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Hunting for autumn foliage amongst Yamagata’s spectacular nature and culture

Hunting for autumn foliage amongst Yamagata’s spectacular nature and culture

With a name that means “mountain shape”, Yamagata (山形) is another charming Prefecture located in the beautiful Tohoku Region. In this article, which is the first of a three-part series, I’ll take you on a trip in search for scenic autumn views around Yamagata Prefecture, as well as introduce some of the other fun experiences we had along the way. Stay tuned for Part 2 (Akita) and Part 3 (Fukushima), coming soon.

 

View autumn scenery from a 1,000-year-old temple at Yamadera

The view of a red bridge on the way from Sendai to Yamadera. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Setting off from Tokyo, we took a bullet train to Sendai Station, and transferred to a local train on the JR Senzan Line heading to Yamadera Station (山寺駅). Along the way, you can see a brilliant red bridge. I almost missed the chance to take a photo, but luckily, I got one as a memento.

 

Arriving at Yamadera Station and heading towards Yamadera. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Autumn colours were already welcoming us as soon as we got off at Yamadera Station. There is map showing the way up the mountain, and if you see this red bridge, you’re on the right track.

 

Along the way up the mountain, you can see many shops. The delicious smell of imoni (いも煮) soup drifts in the air. The soup has konjac, taro, and other vegetables simmering together, and is a local food loved by the people of Yamagata. On a chilly day like this, having a warm soup with delicious vegetables like this can definitely give you enough stamina to hike up Yamadera.

 

On the way up Yamadera. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

With scenic surroundings and the temple’s antiqueness, Yamadera is definitely a destination you can’t miss. Many buildings of this temple are constructed on the mountain area, and the name Yamadera (山寺) can be literally translated as ‘Mountain Temple’. However, the temple’s official name is Risshakuji (立石寺). This temple is part of the Tendai Buddhism in Japan and was founded by Jikaku Daishi in 860, making this temple over 1,000 years old. You will need to climb up over 1,000 steps to reach the temple, so muster up your stamina and let’s go!

 

Climb over 1,000 steps to reach the top. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

For us, the route up took around 1 hour to reach Okunoin (奥の院), the innermost part of Yamadera. Climbing up the stairs was not hard as we thought it would be, but it was indeed tiring. There are many pine trees lining along your way up the 1,000 steps, as well as many statues of Buddha, some beautifully covered with green moss. On the way up, you can also enjoy a view of red leaves with the traditional temple roof in the background.

 

Statue of Matsuo Basho. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Yamadera is one of the top tourist attractions in Yamagata Prefecture. On the way up the mountain, you can also see a statue of Matsuo Basho, a famous Japanese poet who visited this place in 1689. If you look closely, you will notice that his poems inscribed on some of the stones along the path.

 

Konpon Chūdо̄, a National Treasure of Japan. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

The large building at the temple’s entrance, Konpon Chūdо̄ (根本中堂),  is classified as a National Treasure of Japan. Constructed with beech wood, it is the oldest of its class in Japan. Buddha statues and other treasures of the temple are displayed here in Konpon Chūdо̄ for you to take a look.

 

Jizо̄-san that are left here by the visitors. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Before you reach the mountain top, you can notice many small statues of Jizо̄-san (地蔵さん) around. Visitors brought statues of Jizо̄-san and left it here according to the belief that in doing so, their children would be granted health and safety.

 

Godaido Hall, the recommended spot in Yamadera offering spectacular views of the valley below. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Among the buildings in Yamadera, the Godaido Hall (五大堂 Godaidо̄) where people pray for peace is the most recommended place, because you can enjoy the amazing view of the mountains and the surrounding town below.

 

View from Godaido Hall. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

From Godaido Hall, you can see the view of the city contrasting with the seasonal colours of autumn. When I visited, the mountains were changing their colours, and this sight alone made me forget all the weariness from my climb up. Don’t forget to take a quick snap of the scenery as a memento of this journey!

