Yearning in Yamagata with Tohoku Enthusiast Clarissa Combe


Give a perfectionist a list, and they will be inexplicably compelled to tick off every box. Give a completionist the knowledge that there are 47 prefectures in Japan — all with some unique culture to offer — and they will be possessed with a determination to visit all 47. Find a website that gives you a score based on how many prefectures you’ve been to and whether you’ve visited, stayed, or lived there, and that perfectionist will obsessively fill it out every few months even if they haven’t visited anywhere new. This is how aged 19 I made it one of my life goals to travel to all 47 of Japan’s prefectures.

I’ve been a list-loving perfectionist my whole life, but the knowledge that my home country of England is divided into counties never quite inspired the same fervent wanderlust that Japanese administrative divisions do. But now, five years later, I have successfully visited 30 prefectures so far with only 17 left to go.

With COVID-19 and entry restrictions keeping us here in Japan, domestic travel is the name of the game for the perceivable future. In this new column, I will make my way down the Japanese Archipelago and introduce a different prefecture each month, hopefully inspiring others to get out and explore the many sights Japan has to offer beyond its most famous destinations.

Our journey starts in nearby Yamagata Prefecture, which is perhaps one of my favourite prefectures and coincidentally the reason I am sitting here today, writing this article in Aomori.

Yamadera: The Worst Place for a Jog

閑かさや 岩にしみ入る 蝉の声
“Ah this silence / sinking into the rocks / voice of cicada”

Matsuo Basho penned this haiku about his visit to Yamadera in his famous travelogue Oku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthOku no Hosomichi follows Basho’s journey around the Tohoku region and is perhaps one of the most famous travelogues of the Japanese literary canon. The north of Honshu was seen as a backwards, dangerous place at the time, and Basho’s intrepid poetic journey into this unknown land has inspired many people to follow his route north from the Edo period all the way to the present day. Unfortunately, his northernmost destination was Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture, so no die-hard Basho fans will be making any pilgrimages to Aomori any time soon. Maybe Aomori was too backwards for even Basho’s adventurous tastes.

One of the most popular destinations in Yamagata and Tohoku as a whole, Yamadera, literally ‘mountain temple,’ is a short 20-minute train ride from Yamagata City. The inspiration for the name is immediately apparent once you step off the train. From the small station platform, you have an unobstructed view of the sprawling temple complex nestled atop a rocky mountain on the edge of the town. This is Risshaku-ji Temple, although most people refer to it as Yamadera. Established in 860 by the monk Ennin, Yamadera has gone through the same trials and tribulations as most historical Japanese buildings, with a few destructions and rebuilds along the way. However, the main temple is said to have been built in 1356, successfully surviving later battles that took down neighbouring temple buildings. Inside this main building is a flame that is said to have burned ceaselessly since the temple was established almost 1200 years ago. This flame was brought from Enryaku-ji Temple in Kyoto, which is the head temple of the Tendai Sect to which Yamadera belongs.

Between you and the top stands one hurdle: 1,015 stone steps. Something about those extra 15 steps seems a tad excessive, but the path takes you in the footsteps of Basho and thousands of years of pilgrims through a beautiful forest and past various statues and stone lanterns. Once you reach the top you are rewarded with panoramic views of the whole valley — views so beautiful you may start considering the monastic life. Who needs modern conveniences when, as Basho put it, “Ah this silence.”

However, having visited Yamadera twice now, I have a few words of warning. Under no circumstances would I recommend jogging or running to the top of the mountain, unless you enjoy the pain of coughing up a lung. Most people wouldn’t even consider running up 1,015 steps, but certain circumstances call for it. For example, a completionist running out of space in her goshuin-cho for the last of several shrine stamps available at Yamadera, buying a new goshuin-cho at the bottom of the path, and running up again to complete her collection. Unless faced with a similar emergency, Yamadera is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Plus, less old Japanese ladies are traumatised by a panting tomato girl in the process.

Dewa Sanzan: A Pilgrimage of Rebirth

It was my first visit to Dewa Sanzan, along with the breathtaking train journey that brought me there from Ginzan Onsen, that made me decide I wanted to move to Japan and live in Tohoku after I graduated. I’ve travelled various prefectures across Japan since, but Dewa Sanzan’s Haguro-san remains my favourite place in Japan.

Dewa Sanzan means ‘the three mountains of Dewa’, which are Haguro-san, Gas-san, and Yudono-san. Before Japan introduced the current prefectural system, Dewa was the name of the region that stretched across modern-day Yamagata and Akita prefectures. The three mountains represent the process of rebirth, with Haguro-san symbolising birth, Gas-san death, and Yudono-san rebirth. At the peak of each mountain is a shrine, and the final shrine on Yudono-san is so sacred that it is forbidden to take photos within the shrine grounds. It is customary for pilgrims to visit the shrines in that order, but since Gas-san and Yudono-san can only be reached by hiking, you have to stay in the area for at least two days to complete the pilgrimage. Dewa Sanzan is the home to Shugendo, a folk religion centred around mountain worship that blends Shintoism and Buddhism. Practitioners are called Yamabushi, and their training involves completing feats of endurance to overcome physical limitations. The most extreme examples can be found at the nearby Churenji and Dainichibo Temples where two monks mummified themselves through extreme dieting and meditation.

