Experience Timeless Japanese Beauty in the Untouched Scenery of Niigata, Yamagata, and Akita

Accessible in just 2 to 3 hours via bullet train from Tokyo, the Tohoku and Hokuriku area of Japan has so many interesting sights that it's impossible to list them all, including the historical castle town of Mt. Haguro, the Sankyo Rice Storehouses that served as a location for the world-famous Japanese drama Oshin, the traditional restaurant culture of Sakata City that's still alive today, and the view of the sun setting over the Sea of Japan at Nemunooka. Niigata, Yamagata, and Akita prefectures are full of historical treasures that continue to adorn the area today, so why not pay a visit to this snowy region in Japan's northeast to enjoy Japan's timeless beauty?

Tohoku

Things to Do

Niigata Prefecture

Murakami Castle Town

Murakami is a castle town located in the northernmost area of Niigata that features castle ruins, temples, historical samurai residences, traditional merchant houses called "machiya", and a bustling downtown shopping area. This area is full of an authentic atmosphere of historical Japan. Walking the old town streets, you'll find yourself engrossed in the fascinating scenery that invites you to imagine how people used to live in this area. 

The Castle Town Murakami Machiya Folding Screen Festival is held annually from September 15th to October 15th, during which you can see a range of priceless folding screens that have been passed down by the families of this castle town. Local machiya and shops serve as venues for the exhibitions, including some establishments that are only open for viewing during this festival. Visitors can see folding screens that have been cherished for generations, as well as Murakami's traditional crafts such as local vermilion lacquer ware and traditional household articles and toys. This is a wonderful chance to see valuable cultural artifacts preserved through the years for yourself. 

Another highlight of this town is Kurobei Street (Anzen Alley), which is framed by traditional black fencing and still has a castle town atmosphere. There's also the Bamboo Lantern Night Festival. It takes place each October, during which you can experience an extraordinary banquet surrounded by the spectacle of 20,000 bamboo lanterns and musical performances held in the surrounding shrines, temples, and machiya.

At the Nagomikura Exhibition Space, you can learn all about Japanese sake while tasting and purchasing the area's local offerings, an experience which is sure to make your trip to the area all the more meaningful. The sake produced from the high-quality rice grown in this rich natural environment is free from impurities, thus making it delicious to drink.

Thousand Years of Salmon: Kikkawa

A must-see stop on any visit to Murakami City is Kikkawa. During the Heian era (794 - 1192), the then-capital of Murakami received city taxes in the form of salmon. Salmon had been considered a special fish to the people here for a thousand years, during which time over 100 types of cooking methods were developed so that every part, including the head and organs, could be eaten without waste. Salt-Cured Salmon is one of these key dishes. To make it, the fish is rubbed with salt, pickled for 3 to 5 days, and then cured in the cold northwesterly winds for 3 to 4 weeks. Through this process, the enzymes in the salmon create a process of amino acid fermentation that give the meat a unique texture and umami-rich flavor.

Kikkawa sells products free from preservatives and chemical seasonings. Here you can purchase a vast range of the area's unique salmon-based cuisine, including Salmon Sakebitashi, made with salmon that has been cured for a full year; Dongara Stew, which is made with salmon backbone; Dry-Cured Ham Salmon; and Salmon Ochazuke. The shelf life of the products vary from item to item, but you're sure to find some beloved traditional foods that would be ideal to bring home as a unique local souvenir. Don't forget to take a picture of Kikkawa's traditional earthen floor backroom, too. The sight of the around 1,000 salmon hung to cure here makes for an overwhelming sight.

Kikkawa Restaurant: Idutsuya

Idutsuya is a salmon restaurant run by Kikkawa. It operated as an inn since the Edo period (1603 - 1868), and is known to have been visited by celebrated Japanese poet Matsuo Basho and his students. The building itself has been registered as a Tangible Cultural Property of Japan. In March 2017, the building's legacy continued as it reopened as a restaurant serving Murakami City's seasonal salmon cuisine throughout the year. 

The restaurant has developed a range of banquet style meals that include seven to a maximum of 21 dishes (1,950 yen - 5,900 yen), including the Salt-Cured Salmon and Salmon Sakebitashi mentioned above. Guests can enjoy dishes made with lesser-used parts of the fish such as the milt, backbone, heart, jaw, and skin. Don't miss the chance to try the area's unique salmon cuisine prepared with dedication to local traditions at Idutsuya.

Murakami Beef Specialty Restaurant: Edoshou

Murakami beef should not be missed when it comes to trying the cuisine of Murakami City. Murakami beef is not certified as such unless it has achieved the rank of B4, A4, or higher, and Edoshou offers this high-quality meat carefully prepared to bring out its very best qualities.

