15 Best Places to Visit in Yamagata Prefecture

Yamagata Prefecture is an isolated mountainous land in Japan’s northern Tohoku region. Despite being one of Japan’s less-visited destinations, Yamagata is full of attractions, including the Ghibli-like hot spring village Ginzan Onsen, the skiing mecca Zao Onsen, the spiritual Dewa Sanzan mountains, and the incredibly well-preserved Sankyo Soko Storehouses. Foodies can also revel in gourmet delicacies like Yonezawa beef, the best cherries in Japan, and a plethora of regional ramen. In this article, we’ve listed the 15 best places to visit and things to do in Yamagata Prefecture to help you make the most of this overlooked Japan destination!

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Where Is Yamagata Prefecture?

Yamagata Prefecture sits at the bottom of the west side of the Tohoku region, in the north of mainland Japan, and stretches from the Sea of Japan coast to the mountainous central inland areas of Honshu. Yamagata Prefecture borders Niigata, Fukushima, Miyagi, and Akita prefectures, and is divided into its own four sections of Murayama (east), Shonai (west), Okitama (south), and Mogami (north). It has a diverse terrain ranging from the relatively flat coastal plains (Shonai) to the mountainous inland areas (Murayama, Mogami, Okitama).

What Is Yamagata Prefecture Like?

Yamagata directly translates to “shape of the mountain,” and true to its name, mountains commandeer a massive chunk of its landmass. Yamagata’s many peaks play a central role in its spiritual culture, best seen in Japan’s unique “Shugendo” mountain worship religion, whose white-clad monks can often be spotted practicing on the Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa (Dewa Sanzan). Yamagata also has the bucolic Shonai Plain on its coastline, which is one of Japan’s biggest rice-producing areas.

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The largest city in Yamagata Prefecture is its capital Yamagata City, which has a modest population of around 250,000, while its other major cities sit at 100,000 residents, give or take. This keeps Yamagata relatively free of the crowds and congestion common in Japan’s more populous prefectures, making it a great spot for a breather after spending time in an urban center like Tokyo.

While each season blesses Yamagata with stunning scenery, it is arguably best known for its stark winters, and is considered one of Japan’s snowiest regions. This makes it paradise for those keen to ski and snowboard in Japan, while hikers, swimmers, and all-round nature-lovers will likewise adore its warmer weather. With unspoiled wilderness, deep-rooted traditions, food that is rivaled by few, and more, Yamagata Prefecture is for the ambitious traveler to Japan seeking something new and unblemished by overtourism. Read on for our picks of the best things to do in Yamagata for the ultimate itinerary!

Top 15 Yamagata Attractions

1. Ginzan Onsen

Straight out of a Studio Ghibli film, Ginzan Onsen is one of Japan’s most picturesque hot spring towns. Its 500-year legacy saw it start as a silver mine, before the discovery of hot spring waters rich in sulfate and sodium-chloride transformed it into the Yamagata attraction we see today. Together with Japanese hot spring havens like Kusatsu Onsen and Hakone Onsen, Ginzan Onsen is a must-visit for all who adore Japan’s “onsen” culture.

Ginzan Onsen is also a time capsule of the Taisho Era (1912-1926), with its central river lined by charming wooden ryokan inns and atmospheric gas lamps. While best enjoyed by spending the night in a ryokan, day-trippers can also take a dip in a number of wonderful baths, including the public bathhouse Shiroganeyu, designed by famous architect Kengo Kuma. Traditional garments fashionable in the Taisho Era like kimono and boater hats can also be rented, letting visitors immerse themselves in the magic of the past.

Recommended Accommodation Near Ginzan Onsen: Yamagata Guesthouse

2. Zao Onsen

Racing down the Zao Mountains, skiers and snowboarders will soon find themselves encircled by towering figures. Rather than a yeti, these are the Snow Monsters of Zao, formed by layer upon layer of rime ice stuck onto trees and shaped into dramatic poses by the powerful winter winds. Needless to say, this otherworldly scene will have you pausing your downhill descent to snap a photo, while the Zao Ropeway offers sweeping views of the whole phenomenon from above, which are also illuminated at night.

