When people hear “Yamagata,” many envision mountainous snowscapes and the Tim Burton-esque “snow monsters,” trees shrouded in blankets of white, shaped by the strong, chill winds. In winter, Zao Onsen, located on Mt. Zao in Yamagata City, serves as one of Japan’s most popular ski resorts. The hot spring town, which is open all year, is dotted by traditional ryokan inns and bathhouses where visitors can take a dip after a long day on the slopes. However, to enjoy the Zai Dai Rotemburo, an open air bath with stunning turquoise waters, one should come in spring, summer, or autumn.
Tendo City, north of Yamagata City, has its own attractions. The main producer of wooden Japanese chess pieces, this city hosts Ningen Shoji, an outdoor Japanese chess tournament, every spring. It’s an elaborate affair, with players decked out in colorful armor, with a backdrop of blooming pink cherry blossoms. The city also has its own ryokan/onsen where visitors can enjoy the healing qualities of a hot spring bath.
The Dewasanzan (Three Mountains of Dewa) are sacred mountains where yamabushi ascetics have been practicing mountain worship for centuries. While yamabushi training can involve fasting and enduring rituals under ice-cold waterfalls, other elements of their training can be experienced by everyday folk. Browse byFood experiences in Yamagata and join a trek up the holy mountain of Mt. Haguro with Shojin Ryori, or forage for vegetables and mushrooms on Mt. Gassan!
When in Yamagata, be sure to try Onsen Tamago (custardy-soft eggs cooked in the hot springs), Shojin Ryori (the Buddhist vegetarian cuisine), local cherries and pears, and Imoni (a soy-sauce based soup made with beef and taro).
Most of the cherries of Japan are grown in Yamagata. If you’re visiting during cherry season, you can even pick your own. Natto has always been a hit or miss with foreigners, but if you're a fan, hippari udon is perfect for you. This udon dish consists of noodles mixed with natto and fish sauce for a tangy flavor and “neba-neba” (sticky) texture.
Onsen (hot springs) are popular places to relax, and what better way than to visit Ginzan Onsen. This is a hot spring town with various ryokan (traditional Japanese inns). Yamadera Temple (also known as Risshakuji) is located on the edge of a cliff, where you can see the entire valley and other parts of the temple. It is quite the hike, as it takes 1,015 steps to reach the top.
Yamagata Castle is one of Japan’s top 100 castles. Kajo Park currently takes the place of this former castle, but during springtime the cherry blossoms bloom and cover the entrance of the castle, making it a breathtaking sight. Matsugasaki Park is another popular place to visit, as the picturesque river contains a bright red bridge, contrasting with the pale cherry blossoms and light blue sky.
Yamagata is home to famous temples and shrines. Many come to learn more about Japan’s religions by climbing these mountains and going on pilgrimages. Join this sacred mountain hike with Buddhist cuisine lunch led by a mountain ascetic to experience this unique aspect of traditional Japanese culture for yourself. Onsen are also popular in Yamagata, especially during the winter season. Zao Onsen is a must to visit, as visitors can enjoy beautiful scenery and other activities in the area.
If you want a souvenir and a snack, grab a pack of Karakara Senbei. The outside is similar to a fortune cookie, while the inside contains a toy. This is perfect for kids as they can have something to munch and play with. Yamagata Cherry Kirara is a jelly that contains cherries as filling. This snack is recommended as Yamagata is a major producer of Japan’s cherries.