Few tourists make it to YAMAGATA (山形), a large, workaday city ringed by high mountains, and those that do are usually just passing through. Apart from a couple of engaging museums, Yamagata’s prime attraction is as a base for visiting nearby Yamadera’s atmospheric temples, and Zaō Onsen, which provides excellent opportunities for summer hiking and winter skiing, and is known for its beguiling “snow monsters” – fir trees engulfed in wind-sculpted ice and snow. In early August (5–7), the city turns out for its major festival, the Hanagasa Matsuri, during which yukata-clad women wearing flowery hats perform a slow, graceful dance, making this otherwise unexciting city a worthwhile stop.
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Central Yamagata occupies a grid of streets lying northeast of the train station. Its southern boundary is Ekimae-dōri, a broad avenue leading straight from the station as far as the Hotel Castle, from where the main shopping street, Nanokamachi-dōri, strikes north to the former Prefectural Office (文翔館), about twenty minutes’ walk from the station. This imposing, European-style building of stone and ornate stucco dominates the north end of Nanokamachi-dōri. Originally built in 1911, the interior has been magnificently restored, particularly the third floor with its parquet-floored dining room and elegant Assembly Hall.
From the Prefectural Office, head west to the Yamagata Art Museum beside the castle walls. This modern museum boasts a small collection of major European names, such as Picasso, Chagall, Renoir and Monet, but unless there’s a special exhibition of interest it’s not really worth the entrance fee. Instead, cross the train tracks to enter Kajō-kōen (霞城公園) by its beautifully restored East Gate, the only remnant of the former castle. The City Museum, or Kyōdokan (郷土館), occupies a delightful, multicoloured clapboard building in the park’s southeast corner. Erected in 1878, this museum originally served as the town’s main hospital, and its exhibits include a fearsome array of early medical equipment and anatomical drawings, including a guide to pregnancy rendered as woodblock prints.
On the city’s southeastern outskirts, the pretty little pottery village of Hirashimizu (平清水) has a surprisingly rural atmosphere. There’s just one main street and a small river running down from the hills, which provides local potters with their distinctive, speckled clay. If you explore a little, you’ll find several family potteries with showrooms (daily 9am–5/6pm), such as Shichiemon-gama (七右衛門窯), which offers visitors the chance to throw a pot or two.
Roughly 20km southeast of Yamagata city, ZAŌ ONSEN (蔵王温泉) is the main focus of activity in the Zaō quasi-national park, an attractive region of volcanoes, crater lakes and hot springs. In winter (Dec to late March), the resort offers some of Japan’s best skiing, with a dozen or so runs to choose from, as well as night skiing and onsen baths to soak away the aches and pains. Non-skiers can enjoy the cable-car ride over Juhyō Kōgen, where a thick covering of snow and hoarfrost transforms the plateau’s fir trees into giant “snow monsters” (juhyō).
Head southeast from the bus station for ten minutes and you will reach the Zaō Sanroku Ropeway (蔵王山麓ロープウェイ), which whisks you up to Juhyō Kōgen. The juhyō are at their best in February, though you can see photos of them at other times of year in the Juhyō Museum (daily 9am–4pm; free), located in the ropeway terminal building. A second ropeway continues up from here to Zaō Jizō Sanchō Station at 1661m. This top station lies between Sampō Kōjin-san (1703m) and Jizō-san (1736m), just two of the peaks that make up the ragged profile of Zaō-san. In the summer hiking season (May–Oct) you can follow the right-hand (southeasterly) path over Jizō-san and Kumano-dake (1841m) for spectacular views and a fairly rugged hour’s walk to the desolate, chemical-blue Okama crater lake (お釜).
There are a number of ski runs in the area, and a shuttle bus (mid-Dec to late-March; ¥100) moves skiers and snowboarders between them. Consult the Skier’s Guide maps, available at the tourist office, for the difficulty level of each run (green is beginner, red is intermediate and black is advanced). There is a variety of passes available for day and night skiing, with prices ranging from ¥4200 to ¥11,500. Passes include access to all 38 chairlifts; the use of the ropeways and cable cars costs extra.
To recover after skiing, the area has plenty of public baths where you can have a good, long soak. The unforgettable Dai-rotemburo (大露天風呂), overflowing with steamy sulphur-laden water, is large enough to ease the aching muscles of more than two hundred visitors at once.
The temple complex of Risshaku-ji, or YAMADERA (山寺) as it’s more popularly known, is one of Tōhoku’s most holy places. It was founded in 860 AD by a Zen priest of the Tendai sect and reached its peak in the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Today around forty temple buildings still stand scattered among the ancient cedars on a steep, rocky hillside. The temple lies close to Yamadera Station, which is on the JR Senzan line between Yamagata and Sendai.
From the station, cross the river and follow the road right, past shops selling walking sticks, snacks and souvenirs, to where you can see the temple roofs on the slopes of Hōju-san. Ignore the first two flights of steps to your left and take the third staircase up to the temple’s main hall, Kompon Chūdō. This impressive building, dating from 1356, shelters a flame brought from Enryaku-ji, the centre of Tendai Buddhism near Kyoto, 1100 years ago and which has supposedly been burning ever since – as you peer inside, it’s the hanging lantern on the left-hand side. Walking back west along the hillside, you pass a small shrine and a solemn statue of Bashō who, travelling before the days of coach parties, penned a characteristically pithy ode to Yamadera: “In the utter silence of a temple, a cicada’s voice alone penetrates the rocks.” He sits across from the modern Hihōkan, which houses a fine collection of temple treasures.
A few steps further on, San-mon marks the entrance to the mountain (daily 6am–6pm), from where over 1100 steps meander past moss-covered Jizō statues, lanterns and prayer wheels, and squeeze between looming rocks carved with prayers and pitted with caves. It takes about forty minutes to reach the highest temple, Okuno-in, where breathless pilgrims tie prayer papers around a mammoth lantern and light small bunches of incense sticks. Before setting off downhill, don’t miss the views over Yamadera from the terrace of Godai-dō, perched on the cliff-face just beyond the distinctive red Nōkyō-dō pavilion.
Yamadera village consists mainly of expensive ryokan and souvenir shops; some of the latter have steaming vats of konnyaku balls boiling outside which make for a good warming snack on a cold day. Trains run hourly to both Yamagata (¥230) and Sendai (¥820); however, if you need accommodation, Yamadera Pension (山寺ペンション) is the most attractive option. It’s in a half-timbered building right in front of the station, with a decent restaurant downstairs that specializes in handmade soba.