This restaurant, which once flourished as an inn, offers a traditional, nostalgic atmosphere. Particularly recommended is the Rare Steak Rice Bowl (2,750 yen, pictured on the left). The Japanese-style sauce draws out the natural sweetness of the thinly-sliced beef, which is soft and rich with a savory flavor. The popular Steak Rice Bowl (2,750 yen, pictured in the right image) includes 60 grams of Murakami beef, and has a juicy texture that pairs perfectly with the Niigata-grown koshihikari variety of rice. You'll find it hard to put your chopsticks down once you experience a taste of these delicious dishes!

Yamagata Prefecture

Mt. Haguro

Dewa Sanzan is the term for the Three Mountains of Dewa that includes Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono. In the Meiji period (1868 - 1912), these mountains were a shugendo, which is the term for a mountain where believers would undergo strict ascetic practices in the goal of reaching enlightenment. Practitioners here followed the Shinbutsu-shugo religion that combines Japan's native Shinto religion with Buddhism, and worshiped gongen, which are Japanese gods called "kami" that were believed within this religion to be manifestations of Buddha. 

Making a pilgrimage to the Three Mountains of Dewa is called the Higashi no Oku Mairi (Pilgrimage to the Eastern Interior), while a pilgrimage to Ise Grand Shrine is called the Nishi no Ise Mairi (Pilgrimage to the Western Ise). Making both pilgrimages was considered an important rite of passage. Today, this area is still popular as a sacred site that's visited by worshipers from all over Japan, as well as by international sightseers drawn by its impressive atmosphere.

One particular drawcard is the Dewa Sanzan Shrine, located on the peak of Mt. Haguro. When you cross the red bridge from the Zuishinmon gate that serves as the entrance to the summit path, then cross the Haraigawa River and Suga Falls to the Ichi no Saka climbing point, you will see a five-storied pagoda made entirely from wood with no nails. The oldest in the Tohoku region, this pagoda was designated a National Treasure in 1966. Near the five-story pagoda, you will find an ancient tree affectionately called the Jijisugi (old man cedar). This tree is thousands of years old, and has been registered as a natural monument. Originally, another ancient tree called the Babasugi (old lady cedar) stood nearby, but it was tragically felled during a 1902 typhoon. Regardless, large cedar trees that have stood for hundreds of years still grow here, and the picturesque cedar tree stairway was awarded three stars in the Michelin Guide.

You may also see the white-robed mountain priests called "yamabushi" (pictured) holding their traditional trumpet shells here. The mountain path from the Zuishinmon gate to the summit takes a little over an hour, with 2,556 stone stairs to climb. It's said that if you spot all 33 stairs carved with special designs like sake cups, your wish will be granted. Try cleansing your body and mind in the natural energy of this space.

Mt. Haguro Sanrousho Saikan

Shojin-ryori is a type of vegetarian Buddhist cuisine based on the principle of the avoidance of taking any life. The yamabushi mountain priests on the Dewa Sanzan live a self-sufficient lifestyle by harvesting and preserving their own mountain vegetables. The Mt. Haguro Saikan adopts these culinary techniques to create shojin-ryori made with their own unique methods.

The gorgeously presented Cool Breeze Set (5,500 yen, bookings three days in advance required) was created with a spirit of hospitality that welcomes those who have visited from all over. This meal evokes the image of a cool mountain breeze blowing through the cedar trees, just as Matsuo Basho wrote in his poem, "Ah, the cool air and crescent moon on Mt. Haguro." The Moon Rabbit Set (2,200 yen), made with no meat, egg, or dairy products, is an ideal example of the techniques that have been passed down through generations combined with head chef Itoshi's delicate but daring approach to shojin-ryori cuisine.

Sankyo Rice Storehouses

Yamagata Prefecture is surrounded by both mountains and sea. In addition to its many mountains such as the aforementioned Mt. Haguro, it also features areas like Sakata City, which is well known as a port town that holds an important position in northern Japan. A particularly significant site in Sakata City is the Sankyo Rice Storehouses, which were built in 1893. With structures built to protect the rice from wind and rain, sophisticated climate control measures, and strict screening methods for rice entering the facility, these storehouses have contributed to the promotion of Sakata City through the continual improvement of the local Shonai rice and its reputation as a brand.

The museum displays rice-related materials and tools, offering a look at Sakata City during the period when it first began to flourish. Visitors can also buy high-quality branded rice such as Yukiwakamaru and Tsuyahime.

