Yamagata (山形) is the prefectural capital of Yamagata prefecture.
Yamagata has been best known by outsiders for Mount Zao's hot springs and Yamadera for centuries. In fact, Matsuo Basho stopped by Yamadera on May 27, 1689 as part of his poetic journey, Narrow Road to the Deep North, and penned the following famed haiku poem:
- shizukesa ya iwa ni shimiiru semi no koe
- Silence, and penetrating into the rocks — the cry of the cicada
- — Matsuo Bashō
The meaning of this will be instantly apparent should you visit the temple (or most anywhere in Japan) during the late summer, when the cicadas' shrilling does sometimes get intense enough to sound like it is drilling through rock! To this day, for many visitors to Yamagata, it is the desire to visit Yamadera that compels them to come in the first place and from there branching out to discover other gems of the city and prefecture.
Like much of the Tohoku Region, Yamagata was originally inhabited by Ainu and Emishi people. They were expelled in 708 AD as the Yamato pushed northward and the area that is now Yamagata Prefecture and Akita Prefecture was annexed as Dewa Province in 712 AD. The capital at the time was in Sakata, but the area in and around present-day Yamagata City had a sizable population. Forts were built during this time that would later be expanded to become Yamagata Castle, Yamadera was built as the most prominent temple in the province, and the hot springs of Mount Zao were already known and frequented by visitors.
The Mogami Clan (from the Shiba Clan) ruled over what is modern Yamagata Prefecture (minus the southern Okitama area) during the Sengoku Period. The Mogami sided with the Eastern Army during the Battle of Sekigahara, so they were not only able to keep their land, they were rewarded and became the 5th wealthiest domain in the country under Mogami Yoshiaki who built up Yamagata Castle. After he died, the Mogami had difficulty establishing a proper successor and in 1622 the land was taken by the Shogunate from the Mogami and divided into three areas. Yamagata City was part of the Murayama Region and the Torii Clan was chosen as the rulers but the area continued struggling with its leadership, going through 13 different leaders in a very short period.
When the feudal era ended, Yamagata City was made its own prefecture but five years later in 1876 it was combined with surrounding areas (also "prefectures" at the time) to form modern Yamagata Prefecture with the city as its capital. Yamagata was designated an official city in 1889 and gained special city status in 2001.
Like the rest of northern Japan, Yamagata City has hot, humid summers and snowy winters. Some might assume that being in the north gives it milder summers than much of the country, but the city rests in a valley between mountains which makes summers hotter. In fact, the city held the record for the hottest temperature recorded in the nation (40.8°C) in 1933 that lasted until 2007 when Kumagaya and Tajimi both recorded temperatures of 40.9°C. The autumn season typically begins in late October and peaks in early November. Yamadera is especially popular during this time. Winters are snowy, and the ski season on Mount Zao begins around mid-December. The famous Zao "Snow Monsters" are typically at their best in February.
- Yamagata City Tourist Information Center (In the waiting area in Yamagata Station across from the ticket gate), ☎ . 9AM-5:30PM. Not many pamphlets available to grab yourself, but the people behind the counter can answer questions and can pull out pamphlets and travel information for you.
- Yamagata Tourist Information, Kajo Central 1F, 1-1-1 Jonan-machi (Outside Yamagata Station's Nishiguchi exit), ☎ . For those who want to browse pamphlets with lots of selection, this is the place to go. There are people there who can answer questions, but there are also lots of visible guides and pamphlets for those who want to look on their own.
- Zao Onsen Travel Association, 708-1 Zao Onsen. 9AM-5:30PM. A small building across from the Zao Onsen bus terminal with information about attractions, hot springs, and skiing in the Zao area.
Yamagata Airport (GAJ IATA) in Higashine is the nearest airport. It has domestic flights from Osaka (Itami), Tokyo (Haneda), and Nagoya (Komaki Airport). Flights directly to Yamagata can be very expensive. Sendai has flights from more airports and is typically significantly cheaper, so it is recommended to fly into Sendai and then travel by train to Yamagata. From Sendai Airport Station to Yamagata Station it takes a little over 2 hours and costs ¥1680.
