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).