 

Yamadera (山寺)
Address: 4456-1 Yamadera, Yamagata 999-3301
Access: The entrance is a 5-minute walk from JR Yamadera Station (山寺駅).
Opening hours: 8:00–17:00
Admission fee: ¥300/adult

 

Enjoy the foliage at Mount Haguro, where beautiful nature meets mysterious history

Climbing up Mount Haguro. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Where you’re here in Yamagata, visiting a mountain with a 1,400-year-old history in Shugendō (修験道), (an ancient religion blending Shintoism and Buddhism), is a must. Mount Haguro (羽黒山 Haguro-san) is located in the city of Tsuruoka (鶴岡市 Tsuruoka-shi), in the northwestern Shonai area of Yamagata Prefecture. It stands at 414m above sea-level, and sitting at the top of the mountain is the shrine for worshipping the Three Mountains of Dewa (出羽三山 Dewa Sanzan) which consists of Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan, and Mount Yudono.

 

All three mountains are famous attractions in Yamagata, and each represents something different: Mount Haguro symbolizes the birth and the present, Mount Gassan represents death and the past, and Mount Yudono represents rebirth and the future. Among them, Haguro Mountain is the most easily accessible.

 

Rent a shiroshozoku outfit to climb up Mount Haguro. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

When you’re visiting this mountain that symbolizes birth, getting dressed up to match the atmosphere of the mountain might be a good way to enjoy your visit. For this trip we rented shiroshо̄zoku (白装, a white attire that Yamabushi monks often wear when traveling up the mountain. After dressing up, I really felt like one of the monks.

 

Autumn colours at Mount Haguro. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Although it was raining and a little bit early for autumn, we could see that the leaves were slowly starting to change colours. Especially around the shrine at the top of the mountain where the red leaves are beautifully vivid. Unfortunately, the shrine is under reconstruction. But I bet that it’ll be marvelous when it’s completed. I’d love to come here again to see it in all its glory.

 

Climbing up Mount Haguro. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

To reach the summit of Mount Haguro, you will need to walk 1.7 kilometers on foot, up 2,446 steps. It takes about 90 minutes. There is a legend that there are 33 carvings of cups, gourds, and lotuses scattered along the stairs. If you find all 33 of them, your wish will be granted. Although I spotted some of the carvings, unfortunately I didn’t find all 33 of them.

 

The wooden five-storey pagoda. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Along both sides of the staircase, 300–500-year-old cedar trees overlooked our journey. There are more than 400 of these old trees around here, granting this place three stars from Michelin Green Guide Japan, and registration as Japan’s National Teasure. Among the cedars, a five-storey pagoda (五重塔) constructed in 937 A.D. stands quietly. It is said that this is the oldest pagoda in Tohoku region. The pagoda is also registered as Japan’s National Treasure in 1966.

 

Jiji Sugi, the Grandpa Cedar. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Standing side-by-side with the pagoda is a gigantic 1,000-year-old cedar tree known as Jiji Sugi (爺スギ Grandpa Cedar). The circumference of the tree’s trunk is 10m. In fact, there was another large tree called Baba Sugi (婆スギ Grandma Cedar) as well, but sadly it fell down during a violent storm.

 

Mount Haguro (羽黒山)
Address: Haguro-yama, Haguro-machi, Tsuruoka-shi, Yamagata
Access: From JR Tsuruoka Station, take a bus to Mount Haguro. Get off the bus at the last stop (50-minute ride) for the summit. If you are climbing up, get off the bus at Zuishinmon instead (40-minute ride).