The Yamagata Shinkansen zips from Tokyo to Yamagata in 2:45 at a cost of ¥10,690, and continues onward to Shinjo. From Fukushima onward the Shinkansen travels on an ordinary track and thus at Limited Express Train speeds.
Kintetsu Bus operates a night bus to Yamagata from Osaka (Tennoji Station) and Kyoto (Kyoto Station's Hachijoguchi exit) for ¥13,300 (one-way)/¥24,000 (roundtrip) from Osaka or ¥12,800 (one-way)/¥23,100 (roundtrip) from Kyoto.
Most of the town is centered around the JR station in the middle of town. Yamagata has a bus route, taxis, and bicycles for rent. Most of the most popular tourist destinations have bus routes that run to various areas around town including the areas further out, such as Yamadera and Zao Onsen. On weekends and holidays during the open season, some of the Zao Onsen buses terminate at the Okama Crater.
Yamako Bus timetables can be found here.
For Yamadera, it may be more convenient to travel by train to Yamadera Station. The temple entrance is just a five minute walk away from the station past many souvenir shops. By train, Yamadera is less than 20 minutes (¥240 as of July 2018) from Yamagata Station on the JR Senzan Line which runs all the way to Sendai.
By car, Yamadera is about 25 minutes NE of Yamagata Station at the junction of Highway 19 and Highway 62. There is a large parking lot near Yamadera Station, and smaller parking lots closer to the temple complex. Parking costs ¥300-¥500.
- 1 Yamagata Castle (山形城), ☎ . 5AM-10PM. The original castle was constructed in 1357 by Kaneyori Mogami but the castle was greatly expanded by Yoshiaki Mogami nearly 200 years later. The castle contained a palace building and other structures protected by mutliple walled sections with turrets surrounded by a moat. It was the largest castle in the Tohoku region, but it never had a donjon. Yoshiaki also built up the surrounding area as a respectable castle town, both expanding it and improving the existing infrastructure. He is sometimes called the "founder" of Yamagata City, even though people had been living there long before his lifetime. None of the original structures survive today however, efforts are ongoing to rebuild each part of the former castle. Reconstructions have been made out of wood to stay true to the original castle. You can wander the castle grounds and enter the Ninomaru East Gate building to learn a bit more about the castle. The JR Ou Main Line travels directly along the moat past the Ninomaru Gate. It's fun for trainspotters to get pictures of the trains with the castle but the downside is that it limits the angles from which you can view it. The site is listed as one of the top 100 castles in Japan. Free.
- 2 Mogami Yoshiaki Historical Museum (最上義光歴史館), 1-53 Omotecho, ☎ . Mogami Yoshiaki was a former daimyo of the Dewa Province. He is credited for vastly expanding Yamagata Castle and transforming the area from a modest, somewhat run-down town into a respectable modern city. He fought many battles in the region and gained territory for siding with the Tokugawa during the Battle of Sekigahara to make his domain one of the top in the nation at the time. The museum includes exhibits about the city's history in addition to those about Mogami.
- 3 Yamagata Prefectural Museum (山形県立博物館), 1-8 Kajo-machi. A museum with exhibits of historic artifacts from Yamagata Prefecture. It is home to the famous "Jomon Goddess" (Jomon no Megami), a ceramic statue of a goddess forged in the Jomon Period. For Japanese history buffs, it's worth a visit just to see this object. The prefecture's famous pilgrimage shrines (the Dewa Sanzan) and temple (Yamadera) also have informative exhibits. In addition to the historical exhibits, the museum also has displays on the local culture, rocks and minerals, and flora and fauna.