When I visited three years ago, I only had a day in the area, so I have yet to climb Gas-san and Yudono-san. However, I suppose stopping at birth is better than stopping at the death stage of the pilgrimage. It is possible to take a bus straight to the shrine at the top, but if you want to experience the true wonder of Haguro-san, then I recommend climbing the walking trail from the bottom of the mountain. 2,446 stone steps take you on a meandering path to the peak through an ancient pine forest. As you walk beneath the towering trees, it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed by the beauty and power of nature. As someone who feels most alive when surrounded by trees, the walk to the top of Haguro-san was probably the closest I’ll ever get to a religious experience. I’d have happily become a mountain witch and lived in those woods forever. Along the path, there are also several smaller shrines and a towering five-story pagoda that was built in 937. Make sure to stop for some tea and mochi at the teahouse halfway along the route. The building has no electricity, and the old ladies who run the shop climb the mountain every day to hand pound mochi for visitors.

The shrine itself was founded in 593 when Prince Hachiko fled to Dewa after the assassination of his father. As he wandered through the woods of Haguro-san, he was guided by a three-legged holy bird to the peak of the mountain, and there he built a shrine for the deity. Prince Hachiko then went on to climb Gas-san and Haguro-san, building shrines on both mountains and establishing Dewa Sanzan. He is still entombed at the peak of Haguro-san to this day. While the path nowadays is different from the one Prince Hachiko walked hundreds of years ago, it’s easy to envision how such a breathtaking mountain could inspire you to build a place of worship. The shrine building itself is the largest thatched building in Japan, and given Japanese buildings’ propensity to catch fire, a fire hose is pointed at it at all times. No rogue lightning strike will bring this shrine down.

Ginzan Onsen: Dive into a Ghibli World

Of Yamagata’s two famous onsen towns, Ginzan Onsen is the most difficult to reach, but the long journey is definitely worth it. A few trains and a long bus ride through idyllic rice fields bring you to a picturesque scene out of a Ghibli film, with various wooden ryokan lining a small river that flows from a waterfall at the edge of town. Walking through the town feels like walking back through time, or into the fever dream of a Japanophile who has never set foot in Japan. This is the image of Japan we all had once upon a time; quaint wooden buildings cloaked in an imperturbable atmosphere of serenity. While such glimpses of traditional Japan can be found in places like Kyoto or Kanazawa, once you turn the corner modern architecture is always waiting to throw the bucket of ice water over your head. When you turn the corner in Ginzan Onsen, you’re instead greeted by lush greenery and sublime nature. For once, the image remains intact.

Ginzan Onsen’s name, which means ‘silver mountain,’ comes from the silver mine that attracted people to the area in the first place. You can visit the remnants of this mine near the waterfall, but the first order of business is getting into a bath as soon as possible. There are two public baths in the town, but many of the ryokan open their private baths to visitors during the day as well. With only five or so buses a day, make sure you don’t get too relaxed as you soak, or you’ll suddenly find yourself stranded in the remote mountains of Yamagata. However, this may be a blessing in disguise as Ginzan Onsen is said to be most beautiful at night when all the ryokan are lit up beautifully. Who knows, perhaps there will be a room left at the inn.

Zao Onsen: Naked with Nature

On my second trip to Yamagata in October of last year, I spent the night at a ryokan in Zao Onsen. Unlike Ginzan Onsen, most of the ryokan here are the modern affairs you find in most onsen resorts. However, Zao is only a short and scenic bus ride from Yamagata City, so it is far easier to get to than Ginzan Onsen. Since we arrived late in the evening and had to leave early the next day, we only had enough time to try one of several public baths. Fortunately, this was one of the best onsen baths I have been to in all of Japan, making the trip worth every penny.

A short drive or long, uphill climb takes you to the Large Outdoor Bath perched on the edge of Zao. The building itself is just a small hut where a disgruntled old man takes your entry free, and the ‘changing room’ is more of an open-air wooden stage next to the bath. The bath, however, is heavenly. Lying in the perfectly heated water with the relaxing murmur of the creek flowing next to the bath — the canopy of trees obscuring the last light of the fading day — life seems so perfect, and the veil between the mundane everyday and the intangible other becomes thin. You know when a bath has you waxing poetic that it’s a darn good bath. I wonder what sort of haiku Basho would compose if he had a soak here.

Zao Onsen turns into a popular ski resort in the winter months, and the chairlifts are right in the centre of town. During the rest of the year, you can ride the lifts to go walking at the top of the mountain or to enjoy the changing leaves in autumn. Unfortunately, the Large Outdoor Bath is closed during winter, so Zao poses an existential question similar to one you might find in a Buzzfeed quiz — which is more important to you: getting naked with nature or sliding down a hill on a slab of wood?

With this, our journey around Yamagata Prefecture comes to an end. Hopefully, you’re feeling inspired to visit in the future by what ended up being an unnecessarily long love letter to Yamagata Prefecture. But if one three-day trip around Yamagata was enough to convince me to move halfway across the world, it might be worth the short trip from two prefectures over.

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