Together with world-class winter sports at the expansive Zao Onsen Ski Resort, the core appeal of Zao Onsen also lies in its namesake hot springs, which are scattered about the base of the slopes. Many of these hot springs have non-transparent milk-colored waters, said to be the second-most acidic in Japan. While cuts on the body may sting a little, these waters are believed to have potent healing effects, and the Japanese have long retreated to Zao Onsen to cure their ailments.

Recommended Accommodation in Zao Onsen: Le Vert Zao

3. Yamadera

Yamadera, formally known as Hojusan Risshakuji, is a mountainside temple spread out over a 1,015-step stone path leading to the summit. Established over 1,000 years ago by the monk Ennin, Yamadera’s serene and otherworldly atmosphere has long inspired Japan’s historical creatives, such as the famous haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694).

As you trek to the top, you’ll pass stoic Buddhist statues, enchanting stone lanterns, and magnificent temple buildings. The view is spectacular, best framed by the iconic cliffside Kaisando and Nokyodo temples. While appearing remote in photos, the Yamadera trailhead is actually just a 5-minute walk from Yamadera Station, reachable by train straight from Yamagata Station in around 20 minutes, making it one of Yamagata’s more accessible attractions.

The climb to the summit and back also requires only 90 minutes, so you don’t have to be a hardcore hiker to reach the top. Yamadera is also climbable in winter, but be sure to bring appropriate hiking gear, and if you wear crampons, take them off inside the temples.

4. Dewa Sanzan

The Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa, better known as Dewa Sanzan, is one of the most spiritual destinations in Japan. The name “Dewa” comes from Dewa Province, the former name of the region, and these mountains have long been central pillars in Japan’s Shugendo mountain worship religion.

While there are numerous trails to explore, for many, the hike starts at Mt. Haguro (414 m), which is said to represent “the present.” Mt. Haguro is the smallest of the three, and is famous for its Five-Storied Pagoda, believed to be the oldest in Tohoku. Practicing “yamabushi” monks can often be seen on Mt. Haguro, and its 2,246 stone steps cutting through ancient cedar forest will take you to Dewa Shrine, where all three mountains are venerated. With its small height, Mt. Haguro is also the only mountain of the three that is open all year, so even those visiting in winter can experience part of the Dewa Sanzan.

The most formidable climb and tallest of the Dewa Sanzan is Mt. Gassan (1,984 m). Representing the past and the afterlife, legend has it that the spirits of the dead inhabit the mountain, and that you may encounter long-lost ancestors as you ascend to the top. Mt. Gassan is also known for its primeval beech forests and unique alpine vegetation. Its summit can be ascended in around 2.5 hours from the 8th Station, which is accessible by car.

The last of the trio is Mt. Yudono (1,504 m), representing rebirth. While the climb itself is gentle, Mt. Yudono is often considered the holiest of the Dewa Sanzan, and is also frequented by monks. Those who have visited are forbidden from taking photos of or even speaking about Yudono Shrine, illustrating the special place it holds in the hearts of believers. Mt. Yudono is also famous for its connection with “sokushinbutsu,” which are monks who meditated until becoming mummified while alive. Sokushinbutsu can be seen at several temples around the Dewa Sanzan.

Keep in mind that most trails on the Dewa Sanzan are closed in winter, and you should always confirm the latest information before setting out on a hike.

Recommended Accommodation Near Dewa Sanzan: Shonai Hotel Suiden Terrasse

5. Totoro Cedar

In the sleepy village of Sakegawa, nestled deep in the woodlands of Yamagata, is the enormous Totoro Cedar tree.

Properly named “Kosugi no Osugi,” this 1,000-year-old cedar has taken on the affectionate nickname Totoro Cedar since the release of Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro, owing to its rounded bottom and pointy ears resembling the titular character.

While the tree attracts Ghibli fans in droves, it actually holds great spiritual significance for locals, and is believed to grant matches in love and bless couples with children, and there is a small shrine at its base.


6. Tsuruoka Park

After the fall of the Japanese feudal system in 1868, the new Meiji government initiated the dismantlement of castles and the establishment of a Western system of city halls and prefectural assemblies. Tsurugaoka Castle met such a fate in 1876, and the reclaimed land was transformed and opened to the public as Yamagata attraction Tsuruoka Park.