- 4 Bunshōkan (文翔館), ☎ . 9AM-4:30PM. A large structure constructed during the Taisho Period after British Renaissance architecture. It was used as the Yamagata Prefectural Government Building. There are a few lavishly decorated rooms that visitors can enter and look around. Free.
- 5 Yamagata Museum of Art (山形美術館 yamagata bijutsukan). 10AM-5PM. The museum's permanent collection contains works by Kichiro Hasegawa, Matsuo Basho, and Claude Monet. Special exhibits typically show for about a month at a time, so check the museum website to see what will be featured during your visit. ¥500.
- 6 Kyōdokan (山形市郷土館). 9AM-4:30PM. Built in 1876 as a hospital, it's known for its unique architecture. It was registered as an Important Cultural Property in 1966. The exhibits show the building's history and information about medical studies during that time period. Free.
- 7 Seifū-sō (清風荘). A historic building with a nice garden. It was originally constructed as part of a temple and served as its garden until the Meiji Restoration. The temple buildings are long gone but the garden remains. The tea house was built in 1954. Viewing the garden is free, but you can have tea within the building for a fee.
- 8 Museum of Yamagata University (山形大学附属博物館). 9:30AM-5PM (Closed Weekends and Holidays). Contains natural science exhibits and displays on some of the university's studies and research findings.
- 9 Karamatsu Kannondo (唐松観音堂). One of the 33 temples of the Mogami pilgrimage. It's noted for its architecture, jutting out of the mountainside overlooking the surrounding area. Just below the temple stands the original Nabetaro (鍋太郎), a named nabe pot that was used during the first "Best Imoni-kai in Japan Festival" (日本一の芋煮会フェスティバル) to make imoni to serve guests. They no longer have need for this one, since they've since made larger pots for the festival, so it stands here as a memorial and fun photo op.
- 10 Yamagata Prefectural Arts and Literature Museum (山形県芸文美術館 yamagataken geibun bijutsukan), Nana Beans 6F, ☎ . 10AM-6PM. Displays of local art and calligraphy.
- 11 Yamagata City Industrial History Museum (山形市産業歴史資料館), 10 Imono-machi, ☎ . 8:30AM-5PM. A small museum showcasing some of the city's top quality products, particularly Yamagata imono (metal casting). Free.
- 12 Seikai Kunii Contemporary Calligraphy Memorial Museum (國井誠海記念館), 2-7-41 Kiyozumi-machi, ☎ . 10AM-5PM, Weekends only. Seikai Kunii founded the Seishinsha, a group that studies modern calligraphy, in 1917 and this museum features his calligraphy, calligraphy he has collected, and special exhibits along with information about modern calligraphy (in Japanese). ¥300.
- 13 Warabe no Sato History and Culture Museum (わらべの里歴史と文化の美術館), 1138 Dosudaira Zao Onsen, ☎ . 9AM-5PM (Closed Tues). A museum consisting of five buildings collected and over 1000 artifacts collected by a single man, Yaheiji Okazaki. Emperor Meiji stayed in one of the buildings, and imperial objects and items from Yamagata Castle's former lords are featured among many others. ¥700.
- 14 Yamadera (山寺) (10 min walk from Yamadera Station). Commonly known as Yamadera, the temple's actual name is Ryūshaku-ji (立石寺) Temple (also sometimes called Risshakuji). Founded in 860 AD by the priest Ennin, the sacred flame inside is tended everyday and has been burning for those thousand years. The name of the temple means "Standing Stones Temple" for the fantastically wind and water sculpted stones on the mountainside and all along the way up. It's a steep 1110 steps from the entrance to the complex all the way to the Oku-no-in sanctuary at the top, but the view of the mountains and countryside spread out before you, especially from the Godaigo viewing platform, seems little changed over the centuries, and is worth the effort. There are also a number of important cultural treasures - Buddhist sculptures, mandalas and such - held and displayed by the temple, whose priests have strongly resisted the bid to become nationally designated as such, preferring to tend the temples, sculptures and other treasures as they always have, without the bureaucratic regulation official designation entails. .If you visit during the winter months, the little town is eerily beautiful and completely covered in snow. Local shopkeepers will rent out goloshes and sell heat packs to keep you warm on the uphill climb. There are few visitors then but the climb is worth it on a clear day when the view across the valley is breathtaking. Allow at least 2-3 hours for your climb up and back. ¥300.
