June 01, 2015


Yamagata(山形)prefecture is in the Tohoku(東北)region, below Akita(秋田)and on the left of Miyagi(宮城). It is famous for cherries, Yonezawa(米沢)beef, recently the "snow monsters"(樹氷)at Zao Onsen(蔵王温泉), and perhaps the "sokushinbutsu" (即身仏 / Buddhist mummies).

First went to this prefecture during my Golden Week Tohoku trip in 2013. It was the stop after Kakunodate(角館)in Akita. We headed for Tsuruoka(鶴岡), the station where we could transfer to buses for the spiritual sites nearby.

There is Dewa Sanzan(出羽三山), 3 sacred mountains with shrines at the top. As they require some time hiking, we decided to skip them and only visited Dainichibo temple(大日坊)nearby. It was nice strolling in the mountainous countryside, with sakura and snowscapes.

Dainichibo is one of the sites of Sokushinbutsu, monks who transformed their bodies into mummies while still living. If successful, they become living Buddhas. There are 16 Sokushinbutsu in Japan, and half of them are in this prefecture. This practice has been banned already.

We paid the entrance fee and entered the main hall, where a monk spoke to us and a few locals from other prefectures. After that, he led us to a room inside, and spoke for about an hour about the Sokushinbutsu in this temple. Of course we also saw it. Though no photo-taking was allowed.

After that, we checked out a mall near Tsuruoka station and had some ramen there that was not too bad, before heading to Sendai(仙台)in Miyagi prefecture via highway bus.

Originally, we wanted to spend the night in Zao Onsen, but it was a little time-consuming/inaccessible, so we had to scrap the plan. It is a hot spring town with acidic waters in the mountainous region between Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures, also famous for skiing in winter. Recently, it is also known for the juhyo(樹氷)snowscape that can be seen around February, whereby many trees are being covered with snow completely, looking like snow monsters. Okama crater can also be seen in summer.

In my autumn 2015 trip, managed to spend a night at Zao Onsen. Even though it was September, it was around 14 degrees at night! Stayed at Ryokan Takasagoya(旅館高砂屋)which has good ratings and only 3 minutes walk from Zao Onsen's Bus Terminal. Food was delicious and hospitality was superb! For slightly less than 10000 yen, it is pretty value for money.

The ryokan has indoor onsen, and one of the public baths Shimoyu(下湯)is just across the street.

Upon request, the ryokan owner also drives guests to and fro Dai Rotenburo(大露天風呂), the amazing outdoor public onsen in Zao. Considering the many outdoor hot springs I have experienced, this is definitely on my top 3 list. It is right in the forest, with streams flowing beside and the water is a pretty shade of blue! Note that it is not opened in winter months and there is no shower area. (google image below)

Another attraction that may be worth checking out is Yamadera(山寺), a scenic temple on the mountains near Yamagata City.

For food, Yonezawa beef is considered one of the best beef in Japan, though I like Kobe/Tajima(但馬)beef best. Also, Yamagata produces 70% of cherries in Japan! Cherry picking can be enjoyed during summer.


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