 

Cleanse you soul and body with the Buddhist cuisine: shо̄jin ryо̄ri

Shо̄jin ryо̄ri at Mount Haguro. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Sure enough, you’ll feel completely exhausted when you’ve reached the mountain-top. But don’t worry, there’s a Buddhist cuisine called ‘Haguro Sansaikan’ for you to replenish your energy. This type of cuisine is a Japanese-style Buddhist cuisine called shо̄jin ryо̄ri (精進料理). In preparing this type of meal, the chef will use only the local and seasonal ingredients found in the region. This healthy meal has no meat whatsoever, and the ingredients used in these dishes are found from the local mountains.

 

Some of the shojin ryori dishes. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

One of the dishes in the course we had consisted of chrysanthemum tempura, something which I never knew could be used for tempura – it was really delicious and sweet. There were also sweet potato and pumpkin tempura that were delightfully sweet that you’ll forget to chew it.

 

For me, the highlight of the main dish was the sesame tofu in sauce made from miso and sugar. Its texture was both bouncy and tender, and its taste was sweet like a pudding. The chef shared with me that a foreigner used to learn how to make this tofu with him; but it was for making a pudding as a dessert, not a main dish in shо̄jin ryо̄ri like this. Nonetheless, the whole meal was a new experience.

 

The restaurant we visited is located at the top of Mount Haguro. The place is also available for staying overnight; for those who are here for hiking. The location is near Dewa Sanzan Shrine. The food served here is not just healthy, but will surely get you energized for the hike (as they say so). But you have to work your way up 2,446 stairs to get up here.

 

Kamo Aquarium: one of the best places in the world for jellyfish lovers

Kamo Aquarium. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Our journey in Tsuruoka is not complete yet; not without a visit at Kamo Aquarium (加茂水族館 Kamo Suizokukan). This place is the center of all kinds of jellyfish in Japan. There are many jellyfish here to see. So much that is known as the Kurage Dream Theater (クラゲドリームシアター); literally translated as Jellyfish Dream Theatre.

 

Inside the Jellyfish Dream Theater. (Image credit: KrobKruengJapan)

 

The jellyfish tank here is massive with a diameter of 5m, in which we can see all those jellyfish drifting inside. The jellyfish in this tank are Moon Jellyfish (ミズクラゲ Mizu-kurage) or scientifically known as Aurelia Aurita. I lost count on how many jellyfish are inside, because there were so many drifting around in the tank, like little moons floating around.

 

Kamo Aquarium has the Guiness World Record for ‘The world’s greatest number of jellyfish on display’. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

What’s interesting is that Kamo Aquarium is recorded by Guiness World Record in 2012 as ‘The world’s greatest number of jellyfish on display’. One of the reasons is that there are many types of jelly fish that are gathered here, to the extent that no aquarium has ever done it before. That alone is very impressive.

 

Other sea creatures at Kamo Aquarium. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

But the jellyfish are not the only creatures in this aquarium. There are also fresh water fish and salt water fish local to Yamagata prefecture here for you to see. Rays, salmon, large fish, small fish, and many others are just so dazzling to see; especially the large tank where they replicate the rocky habitat as it is in the really ocean. Plus, there are also sea turtles, sea anemones, and seals too.

 

Kamo Aquarium (加茂水族館)
Address: 657-1 Okubo, Imaizumi, Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture, 997-1206
Access: 30-minute bus ride from JR Tsuruoka Station (鶴岡駅)
Opening hours: 9:00–17:00
Admission fee: ¥1,000/adult

 

Draw to strengthen your mind and enjoy the presence of the 400-year-old mushroom cedar trees at Sokoji Temple

Sokoji Temple. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Sokoji Temple (總光寺Sо̄kо̄ji) is a Zen temple founded in 1384. The temple gate, Sokoji Sanmon Gate, was completed in 1811. The gate is elegantly carved from wood with the images of the two guardian gods who prevent evil from entering. The gate itself is a cultural heritage of Sakata City (酒田市) in Yamagata Prefecture.

 

One outstanding point of this temple is the wooden carvings found all around the temple. Be it the door frames, screens carved with images of dragons, or a 215cm- long fish that is used to signal meal time. All are very delicate and rare works to behold.