- 16 Yamadera Bashō Museum (山寺芭蕉記念館), ☎ . Across the steep valley the temple overlooks, and up a short walk to the opposite hilltop is the lovely park of Fuga-no-Kuni, where you will find this museum featuring exhibitions of Basho's poetry and scrolls. The famous poet, Matsuo Basho, stopped here on his journey through the Tohoku Region. The museum gives information about him, his travels, and the poems he wrote here at Yamadera. Information is available in English, a rarity in Japanese museums. ¥400.
- 17 Momijigawa Ravine (紅葉川渓谷), ☎ . Momijigawa Ravine is a scenic valley near Yamadera. It's a popular place for hiking, offering many nice views over the river and also features some waterfalls. It's especially vibrant in the autumn among the red, orange, and yellow leaves.
- 1 Yamagata Traditional Kokeshikan (やまがた伝統こけし館 yamagata dentō kokeshikan), Nana Beans 5F. The Kokeshikan has displays of old kokeshi and explanations of the various types of kokeshi. Visitors can also try painting their own kokeshi dolls. ¥300 to paint your own kokeshi.
- 2 Zao Onsen Ski Resort (蔵王温泉スキー場), ☎ . Zao has been a popular ski destination for decades. The area features 32 lifts and a variety of options for skiers from first-timers to pros.
Zao Onsen is a hot spring town near the border with Miyagi famous for its cloudy blue sulfuric water. It is also known for its own kokeshi, the Zao Takayu kokeshi (see "Buy" for vendors). In the summer and autumn, the area is popular for hiking and visitors can go to Zao Crater just over the prefectural border. In the winter it's a popular place for skiing and viewing "Snow Monsters" (a name given to the snow-covered trees due to their strange creature-like appearance). Here are some of the hot springs not connected to hotels that are open to the public.
- 3 Zao Onsen Dairotemburo (蔵王温泉大露天風呂), ☎ . 6AM-7PM (closed Dec to mid-April). An open-air hot spring (rotemburo) located in an atmospheric forest enclave in the mountainside. It easily sets itself apart from other onsen in the country and consistently receives high ratings among visitors. ¥550.
- 4 Genshichi Roten no Yu (源七露天の湯), ☎ . 9AM-9PM. A hot spring with both an outdoor rotemburo and an indoor bath. ¥450.
- Zao Juhyo Festival (蔵王樹氷まつり), ☎ . Even if you're not interested in skiing, Zao's Ski area attracts winter visitors for its famous juhyo, better known as "Snow Monsters". Of course there are no real monsters; the "snow monsters" are created by the heavy amount of snow covering the trees. The festival season begins in late December and continues through early March. There is a Light-Up on specific days during the event, including most of the month of February when the monsters are typically at their best. Other events occur randomly throughout the season.
- Hanagasa Festival (花笠まつり). August 5-7. The Hanagasa Festival is Yamagata's most famous festival and the prefectural representative among the top festivals of the Tohoku Region. It began as a single dance in the Zao Summer Festival and branched out as its own distinct celebration in 1965. It is set apart from other summer dancing festivals by its use of flower hats (hanagasa) by all participants. The festival has become so popular that many cities and towns throughout Yamagata Prefecture hold their own Hanagasa Festivals, but this is the original as well as the largest.
- Japan's Top Imoni-kai Festival (日本一の芋煮会フェスティバル), Along the Mamigasaki River, near Sotsukibashi Bridge, ☎ . In Sept on the day before Respect for the Aged Day. A festival where the local Yamagata imoni is cooked on in a cauldron 6 meters in diameter. The soup is so large it is stirred with excavators. People come to see the spectacle and of course get a taste of the imoni.