In front of the storehouses, you can also see a line of Japanese zelkova trees planted to provide protection from direct sunlight and the strong winds from the Sea of Japan. These trees make a beautiful contrast to the earthen-walled storehouses and add to the impressive atmosphere of this area. Sankyo Rice Storehouses were also used as a location for the famous Japanese TV drama, Oshin. You're sure to feel as though you've stepped back in time as you stroll and savor the nostalgic atmosphere that still lingers in the air here. Don't forget to drop by their souvenir shop, Sakata Yume no Kura!

Sannou Kurabu

Sannou Kurabu was founded in 1895 to become a prestigious and long-standing traditional Japanese restaurant, or ryotei, that exemplified the port town of Sakata. It was designated a Tangible Cultural Property in recognition of its preservation of the Japanese ryotei tradition. Today it remains open to the public as a sightseeing destination where visitors can learn about the development of Sakata City, the city's merchants who were the driving force behind its growth, as well as the restaurant culture, shrines and temples, and culture of arts and letters that grew from this success. Each room has an individual style, and all are filled to the brim with traditional Sakata charm.

Another highlight is a permanent exhibition of Sakata Kasafuku, a type of decorative art form counted among Ise Inatori and Fukuoka Yanagawa Sagemon as the three major kinds of hanging decorations in Japan. Kasafuku are made from fabric that is delicately hand-sewn with love and prayer by female crafters. They are then attached to be hung on a parasol where they serve as good luck charms for being blessed with children, health and safety, and family happiness. The 999 "New Kasafuku" decorations made for the 14th exhibition in 2019 and the gorgeous safflower-dyed kasafuku are a must-see here. The exhibition period runs until Friday, December 27th, 2019. (The 2020 exhibition period runs from March 1st to November 5th.)  Don't miss seeing the blooming Kasafuku in this exhibit!

Somaro Maiko Teahouse / Takehisa Yumeji Museum

Somaya was a famous Edo-period ryotei restaurant in Sakata. After its closure, it reopened as Somaro, where it became known as one of the area's most famous sightseeing spots. In 1996, the building was registered as a cultural property. 

On this site, there is also a museum dedicated to the work of poet and artist Yumeji Takehisa, a traveler who sought to live free from the restrictions of others. Here you can see a wide range of this artist's lyrical pieces, including his illustrations of beautiful women which serve as a crystallization of his unique aesthetic sense.

The first floor serves as a rest space, while the spacious second floor offers meals accompanied by maiko dances (daily at 12:00 pm). Three types of set meals that are sure to appeal to both the eyes and the taste buds alike are available: the Maiko Kaiseki Set (5,550 yen), the Chirashi Sushi Set (5,000 yen), or the Deluxe Grilled Eel Set (8,000 yen). Another maiko performance without meals is also held at 2:00 pm every day.

Homma Museum of Art

Homma Museum of Art was built in 1947 with the goal of contributing to the development of the arts and to encourage those whose spirits had been broken after the Second World War. The Homma clan of the Sakata area of Yamagata Prefecture's Shonai region were known as the largest landowners in Japan. Their then-135-year-old villa was opened to the public as the first private art museum in Japan. 

The commitment to local development continues today as the museum holds exhibits of both classical and modern artwork. In the Kakubu-en (Dancing Crane Garden), visitors can see seasonal elegance such as white azaleas in the spring, summer greenery, autumn colors, and snowy winter landscapes, as well as a range of stone lanterns that have been cleverly incorporated into the garden's design. Visitors can also enjoy the Kyoto-style wooden construction of the Seienkaku Villa, which was once used to host members of the Imperial family and high government officials. Guests can learn even more about the history of Sakai over refreshments in the tearoom. This museum is beloved as a place where art, history, and nature come together.

Sakata Seafood Market

Sakata has flourished as a port town since the Edo period, and even today it is known as a hotspot for fresh seafood. Sakata Seafood Market adjoins the Sakata Port, and offers freshly-caught seafood from Shonai Beach for purchase on the first floor and generous servings of the day's fresh catch on the second floor through the seafood rice bowl restaurant Tobishima.

