Hidden on the coast of northwest Japan is a pocket of tradition, Narnia-esque mountain-scapes and gastronomic delights.
Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, is a castle town turned UNESCO City of Creativity, enveloped in spirituality and relatively untouched by tourists. A coastal city, it looks out onto the Sea of Japan and is backed by Dewa Sanzan, (the Three Mountains of Dewa): Mounts Haguro, Gassan and Yudono, said to respectively represent birth, death and rebirth.
These mountains have been a center for Shugendo (a mountain-centric religion combining aspects of esoteric Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto) for over 1,400 years and today remain a site for yearly week-long retreats called akinomineiri (literally, “entering the autumn peaks”). Usually attended by the ascetic Shugendo yamabushi (mountain priests), any dedicated individual can attend one of these retreats in late August. Be prepared for physical challenges such as cleansing oneself in the torrent of a waterfall, or nanban ibushi (sitting in a room with braziers of burning chili peppers).
For those planning a shorter and less physically demanding visit, Mount Haguro (414 meters) is the most accessible of the three mountains and can be climbed year-round. With its 2,446 stone steps winding through centuries-old cedar trees, the scenic path to the summit passes relics such as the Gojunoto (Five Story Pagoda), a 600-year-old National Treasure made entirely of wood that, unpainted, blends seamlessly with its surroundings. Nearby, the Jijisugi (“Grandpa Cedar”) keeps watch and has done, apparently, for over a millennium.
Summiting Haguro, hikers will be happy to note that Tsuruoka’s mountain culture extends to its food. At Saikan, the temple complex atop the mountain, hungry hikers can eat shōjin ryōri, a style of Buddhist vegetarian cuisine that has been passed down through the ages. One of the most famous dishes is gomadōfu: soft squares of tofu made of sesame instead of soy, covered in gelatinous sesame sauce. Aside from being tasty, this style of cooking is supposed to have health benefits as well.
“We tend to go to the hospital when something is wrong, but mountain people cannot do that,” says Shinkichi Ito, the master chef at Saikan. “They must cure themselves with their own means. They must connect with the mountain.” A shōjin ryōri meal at Dewa Sanzan costs about ¥3,300 per person and requires a reservation.
Down the mountain
When in Tsuruoka proper, head to Zenpoji, a Zen Buddhist temple complex on the edge of the city that also honors the god of the sea due to Tsuruoka’s coastal credentials. The temple houses a dozen or so monks in training and holds regular services, during which monks sit in front of individual sets of books and shuffle through the pages, while two others keep the tempo of the service with skillful drumming and chanting.
“It is meant to send wind and knowledge to people,” says Ueno Ryuko, one of the monks currently in training. This religious spectacle is a well-rehearsed spiritual performance, and can be experienced bi-hourly from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. It costs ¥500 to enter and doubling up on socks is recommended in colder months (a visit involves removing shoes regularly and walking around unheated buildings).
Lunch can be found further inland at Naa, a family-owned restaurant with tatami floors and farm-to-table fare. Opened 17 years ago, Naa serves up organic food that bolsters Tsuruoka’s accolade of being labeled Japan’s first UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in 2014. The restaurant mirrors the city’s commitment to preserving the legacy of traditional foods and crops, one of which is dadacha-mame, a type of green soybean that the Onodera family has been planting for decades.
“Growing (dadacha-mame) is important,” says Norimasa Onodera, 38, owner of the restaurant since his mother passed it down to him eight years ago. “But people need to eat them or they will disappear.”
The restaurant’s dishes are affordable, ranging between ¥900 and ¥1,200, and delicious; the brown rice paired with the fresh ingredients at Naa gives a satisfying chew and nutty aftertaste. If you have room at the end, try the chiffon rice flour cake with sesame.
For an immersive cultural experience, head to the neighboring city of Sakata. Set in a 200-year-old tea house, Somaro has daily performances by maiko (geisha in training) laced with a direct influence from their Kyoto counterparts. Admission is ¥1,000 for adults; to see the maiko dance, which happens daily at 2 p.m., it is an additional ¥800.
Before leaving Tsuruoka, stop by Nangakuji temple, where you can see the mummified remains of Tetsuryukai, one of Japan’s sokushinbutsu (self-mummified monks). The ultimate in dedication and endurance, this practice of self-mummification required practitioners (usually monks of the Shingon school of Buddhism) to starve themselves over a period of 1,000 days, eating pine needles and drinking poisonous lacquer so that their organs wouldn’t rot after death. This extreme ascetic practice was meant to bring the monks enlightenment.
Just an hour away by train from Tsuruoka in Niigata Prefecture is Murakami — a sleepy city surrounded by snowy mountains.
Among other things, Murakami is known for its sake no shiobiki (salted salmon). To see where it starts, swing by Iyoboya Salmon Museum for a glimpse into the world of the freshwater fish. As well as learning about the different types of salmon native to the area and how they are bred, the museum boasts windows through which you can peer into one of the streams. If you go between October and December, you may be able to watch the salmon breed. Iyoboya is open every day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; admission is ¥600 for adults, ¥300 for children.
In addition to being a “Salmon City,” Murakami is also a castle town. Though the ruins of its castle do not extend to anything past old, sloping stone walls, standing on the site of the castle provides a scenic vista of the town from above. Getting there involves a pleasant walk up Mount Gagyu (134 meters). If, instead of hill climbing, you want a place to sit and rest, make a beeline for Fujimien, a 150-year-old tea shop that offers a modern teahouse experience through its old Edo Period (1603-1868) hallways.
Both Tsuruoka and Murakami are rich in culture, historical food traditions and natural beauty. Whether you are traveling in the depths of winter, when the mountains are blanketed in snow, or in the heat of summer, these cities invite those who are looking to stay a little longer and immerse themselves in the mystic practices and history of an underrated region.
An upmarket option in Tsuruoka is Yumizutei Isagoya. Located in Yunohama Onsen, its Western-style beds and beautiful onsen (hot-spring baths) ensure a comfortable stay. Prices range from ¥15,750 to ¥36,750 per person per night.
For a more affordable option, try Shonai Hotel Suiden Terrasse. This modern offering boasts onsen, locally produced foods and beautifully designed open architecture. Rooms range from ¥7,000 to ¥20,000 per night.
A luxurious traditional onsen experience can be had at Taikanso Senaminoyu in Murakami. Taikanso serves up two different dining options and there is a choice of indoor and outdoor baths, as well as private ones for an extra ¥5,500. Rooms are upward of ¥19,800 per night, including breakfast and dinner.
For a less expensive, more local and eco-tourism-oriented experience, consider staying in the home of a rice farmer. Located in Tokamachi, 40 minutes from downtown Murakami, Noka Minshuku Zaigomon has breakfast and dinner included, all cooked by the farmer’s obāchan (grandmother). Rooms look out onto rice fields and tall mountains; one night costs ¥7,000.
For Tsuruoka, take the Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Niigata Station (around two hours; ¥10,560) and then the Inaho Limited Express to Tsuruoka Station (one hour 50 minutes; ¥4,330). From Tokyo, the bus is also an option: the Shonai Kotsu Express Service takes between six and nine hours and costs ¥7,800. For more information visit shonaikotsu.jp.
For Murakami, take the Joetsu Shinkansen to Niigata Station and change for the Inaho Limited Express to Murakami Station (50 minutes; ¥2,450).
Once in Tsuruoka or Murakami, renting a car is the best option, especially if you plan to leave the city center; public transport is limited, especially during the week. The Shonai Kotsu Haguro-Gassan Line runs from Tsuruoka Station to Mount Haguro (¥840) and beyond.