From the JR station in the middle of town, there are free buses that will take you over to a decent amount of the local non-touristy shopping. JusCo has a bus that runs up until 4pm each day that visits the eastern Yamagata location. Central to the JR station, there is a wealth of local shops, department stores, book stores of all kinds. The main street that runs from the JR station has several side streets as well. There are many shops that catered to all your basic needs, though very few were designed or meant exclusively as tourist destinations. There are very few chain stores in downtown Yamagata, though the skirts of town have a few chain stores like Joy (hardware), Super Denkodo (electronics), JusCo (giant supermarket), and a Toys R Us.
For souvenirs, there are shops within the station. But the best locations for souvenirs tend to be around Yamadera and Zao Onsen. Around Yamadera you'll find an exceptionally well chosen assortment of Yamagata crafts from naturally dyed silks to wooden toys, to iron and pottery pieces, most of which they source directly from the local craftspeople who make them. Zao Onsen also has an interesting selection of goods including Zao Takayu Kokeshi, one of 12 famous schools of kokeshi dolls in the Tohoku Region. There are a few shops where you can purchase them. Those interested can check the bottom of the kokeshi to learn which artist painted that doll. Different shops carry different artists' dolls.
- 1 Notoya Kobo Eijiro (能登屋 工房 栄治郎), 36 Zao Onsen. The shop was founded by the reknowned kokeshi artist, Okazaki Ikuo as the place to purchase his kokeshi. He is among the most famous of the Zao Takayu kokeshi artists, and the shop features the widest selection of kokeshi with many sizes to choose from. It also offers some kokeshi from other artists, including those from other schools, so if either the artist or school are important to you, double-check before purchasing.
- 2 Tanaka Kokeshiya (田中こけし店), 875-12 Zao Onsen, ☎ . 8:30AM-9PM. A shop selling Zao Takayu kokeshi from some of the prominent local artists. There are also other kokeshi and souvenirs. They also offer a paint-your-own kokeshi experience for a fee until 5PM.
- 3 Juichiya (十一屋), 1 Chome−4-32 Nanokamachi, ☎ . 9AM-7:30PM. A well-known local confectionary shop. They offer a variety of cookies, cakes, jellies, and other snacks, typically featuring specialties from Yamagata, such as local rice or the many famous fruits grown here. It's a very popular place to purchase souvenir snacks. They have a few shops around the city, including a small one in the basement of Yamagata Station. This location is the main shop. It includes an attached restaurant.
Yamagata is known for its ramen. The specific type said to originate here is hiyashi ramen which is characterized by its cold broth. As such, it's especially popular in the summertime, although you can eat it year-round. Yamadera is known for tama-kon, balls of konnyaku (a firmly chewy gelatin like substance made from ground konjak 'devil's tongue' roots) cooked in soy sauce and served on a stick. You can buy them at the base of Yamadera as its said that eating them will give you the stamina to reach the temple atop the mountain. Be aware that the mustard they put on it is Japanese-style mustard, much hotter than Western varieties. The street connecting the temple and JR station are lined with family-owned soba shops that serve freshly-made soba, whose taste and springy texture cannot be compared to the pale, limp soba served in quick noodle shops in the big cities outside of Yamagata. If you can get your noodles with a side of sansai local mountain wild vegetables, don't pass up the chance for these seasonal delicacies.
- 2 Gran Rock (カフェレストラングランロック). 11AM-8:30PM. Their signature dish is the Omurice, but they also serve Yamagata beef burgers, pizza, and a variety of pasta dishes.
- 3 Uchoten Ramen Evolution (有頂天らーめんEvolution). A ramen restaurant serving its own original ramen dishes, as well as normal ramen, gyoza, and other foods.