 

Mushroom cedar trees at Sokoji Temple. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Further in, there are also kinoko sugi (きのこ杉 mushroom cedar trees) found in the temple area: 120 trees in total. The trees are planted along the pavement of the temple, and are regarded as a natural monument by the Yamagata local government in 1956. It is said that these mushroom cedar trees are planted around 400 years ago and are trimmed into beautiful mushroom shapes by the caretaker in this temple. The practice is passed on from generation to generation.

 

 Shabutsu. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

If you’re interested in the Japanese painting art shabutsu (写仏) or Japanese art of calligraphy shakyo (写経), feel free to try it here. For shabutsu, there will be a picture provide for you to use as a template in your own painting; the activity is very relaxing. Each picture will require a different amount of time according to its difficulty: from 10 minutes to 90 minutes. First, choose your painting template and a pen that you will use, then get started. This course costs ¥1,500, and you’ll get to draw one picture and get a set of green tea and sweets.

 

After you choose your picture and pen, the monk will teach you how to meditate. Focus on your breathing both in and out to get you focused on your drawing; no talking is allowed. This activity is really relaxing.

 

The atmosphere in the drawing room is very similar to a classroom, but the view outside the window really is something. Focusing on your breathing really helps when you’re painting the strokes and concentrating on what you’re doing. Drawing really helps you discover yourself, along with practicing your mindfulness during the time.

 

Enjoying tea and cookies after our shabutsu activity. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

After you’ve completed this activity, you’ll get to relax with a hot cup of green tea and sugar cookies called rakugan with the image of mushroom cedar tree, the symbol of this temple. Enjoying a cup of tea while gazing at the beautiful garden outside was very calming.

 

Beautiful view of Horaien. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

The beautiful landscape of the garden outside is called Horaien (蓬莱園 Hо̄raien), and to me, it is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in Japan. This place is designed to imitate a Zen idea of a heavenly garden, where you can soak in the beauty of nature while meditating your mind. Let your mind go free and relax in this Japanese garden. With a nice cup of green tea and sweets, enjoying the calm atmosphere of a beautiful garden has never been more pleasant. If you have time, feel free to relax here as long as you like.

 

Sokoji Temple (總光寺)
Address: 8 Sokojisawa, Sakata, Yamagata 999-6831
Access: 10-minute drive from JR Amarume Station (余目駅), or 30-minute drive from JR Sakata Station (酒田駅).
Admission fee: ¥400/adult. (Green tea set ¥600)

  

Rice museum: Sankyo-sо̄ko Rice Storehouses

Sankyo-sо̄ko Rice Storehouses. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Sankyo-sо̄ko Rice Storehouses (山居倉庫 sankyo-sо̄ko), built in 1893, is the symbol of Sakata, a port city. The 12 storehouses here were used exclusively to store rice, and nine of the storehouses are still in use up until now. The rest of the storehouses have been renovated into the Shonai Rice Museum and the Sakata Yume no Kura.

 

Exhibits at the Shonai Rice Museum and Sakata Yume-no-kura. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

The Shonai Rice Museum displays information about the Shonai region’s rice and its agricultural history. Farming tools and other tools used in daily lives are exhibited here. Further, there are exhibitions of pictures of traditional houses and the method people used for transporting the rice in and out of the storehouse. There’s also a corner dedicated to Oshin, a famous Japanese drama. Fans of Oshin, I recommend you to pay this place a visit.

 

Souvenirs on sale. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

On the other hand, the Sakata Yume no Kura is mainly a souvenir shop. Here, you can find many souvenirs to bring back for family and friends; be it local rice, silk cloth, or other handmade crafts. Two of the three storehouses have been renovated, so it looks very modern. Shonai’s rice is really a delicacy, and there are small bags of it for sale if you want it as a souvenir. There are also vacuum-packed bags of rice.

