Piercing the stone walls,
The cicada’s cry
Gathering the rains of May,
How swiftly it flows,
The Mogami River
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)
Many people know that these two haiku are among the most famous by Japan’s legendary poet Matsuo Basho, but probably many of them do not realize that the 17-syllable poems describe stunning natural scenery in Yamagata Prefecture — the former refers to the Yamadera temple in Yamagata City, and the latter describes the breadth of the Mogami River in Kiyokawa City.
The Edo-period poet actually stayed in Yamagata for 43 days during his 150-day journey to the Tohoku region in 1689, which culminated in his poetic travelogue “Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North).”
Just as Basho and the disciple that accompanied him, Kawai Sora, did some 300 years ago, our cameraman, Yoshiaki Miura, and I made a journey to Yamagata to share some of the two poets’ experiences. Thanks to the wonders of modern transport, just three days were sufficient to appreciate the natural beauty, delicious food, vibrant culture and warmhearted hospitality of the area.
Situated in northeastern Japan, the prefecture is divided into roughly two geographical regions — Shonai, the plain which faces the Japan Sea, and Nairiku, an inland basin surrounded by the Dewa, Asahi, Iide and Azuma mountain ranges. Meanwhile, the Mogami River threads its way through the inland basin toward the coastal Shonai Plain where it empties into the Japan Sea.
Since we only had a limited amount of time, we chose the part of Nairiku where lie the most historic spots and where unique traditions have been passed on from generation to generation, enabling tourists to experience that Japan of days gone by. Although there are many renowned sightseeing spots in the area, our goal was to reach Yamadera and Mogami, which are probably the prefecture’s most visited districts thanks to Basho’s poems.
Formerly called Hojusan Risshaku-ji Temple, Yamadera (literally “mountain temple”) was founded in 860 by the Buddhist high priest Jikaku Daishi Ennin. It consists of an enclave of some 40 small temples, including the Konpon Chudo, a National Important Cultural Property, a three-storied small pagoda, and the Okunoin temple — all of them nestled on the forested mountainside.
Oddly-shaped volcanic tufts and small temples are scattered across the landscape as you walk through the forest. In ancient times, the huge rocks found around Yamadera were said to signify the boundary between this world and the next, making the spot prime land for a temple. You reach Okunoin after climbing more than 1,000 steps to the top of the mountain.
Near the entrance at the start of the climb we found the statues of Basho and Sora, along with a stone monument engraved with Basho’s famous haiku. We listened for the steady chirp of summer cicadas reverberating in the picturesque surroundings, but in fact the only sound we heard was visitors gasping for breath as we made our way uphill. Perhaps the intense summer heat had worn out the cicadas.
Carrying a heavy camera bag, Miura needed to take two long rests to drink Pocari Sweat and to sample the temple’s specialty, chikara-konnyaku, which are delicious little dumplings of konnyaku potato simmered in a broth seasoned with soy sauce.
Thanks to the power of the konnyaku, we managed to reach Okunoin just as a monk was offering a prayer to visitors. We also paid tribute to the golden-colored Great Buddha at Daibutsuden.
My favorite place in the temple was Godaido Hall: a simply-constructed wooden viewing platform overlooking the valley far below. Walking across the floorboards toward the railing, we could look back up to Okunoin temple as the sun filtered through the thick canopy of green-leafed trees.
Miura took lots of photos of Godaido, Kaizando and No kyodo, which are clustered together on the edge of the cliff and surrounded by green hills. One thing that made us sad was the presence of an electric pylon that disturbed the mysterious profundity of the atmosphere.
About 10 minutes walk from the Yamadera enclave, there is an interesting cultural spot named Fuga-no-Kuni. From here at night, visitors can enjoy the view of the illuminated temple until the end of September. Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum is also located here, where we learned more about the poet’s works and lifestyle.
Another popular sightseeing spot, Mogami River, also came up to our expectations. Basho actually wrote several haiku describing the river, of which “Gathering the rains . . .” became the classic. When he first saw the river at Ooishida, he used the word “coolly” instead of “swiftly,” but when he arrived in Kiyokawa, after experiencing the shallow rapids of the Mogami Gorge, he changed the word and eventually settled on the latter.
When we arrived at Furukuchi, a boarding place, it was right after heavy rainfall had hit the region. The river was swollen and the dark waters flew quickly. I felt overwhelmed by the mighty waterway.
The people of Yamagata have long held a special feeling for this river as it once flourished as a major transport artery. Today, you can enjoy a relaxing one-hour boat ride down the river all year around, offering picturesque views of 48 waterfalls of all sizes, including the Shiraito-no-Taki (white-thread falls) and Ootaki (big fall).
On board, a boatman entertained us. He told old stories regarding the river, and he joked and sang. His spirited renditions of the traditional “Mogami River Boat Song” were just great and surprisingly he sung the folk song in English in his Yamagata accent. He explained that boatmen also have to learn Korean and Chinese versions.
I definitely wanted to return in snowy weather in order to enjoy the nabe ryori (pot dish) and hot sake while sitting at the kotatsu (Japanese heated table) with which the ship was equipped.
Those sightseeing spots and the natural beauty are not the only things that Yamagata has to offer. The mountainous prefecture has successfully built a reputation for itself with its numerous onsen (hot springs) resorts for spa enthusiasts. Of course, onsen can be found across the nation, but Yamagata stands out for special mention as it is Japan’s only prefecture with at least one onsen in each of its 44 municipalities.
Of 187 onsen in total, we stayed in Kaminoyama Onsen on the first day and Tendo Onsen on the second day.
Kaminoyama Onsen is situated in a former castle town and still retains the flavor of bygone samurai eras with many historical sites. Kaminoyama Castle, private residences belonging to individual samurai families, and Harusame-an, a secluded hermitage where Takuan, a distinguished Buddhist priest of the early 17th century, lived for three years, are all located within walking distance.