- 5 Classic Cafe (クラシック カフェ), 2-7-6 Nanokamachi, ☎ . Lunch 11:30AM-4PM, Dinner 5:30PM-11PM. An Italian restaurant in a rustic setting, it's most famous dish is its omelette (omurice), but Classic Cafe also offers a variety of pasta dishes and pizzas.
- 6 Hanazen (花膳), B1F 3-1-9 Kasumicho, ☎ . 5PM-11PM. A dinner spot well-known for serving up local specialties, including Yamagata imoni, a taro and meat dish, along with a variety of local wines and sake.
- 7 Genghis Khan Lodge (ジンギスカンロッジ), 758-2 Zaoonsen, ☎ . The Zao area is known for "Genghis Khan", the Japanese name for Mongolian barbecue. Unsurprisingly, given the restaurant's name, Genghis Khan Lodge is one of the most famous places to indulge in this specialty.
- 8 Torien (鳥縁), ☎ . Lunch 11:30AM-2PM, Evening 5PM-midnight. Serves Japanese food such as oyakodon, raw eggs over rice, gyoza, and chicken cutlets.
- 9 Jai (ジャイ), 2-3-30 Nanuka-machi, ☎ . Lunch 12AM-2PM, Dinner 6:30-10PM. One of the most popular Indian restaurants in the city.
- 2 50s Cocktail Bar Cool (50's cocktail's bar クール). 7PM-3AM Mon-Thurs, 6PM-4AM Fri-Sat, 7PM-1AM Sun. A bar that looks like a 1950s American diner.
- 3 Ride 4 Style, ☎ . 7PM-3AM. A sports bar.
- 4 Hotnaru Yokocho (ほっとなる横丁), 2-6-2 Ryutsu Center, ☎ . An enclave of traditional yatai foodstalls; an escape from the urban jungle located right in the middle of it. Each stall has its own unique menu but all of them work to use and feature local Yamagata products and produce.
Nearly every hotel in the city is located around Yamagata Station.
- 2 Toyoko Inn Yamagataeki Nishiguchi (東横イン山形駅西口), ☎ . Check-in: 4PM, check-out: 10AM. Singles from ¥4500.
- 4 Hotel Route Inn Yamagataekimae (ホテルルートイン山形駅前). Check-in: 3PM, check-out: 10AM. Singles from ¥6050.
- 6 Hotel Green Tohoku, ☎ . Singles from ¥3500.
- 7 Zao Kokusai Hotel (蔵王国際ホテル), ☎ . Check-in: 2PM, check-out: 10AM. Offering Western-style and Japanese-style rooms, as well as suites. The hotel's onsen has made it one of the Zao Onsen's top hotels. It has both indoor and outdoor baths in a quiet, atmospheric setting. It's best to book on weekdays or book early as weekends tend to book out quickly. Typically ¥23,000-¥27,000.
- 8 Meitoya-So (名湯舎 創), 48 Zao Onsen, ☎ . Check-in: 3PM, check-out: 10AM. A cozy hotel in Zao Onsen with its own onsen for guests. ¥7500-¥30000 per person.
- 9 Takamiya (高見屋). A ryokan in Zao Onsen with private onsen in the rooms.
- The holy mountains of Dewa Sanzan are within striking distance of Yamagata.
- Mt Zao hotsprings and ski resort, famous for the formation of Juhyo (ice and snow encrusted pine trees, sometimes called snow ghosts) is a 45 minute bus ride
- Sendai - Capital of Miyagi Prefecture
|Routes through Yamagata|
|Shinjo ← Tendo ←||N S||→ Kaminoyama-Onsen → Akayu → Takahata → Yonezawa → Fukushima|
|Akita ← Obanazawa ←||N S||→ Kaminoyama-Onsen → Akayu → Takahata → Yonezawa → Fukushima|
|Tsuruoka ← Gassan ←||W E||→ Miyagi Kawasaki → in to → Sendai|
|Tendo ←||N S||→ Kaminoyama|