Today, Tsuruoka Park is famed as one of the 100 Best Cherry Blossom Spots in Japan and the home of Shonai Shrine, which was set up by residents to enshrine the Sakai family, who once ruled the region. In and around the park are also several stunning Meiji Era buildings, such as the Western-style Taihokan, constructed in 1915, the eye-catching blue weatherboarded Former Tsuruoka Police Station, and the Chidokan Clan School.

Between all these structures are layers of lush greenery offering a breather from the urban surroundings, while stone walls, moats, and other castle relics present a poignant reminder of its past glory.

Recommended Accommodation Near Tsuruoka Park: Hotel Route-Inn Tsuruoka Ekimae

7. Kamo Aquarium

Tsuruoka’s Kamo Aquarium is far from your ordinary small-city affair. In 2005, the aquarium made its claim to fame in the Guinness Book of World Records by having the largest collection of living jellyfish on the globe! Containing over 50 jellyfish species, Kamo Aquarium's “Kuranetarium” (a portmanteau of “kurage” (jellyfish) and planetarium) has earned a spot among Japan’s best aquarium exhibits, and is visited by tourists from across the country. The highlight is the enormous circular jellyfish tank, where over 10,000 illuminated jellyfish float wistfully, forming a dreamlike spectacle.

The Kamo Aquarium restaurant is also well known for its delicious sushi and sashimi, particularly its highly coveted tiger pufferfish, a local delicacy. For those that dare, jellyfish sashimi and jellyfish ice cream are also on the menu, and while not really tasting like much, they make for a great story back home!

8. Sankyo Soko Storehouses

While today a quiet harbor city, Sakata was once a wealthy trade hub based around the prosperous Kitamaebune shipping route. The Kitamaebune ran down the Sea of Japan between Hokkaido and Osaka, and peaked around the late Edo Period (1603-1867) and Meiji Period (1868-1912). During this time, rice harvested from Yamagata would be sent down the Mogami River and stored in Sakata’s Sankyo Soko Storehouses until ready for shipping.

Built in 1893, the Sankyo Soko Storehouses remain in incredibly good shape to this day, and have earned a spot among the most popular Yamagata attractions. Their striking design flaunts numerous architectural feats to keep the content inside fresh, including triangular double roofing to block out heat. Several storehouses have been tactfully converted into a cafe and souvenir store selling crafts and produce from Yamagata, as well as a museum detailing the local history of rice.

Behind the storehouses is a quaint cobblestone path lined by 150-year-old zelkova trees, as well as a small shrine. The black and white tone of the storehouses pop out against the brilliant fall foliage that peaks in late October, and the site is also illuminated from sundown until 10:00 pm.

9. Tobishima Island

Lying 39 km off the coast of Sakata, Tobishima is Yamagata’s sole island over 1 km² in size. It serves as a resting place for migratory birds, and is recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Many birds visit Tobishima from late April to late May and late September to late October, and around 270 species have been spotted on the island.

In the summer, Tobishima is also a breeding ground for banded houndshark, making it an excellent spot for diving. It is likewise popular with fishermen, with red sea bream, yellowtail amberjack, and more caught off its shores. Alongside Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, Tobishima is one of two places in Japan where you can see the exotic Tobishima daylily, which bloom around May/June. Tobishima also presents fantastic views of Tohoku’s tallest mountain, Mt. Chokai.

Only a few hundred residents populate the island in small fishing settlements, but there are several options for simple yet homely accommodation and food. Tobishima Island can be reached by ferry from Sakata Port in around 75 minutes.

10. Juroku Rakan Iwa

The Juroku Rakan Iwa are 22 Buddhist stone carvings created over 150 years ago by a priest to mourn lost fishermen and sailors, as well as to pray for a safe journey for those returning from sea. Painstakingly hand-carved into the sea crags, they capture an aura of piety that invites an eerie calmness.

The site is a popular place for sunset viewing, and is right near the base of Mt. Chokai. On a clear day, Tobishima Island can be seen in the distance.

11. Kajo Park

Kajo Park was born out of the remnants of Yamagata Castle, once the 5th largest castle in Japan, and is a beloved landmark of Yamagata City. Its history can be traced back to the construction of a castle as early as 1356 by Shiba Kaneyori, ancestor of the Mogami clan, but it was made into its peak form by Yoshiaki Mogami, the father of Yamagata City, around the late 1500s/early 1600s.