At just 1,000 yen (excl. tax), the extremely affordable Seafood Rice Bowl comes with a luxurious serve of 12 to 15 types of fresh seafood. A range of other options to suit all tastes are also available, including the Chu-Toro Tuna Rice Bowl (1,500 yen excl. tax), the Salmon Roe Rice Bowl (2,300 yen excl. tax), the Sea Urchin & Salmon Roe Rice Bowl (3,200 yen excl. tax), and the Crab Rice Bowl (1,200 yen excl. tax). Also worthy of special mention is the extremely popular Boat Assortment Set (1,000 yen excl. tax), which is only available in limited quantities each day. You'll be certainly hard-pressed to find these type of dishes at this price anywhere else, so we highly recommend making a stop at Sakaba Seafood Market during any visit to the area. Visitors can also see a panoramic view of Sakaba Port and, on clear evenings, the view of the sunset over the Sea of Japan from the terrace.

Bankokuya

Head to Bankokuya for gorgeous scenery and delicious food. First established over 300 years ago, Bankokuya has been included on the list of the top 100 hotels and ryokan as selected by industry professionals for 38 consecutive years since 1981. In 2019, it took the 11th spot in the overall rankings. This prominent and long-running inn has long been popular with writers and artists as well as with sightseers from all over Japan.

Stepping inside the wood-constructed lobby and taking in the seasonal floral decorations throughout the premises is in itself relaxing. The guest rooms offer a beautiful view of the sweeping landscapes outside, and the sound of the running river and tranquil sight of tree-covered mountains create a relaxing space. You're sure to feel time slipping away as you soak in a hot spring while being surrounded by all this natural beauty.

The theme of the evening meal is "relaxing mountains, relaxing water." It is a chance to enjoy delicious dishes made from local ingredients, including seasonal fish sourced directly from the Sea of Japan, high-quality Kuroge Wagyu and Yamagata beef, and locally-harvested mountain vegetables. When you take the chance to enjoy the high-quality hot springs, the rich natural environment, and the delicious dishes, you'll quickly understand why Bankokuya has been beloved for so many years.

SHONAI HOTEL SUIDEN TERRASSE

Yamagata isn't just famous for its traditional, Japanese-style ryokan. It also has some extremely modern places to stay as well! Nestled among rice fields and yet appearing just like an art gallery from the outside, the impressive SHONAI HOTEL SUIDEN TERRASSE creates a beautiful contrast between the seasonally-changing rural landscape and modern architectural design. In certain weather, the rice fields turn into a vast mirror that reflects the surrounding buildings and clouds, creating a gorgeous scene that calls to mind the Uyuni Salt Flats.

Designed by architect Shigeru Ban with his typical skillful use of wood and his iconic cardboard tubes, the architecture preserves the view of the rural landscape while charming its guests with beautiful scenery such as aerial corridors, designed to evoke the image of floating over water, that extend from the guest rooms.

The large communal baths filled with hot spring water that wells up from 1,200 meters underground are housed in a dome that seems to have bubbled up from the rice fields, creating a sense of dimensionality and a spaceship-like atmosphere. The chloride spring waters contain minerals such as sodium and calcium sulfate, and your body and spirit is sure to feel reborn after bathing in such a beautiful environment. (Open-air hot springs are male only. Female baths have a skylight.)

The buffet breakfast is centered on Japanese cuisine. Guests can enjoy a range of ingredients unique to Yamagata including specialty Shonai rice, Yamagata herbed chicken, chicken ham, and Shonai-sourced saikyo-style pickled mackerel.

Akita Prefecture

Roadside Station: Kisakata-Nemunooka

Nemunooka is a roadside station (michi no eki) located in Kisakata. Spanning around 65,000 square meters, this facility is known as the largest in the Tohoku region, and features souvenir shops, restaurants, and even hot springs with a panoramic view of the Sea of Japan. Nemunooka is well known not just as a rest stop for travelers, but also as a recreation spot for local residents as well.

It's no exaggeration to say that you'll find every type of Akita souvenir here, including local foods like kiritanpo (grilled, cylinder shaped rice dumplings) and thin, flat inaniwa udon noodles. The hot spring on the fourth floor offers the chance to enjoy a gorgeous view of the Sea of Japan while soaking in water rich in minerals that moisturize and care for the skin. The free observation deck (open 9:00 am - 9:00 pm) also has views of the Sea of Japan to the west side, the famous Mt. Chokai, and the protected Kisakata area and Kujuku Island to the west.

After buying souvenirs, relaxing in the hot springs, and enjoying some beautiful views, don't forget to take a stroll in a spot that's been listed as one of the 100 best sunset walks in Japan. The sight of the sun setting over the Sea of Japan as seen from the carefully-maintained grass plaza is sure to remain as an unforgettable memory.

Written in cooperation with The Sea of Japan Kirakira Uetsu Tourism Area Promotion Association.

Website (Japanese): https://discoveruetsu.com/

Website (English): https://discoveruetsu.com/en/introduction/

 

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

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