Today, the town is famous for its effort to popularize yukata (Japanese cotton summer kimono). The town designates July 23 as Yukata Day so, as we happened to be there on that day, we were surprised that all hotel staffers and other people in service sectors were clad in yukata. A big Yukata Matsuri was held on that day, featuring a yukata beauty contest and a beer festival. Visitors are also encouraged to wear yukata as they stroll through the town. Through the end of September, many local inns give female guests a yukata as a gift as part of a tourist campaign. Obi (the yukata’s belt) can be rented and hotel staff will help you put it on. It was tough choosing my favorite from about 10 varieties.
Tendo Onsen is a relatively new resort that was opened in 1911 and is surrounded by modern inns. The town is famous for its shogi (Japanese chess) pieces and many pentagonal shogi signs are displayed everywhere.
When you visit Tendo, don’t forget to stop at the Tendo Museum of Automatic Musical Instruments. Opened four years ago, the museum takes pride in its vast collection of Swiss and German-made antique musical boxes, many of which are still in working condition and play the same melodies that people 200 years ago would have heard. There are a variety of events and programs held during the year in which different songs are played. Attracted by the romantic atmosphere, many couples actually have wedding ceremonies here.
It consists of three exhibition halls, a souvenir shop and a stylish cafe named Arsbel, which offers beautiful desserts that complement the atmosphere of the museum. Located next to the building is a rose garden in a greenhouse in which music plays, which is said to enhance the growth of the roses!
On the way back home, we dropped in at Ginzan Onsen, a picturesque hot-spring resort hidden deep in the forest. Ginzan Onsen harks back to the Taisho Era (1912-1926) and has three- and four-storied wooden ryokan (Japanese inns) as well as gas lights lining the Ginzan River. It’s no exaggeration to say that the nostalgic atmosphere ensures complete relaxation.
Luckily, we also met Jeanie Fuji, a famous American okami-san (proprietress) of Fujiya Inn. Clad in a kimono despite the heat, she was in the perfect attire for this traditional Japanese profession. She was always smiling for the visitors and more than willing to allow you to pose with her for a photo. We were also touched by her kind consideration when she suddenly disappeared inside the inn, promptly returning with a towel. She handed it to Miura, who was dripping with sweat by this time. “Please take it as you will need it all day,” she said.
Because of the popularity and the limited accommodation (there are only 13 ryokan), Ginzan Onsen is fully booked for the next two months. But it is not too late to reserve a room for the winter.
I have to admit that during the three-day trip, we just pigged out on local cuisine. A number of specialties — cherries, western pears, watermelons, grapes, apples, beef, salmon, ayu (sweetfish), soba (buckwheat noodles), sansai (mountain vegetables), konnyaku, rice and sake, are among the other tempting features Yamagata has on offer.
I would especially like to recommend imoni (simmered potato), which is a stew of taro potatoes, beef, konnyaku and lots of vegetables. There are imoni parties on the river banks in the autumn, but of course you can enjoy it at local restaurants all year around.
The soba is also worth sampling; these delicious buckwheat noodles can be served both hot and cold, and with a variety of mouthwatering relishes. Instead of wasabi (Japanese green horseradish), however, the locals seem to prefer daikon radish. Three municipalities in Yamagata — Ooishida Town, Obanazawa City and Murayama City — have jointly issued a 1,000 yen special meal coupon that enables a visitor to try soba at two different soba shops out of the 34 located in the three cities.
Inspired by a trip that was such an enriching cultural experience, we couldn’t help composing some haiku to express our satisfaction and gratitude.
The heart of Yamagata
A summer trip
Wiping the perspiration
Pierced into my vision
Yamagata is easily accessible by train — the Yamagata Shinkansen “Tsubasa” leaves from JR Tokyo Station. It takes two-and-a-half-hours to Yamagata Station. In and around Yamagata there are some free rides provided by local tourist organizations.
If you stop at JR Tendo Onsen, you can get free transport at weekends and on national holidays. A red bus, named Kanko Ekibasha (sightseeing stagecoach), makes a round trip to and from the station, stopping at various important sights, such as Hiroshige Museum of Art, Tendo City Museum of Art, Tendo Museum of Automatic Musical Instruments, Yamadera and Fuga no Kuni. For further information, call (023) 653-6146.
On weekdays, a “one-coin” taxi service is available. At 500 yen per person, the taxi will take you to Yamadera from Tendo Onsen, which normally costs 2,530 yen. At least two people are required to share the taxi. For further information, call (023) 653-3221.
To get to Mogami River, change trains at JR Shinjo Station on the Yamagata Shinkansen for the JR Rikuu Nishi Line and get off at Furukuchi Station. The river is only five minutes walk from the station. For further information, call (0233) 72-2001.
At Kaminoyama Onsen, also on the Shinkansen line, a “one-way” taxi service is available at 500 yen to most sightseeing spots. You can get a taxi coupon at the tourist information center located inside the JR Kaminoyama Onsen Station. You need at least two people to share the one-way taxi. For further information, call (023) 672-5703.
If you want to visit the beautiful Goshiki-numa Lake, known as “Okama” (caldron), and hiking trails on the Zao mountain range, a free shuttle-bus service, called Green Echo, is available. It will take you directly from JR Kaminoyama Onsen Station to Karita Parking Lot, where a 5-minute lift will take you to the edge of the lake. For further information, call (023) 672-0839.
Ginzan Onsen can be reached by bus from JR Ooishida Station in just 40 minutes. For more information, call (0237) 22-1111.
For comprehensive information, call Yamagata Prefectural Tourist Division at (023) 630-2371 or look at the Web site www.yamagatakanko.com/english/index.html