Yamagata Castle was dismantled in 1875, but several parts survive to this day, including the Ninomaru moat and earthen/stone walls, while others have been reconstructed in painstaking detail. Along with invigorating greenery, Kajo Park hosts a number of museums, such as the Yamagata Prefectural Museum and Saiseikan Old Hospital Building Museum, which was built in 1878 with an eye-catching exterior blending Western and Japanese architecture.

A museum dedicated to Yoshiaki Mogami also stands outside the park, showcasing his life and achievements through exhibits and relics. While strolling, keep a look out for the fierce statue of Yoshiaki on horseback clad in samurai armor. And if you’re around in mid-April, the park’s 1,500 cherry blossom trees promise one of Japan’s best flower viewing experiences!

Recommended Accommodation in Yamagata City: Hotel Metropolitan Yamagata

12. Yamagata Bunshokan

After a new Western-inspired form of government was set in place during the Meiji Period, modern European-style architecture sprung up around Japan to replace the feudal castles. One prime example of this is the Yamagata Bunshokan, the crown of Yamagata City, which served as the prefectural hall until 1975. It was first built in 1877, but was destroyed by fire and had to be reconstructed in 1916, presenting a majestic stone exterior and English Gothic Revival design.

In 1984, a restoration project was set forth to revive Bunshokan, and it reopened as a public museum in 1995 to promote the history and culture of Yamagata. These days, no visit to Yamagata City is complete without stopping by, while locals make use of its facilities for events, concerts, and even weddings.

13. Eishundo

Did you know that more than 90% of shogi tiles in Japan are made in the small city of Tendo, just north of Yamagata City? Shogi is a traditional Japanese game similar to chess that originated during the Heian Period (794-1185), and still remains wildly popular today.

Visitors to Yamagata can see the brilliant craftsmanship that goes into making shogi tiles at Eishundo, the oldest shogi shop in the area. Eishundo sells gorgeous handcrafted wooden shogi sets and large-sized decorative shogi pieces, and hosts workshops where guests can try their hand at painting a shogi tile. Eishundo also houses an impressive display of traditional Tendo woodwork, and is known to make gorgeous kokeshi dolls as well.

Those passing through Tendo in the spring should also check out the Tendo Ningen Shogi Festival. Amidst the cherry blossoms, fans of shogi flock to witness a supersized version of the game with shogi pieces replaced by real people donning traditional outfits! Professional players then duke it out with their human pawns to the thrill of the crowds!


14. Mogami River Boat Ride

Before the days of modern transport, rice grown in inland Yamagata was ferried down the Mogami River to the Port of Sakata, where it would be stored, sold, and shipped across Japan. This brought great wealth to the people of Yamagata, and, even in this day of modern transportation, the Mogami River still holds a place of deep reverence.

Part of this ancient journey can still be experienced on a Mogami River boat ride. Accompanied by the traditional folksongs of boatmen, visitors are ferried into the wilderness of Yamagata to see it in its most pristine form. Each season brings a new face to the river, from verdant summer greenery to fiery fall foliage, and a smothering of winter snowfall. Those brave enough to ride the boat in winter will also be treated to the warmth of seated “kotatsu” heaters with blankets, letting you witness the height of Yamagata’s intense winter without facing the cold. The Mogami River boat ride lasts for roughly an hour, and can be booked online.

15. Uesugi Shrine

The proud samurai culture of Yamagata lives on at Uesugi Shrine in Yonezawa. Uesugi Shrine sits on the former grounds of Yonezawa Castle, and enshrines Kenshin Uesugi, one of the most powerful and respected samurai lords of the Sengoku Period (1467-1567).

With blissful gardens and impressive architecture, Uesugi Shrine has made a name for itself as one of Yamagata’s most famous shrines, attracting people from all over coming to pray and receive blessings in luck, academia, and business. Its Keishoden treasure hall houses a wealth of artifacts, including the flamboyant helmet of famous samurai Kanetsugu Naoe, which is adorned with the gold crested kanji for “love” on top.

The surrounding Matsugasaki Park is also another Yamagata cherry blossom hotspot, peaking in mid to late April. Visitors can also learn more about local Yonezawa history at the adjacent Yonezawa City Uesugi Museum, and shop for Yamagata crafts and delicacies at Uesugi Joshien. Plus, the promise of the world-famous Yonezawa beef and Yonezawa ramen makes visiting this small city well worth your time.

