiyoriyama-kōen), and one of the things that took me by surprise was simply how many shrines there were in the park. It was really fun to visit the different temples throughout the park, and moreover, there was a lot of vivid greenery too so the atmosphere was very serene and calming.


View from the park’s observation deck. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


If there is one thing that visitors to Hiyoriyama Park should not miss, it is the observation deck. When I went up the deck, I was simply blown away by the magnificent views that I saw. As the park was situated on top of a hill, the deck offered a great view of the city and Sakata Port, and from the deck, I even got to see the mouth of the Mogamigawa River (最上川 Mogami-gawa) originating straight from the Sea of Japan!


The park’s historical lighthouse. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


The park also has numerous historical landmarks that visitors can leisurely explore, one of which is a hexagonal wooden lighthouse which is said to be one of the oldest in Japan. It helped to guide Kitamaebune boats at night in the past, and was a focal point for boatmen to pray for safe voyages.


Another outstanding landmark is a beautiful Kitamaebune boat on a pond in the middle of the park. Many Kitamaebune boats used to berth at the nearby port to deliver rice by sea, and the one at the pond is a ½-scale replica that is also one of the largest in Japan.


Hiyoriyama Park (日和山公園)
Address: 1-127 Minami Shinmachi, Sakata-shi, Yamagata 998-0063
Access: 3-minute bus ride from Sakata Station (酒田駅)


Last stop: SAKATANTO

SAKATANTO. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


For my last stop, I pedalled my bicycle to the eastern wharf of Sakata Port, where I found SAKATANTO. It used to be a warehouse that was built more than 50 years ago, and it has been remodelled and newly reopened in September 2022 as a facility where visitors can learn more about Sakata’s local specialty foods and tourist attractions.


The deck behind SAKATANTO. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)


When I entered SAKATANTO, I was met with Sakata’s wide variety of fresh seafood and local delicacies, such as frozen squid, tuna, and canned goods. There were also several eateries that specialise in local cuisine using seafood that was caught straight from the Sea of Japan. What’s more, visitors to the facility can enjoy their food on the deck behind the facility, where there are seats that they can take to enjoy the wonderful views of the Sea of Japan.


One more thing that caught my attention at the facility was a booth at the corner inside the facility, where an ostentatious boat named Hiyoshi-Maru (日吉丸), which is paraded at the annual Sakata Festival (酒田まつり). It made me curious to enough to want to come to Sakata again in the future, if given the chance.


Address: 2-5-15 Funabacho, Sakata-shi, Yamagata 998-0036
Access: 10-minute taxi ride from Sakata Station (酒田駅)
Opening hours: 10am–9pm (Closed every Wednesday)
Admission fee: None



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


Shonai is one of those regions that I had heard about but didn’t know much. But after visiting Tsuruoka and Sakata, and climbing up to Mount Haguro, I got a glimpse of the region’s wonders, from its amazing natural sights to its delicious cuisine.


Sakata is the second city in Shonai that I got to explore for half a day, and it was fascinating for me to learn about its culture and heritage, and discover places with stunning scenery. There are still other things I want to look forward to at Sakata, and I hope that I have another chance at visiting the city and Shonai as a whole. I got the opportunity to understand why Shonai is special, and I hope you can get yours soon too!


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 Sakata and other places in Shonai, 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 ¥18,000, it is cheaper than a round-trip ticket from Tokyo to Sakata (more than ¥29,000).


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, here.


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 ¥20,000, 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, here.


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: JR East / Nazrul Buang, illustAC


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