 

The zelkova trees lined up behind the storehouses. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Japanese zelkova, also known as keyaki (欅) in Japanese, can be found outside the storehouses. There are 36 of them, and are all over 150 years old. The trees don’t only provide shade, but they also shelter the storehouses from strong winds. Sakata’s locals have long regarded the Sankyo-sо̄ko Rice Storehouses and the zelkova trees as symbols of prosperity, and hence symbols of the city.

 

Autumn colours around the storehouses. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Sankyo-sо̄ko Rice Storehouses (山居倉庫)
Address: 1 Chome-1-8 Sankyomachi, Sakata, Yamagata 998-0838
Access: From JR Sakata Station (酒田駅), take a 10-minute bus ride to Sankyo-soko Mae bus stop.
Opening hours:
   Shonai Rice Museum: 9:00–17:00  (until 16:30 in December) (Closed from 29 December until the end of February)
   Yume no Kura: : 9:00–18:00 (March–November) / 09:00–17:00 (December–February) (Closed on New Year’s Day)
Admission: ¥300 for Shonai Rice Museum. Free for Yume no Kura.

 

Sanno Club: a cultural heritage of Sakata

Sanno Club. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Sanno Club (山王くらぶ Sannо̄-kurabu) was built in 1895 and formerly served as a high-class restaurant of Sakata for over 100 years. In the past, maiko and geisha would perform in the restaurant. After the restaurant was closed in 1999, the building has become a cultural centre of the Sakata. Inside, there are various exhibitions to see. For instance, an exhibition about Kitamaebune cargo ships from the Edo era.

 

The building of the Sanno Club itself has been registered as cultural heritage of Japan in 2003, and in 2008 this building is donated as a public property of Sakata. The building is open for tourists to visit, and has been renovated into a cultural tourism spot. The 1st floor has been renovated into a café where you can enjoy tea and coffee. If you want to enjoy Japanese nature with your favorite drink, feel free to visit.

 

Kasafuku. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

The 2nd floor houses the kasafuku (傘福) exhibition. Kasafuku is known as the umbrella of fortune, and is another attraction of this place. The craft is the work of a famous Japanese dollmaker Tsujimura Jusaburo. Kasafuku is also known as a famous decoration. The word ‘kasa’ means ‘umbrella’, and ‘fuku’ means ‘fortune’.

 

Try making your own kasafuku dolls. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

In the old times, women often made these cloth dolls as their own avatars when making a wish at a temple. It was believed that the dolls would help grant their wishes. The dolls come in various designs, and each design symbolises its own good meaning.

 

For instance, a rabbit will help protect the owner from all evil, a goldfish will help cure the owner from sickness, a rice bag will grant good crops, mandarin ducks will grant good marriage life, and many others. Kasafuku is so famous that it has become a festival of the town, and is held in every May. The dolls are also popular as a gift or souvenir in marriage ceremonies, or for presenting to a newborn infant.

 

If you want to make your own kasafuku doll, you can join the workshop at only ¥1,000/person, where you’ll get to make your own doll. Or if you don’t have time, you can buy a kit as a souvenir or to make it at your home. The kit also costs ¥1,000.

 

Sanno Club (山王くらぶ)
Address: 2-2-25 Hiyoshicho, Sakata, Yamagata 998-0037
Access: 6-minute drive from JR Sakata Station (酒田駅)
Admission fee: ¥410/adult
Opening hours: 9:00–17:00 (Closed on Tuesdays and New Year Holidays)

 

Coming soon: Akita and Fukushima

Preview of autumn views in Akita (top) and Fukushima (bottom). (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

So what did you think of Yamagata? Our journey on the hunt for scenic autumn views in Tohoku is not over yet! Stay tuned to follow me in discovering the charms of Akita in autumn in the next article, and in Fukushima’s Aizu region after that!

 

Header image credit: KrobkruengJapan

 

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