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Things to Eat in Yamagata Prefecture

Nicknamed the “Fruit Kingdom of Japan,” Yamagata is a bastion of fresh produce and unforgettable meals. Yamagata is practically synonymous with cherries, accounting for about 70% of Japan’s output, while La France pears, Tsuyahime rice, dadacha-mame edamame soybeans, and Yonezawa beef provide a well-rounded lineup of premium ingredients.

Yamagata is also a ramen paradise, with almost every region boasting a signature bowl of its own. Favorites include Yonezawa ramen (thin, wavy noodles in a light soy sauce-flavored chicken and fish broth), “torimotsu” ramen (with chicken offal), and Sakata ramen, which has a helping of wontons. Konnyaku-lovers should also keep an eye out for “tama konnyaku,” which are bite-sized soy sauce-flavored konnyaku balls. Other must-tries include “imoni,” an autumn hotpot packed with ingredients centered around the taro root; and “Zao jingisukan,” a dish of lamb and vegetables barbecued on a cone-shaped grill, eaten in Zao Onsen.

Yamagata sake is also highly coveted by those in the know, and was the first regional sake in Japan to receive Geographic Indication (GI) status. Yamagata sake breweries are known for embracing innovation while honoring tradition, and the unique geographic influences and brewing methods used to make their sake cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world.


How to Get to Yamagata Prefecture

The easiest way to get to Yamagata from Tokyo is via the Yamagata Shinkansen bullet train. This fast and comfortable service takes passengers directly from Tokyo Station to Yamagata Station in Yamagata City in just around 2 hours and 45 minutes. The Yamagata Shinkansen bullet train also stops at Yonezawa and continues up until Shinjo in the north, allowing travelers to easily reach several other regions of Yamagata, too.

Yamagata Station and many other local stations are also covered under the JR East Tohoku Area Pass, which grants unlimited travel on JR bullet trains, local trains, and more around Yamagata plus neighboring regions like Miyagi, Iwate, Fukushima, and Akita for five consecutive days.

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For those looking to fly into Yamagata, there are two main airports: Shonai Airport in Tsuruoka, which only flies to Tokyo (Haneda); and Yamagata Airport in Higashine, which operates regular flights to Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo, and Nagoya.

Yamagata City is also just 1-2 hours away from Sendai, accessible either by car, bus, or train. Sendai International Airport has a wider range of both domestic and international flights, making it a good place to start your trip in Tohoku.

However, being the ninth largest prefecture in Japan, Yamagata's sheer size can make travel a logistical challenge. Trains and buses do run between many of Yamagata’s cities and towns, but services can be infrequent, and timetables need to be coordinated carefully to ensure a seamless trip. The best option to get around Yamagata without headache is by rental car, which can be picked up around Yamagata Station or any other major station/airport. Roads and highways in Yamagata are well-maintained, and the lack of any large cities all but eliminates the need to worry about traffic jams, except during peak holiday periods.

For those visiting the coastal Shonai region by train, we also suggest traveling to or from Niigata Prefecture in the south or Akita Prefecture in the north on the scenic Uetsu Line. This lets you add other fascinating stops to your itinerary like the former castle town of Murakami in Niigata Prefecture (which is also famous for lacquerware), along with Akita City.

Find Your Own Slice of Japan in Yamagata

For those feeling overwhelmed by the ever-growing number of tourists to Japan, Yamagata’s isolation and obscurity promises a wealth of unspoilt treasures awaiting the adventurous traveler. With so much left untouched, the true allure of an expedition into Yamagata is the thrill of venturing into the unknown. Whether you’re seeking relaxation at hot spring towns like Ginzan Onsen and Zao Onsen, hiking up Yamadera or the Dewa Sanzan, or simply want to gorge yourself on top-tier Japanese cuisine, Yamagata has it allーbut without the crowds!

Top picture: icosha / Shutterstock.com

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Tohoku Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Alexander Litz
Having moved to rural Yamagata Prefecture after junior high school, Alexander bounced around Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei until he eventually returned to Yamagata, where he carved out a career as a travel writer and tourism professional. A serial traveler, feverous nature enthusiast, and advocate for adventure, Alexander has explored over 40 countries and all 47 prefectures of Japan. He has made it his life’s work to bring sustainable tourism to rural areas in order to promote, protect, and preserve local culture, traditions, and ways of life.
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