An endless blur of rice paddies whizzed by the bullet train window as I rode up to countryside Yamagata Prefecture in northeastern Japan. The absence of noise pollution and endless crowds made me feel like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz as I thought, “Toto, we’re not in Tokyo anymore.”
For ex-pats and repeat travelers to Japan, the glitzy lights of Tokyo or Osaka can sometimes feel like a neon assault on your senses.
Visiting Japan’s more rural cities does feel a bit like being transported to an alternate dimension of the country. People are friendlier and ooze a sense of authenticity that can only come with living the simple life amongst mountains and rice fields. The best part? Everything is so much cheaper.
Yamagata Prefecture’s capital city of the same name is one such countryside locale that is the embodiment of humble. Yet, it’s got everything you need for that “I’m in Japan” feeling—mountainside hot springs, tiny basement bars, and iconic temples await.
For ex-pats and repeat travelers to Japan, the glitzy lights of Tokyo or Osaka can sometimes feel like a neon assault on your senses. Whether you’re seeking spiritual enlightenment, or just want to escape the tourist traps, you’ll find what you’re looking for in Yamagata. Here’s how to experience this laid back city like a local.
Hike to the top of Yamadera
Yamadera, which literally means mountain temple, is a collection of breathtaking Buddhist temples on—you guessed it—a mountain. See for yourself:
It’s an easy hike up to the precariously-perched Nokyodo (pictured above) with curious statues and tasty snacks along the way. The tiny building doesn’t mark the very top of the mountain, but it is one of the complex’s most iconic spots. Just a bit further up is Godaido Hall, where you’ll get a mindblowing view over the city with mountains reaching as far as the eye can see.
The dramatic scenery is poetic—Japan’s renowned poet Matsuo Basho wrote his famous haiku here: “Ah this silence/ sinking into the rocks/ voice of cicada.” In the beginning half of the trail, you’ll pass by the Semizuka where several of Basho’s poems were buried in the mid-1700s. After climbing over 1,000 stone steps to the top engulfed by an ethereal silence, you may find yourself inspired to be poetic as well.
Back at the start, you’ll find a sacred flame that has been continuously burning for hundreds of years at the Konponchudo Hall. The flame was brought over all the way from China where it lived at Enryaku-ji Temple in Kyoto, before finding a home here. Yamadera’s founder, Jigaku Daishi, spent several years in China studying Tendai Buddhism before bringing the sect back to Yamagata. To get a better appreciation for the temple’s ancient history, hire a local guide to accompany you.
Indulge in self-serve whiskey
After you’ve seen the stunning view from the top of Yamadera, it’s time for some bar hopping. Start at Kigaru ni Taishu Sakaba, a modern Japanese pub with self-serve drinks.
Drink all the whiskey soda (or “highball” as the Japanese call it) you want while enjoying sashimi and other small plates. The highball does come pre-mixed, though, so you won’t be able to make it as strong as you may like. Regardless, it’s still an hour-long free for all, so how drunk you’ll get will depend on how fast you can pour and drink them down.
Drink fancy cocktails
If you could have seen my face as the attractive bartenders at the Ritz Garden served me cocktails, it probably would have looked something like this:
“Make us a strong drink,” a couple of us girls winked, and they obliged gracefully shaking up a knockout concoction of shochu (distilled Japanese spirits) muddled with fresh locally-grown fruit. After a few sips, I was seeing more hearts (and maybe a few stars) as we snacked on expensive cheese and charcuterie.
The bartenders at the dimly-lit drinking hole mix up masterful cocktails like wizards. Maybe they are wizards after all and their specialization is love spell potions.
Try local food just like mom used to make
Drinking at a hole-in-the-wall bar in Japan can be intimidating if your Japanese skills border between functional and ten-year-old, like me. And unfortunately, every place isn’t exactly welcoming to foreigners. That’s not an issue at Koryori Bar Annon, a tiny joint close to Yamagata Station with counter space for only about eight people.
The easy-going mom and daughter duo that run the place chat with customers as if they’re long lost friends. The two are so suave you won’t even realize how much sake you’ve actually had to drink by the end.
These ladies will take care of you like you’re one of their children—serving homemade food made with care, and helping you drink away all your stress.
Ready to hit up these local joints for yourself? Take a bar-hopping tour around Yamagata for a night on the town with some local guides. Everything is English so all you have to do is sit back and enjoy.
Have a barbeque in a supermarket
Forget planning a BBQ and lugging all your food and beer around. At Yoshida Supermarket you can simply rent a table for ¥350 at the in-store grilling area and buy everything you need on the spot.
Fresh scallops snapped at me from the seafood aisle and glistening cuts of Yamagata Wagyu beef called out my name from behind the glass. For one hour, I ate all the meat I needed and when the drinks ran out, I just grabbed more right off the shelf. Everything is literally at market price since it’s you know, in a supermarket. You can also choose a ¥2,500 course that includes nine different succulent wagyu cuts. I’m salivating just thinking about it.
Pick your fruit and eat it, too
Take the wholesome pastime of fruit picking to the next level with all-you-can-eat picking for 30 minutes! The available fruit will vary based on the season—grapes were in season during my September visit. A lazy afternoon snacking on fresh fruit from the vine is exactly what you’ll need after drinking your way through the city.
Get up there to the countryside of Yamagata City, the friendly locals and cute bartenders are waiting to welcome you.
The “Golden Route” that most first-time travelers take between Tokyo, Nara, Osaka, and Kyoto is definitely worth experiencing. Limiting yourself to these huge cities, however, does a disservice to both you as a traveler and the array of experiences Japan has to offer. Once you’ve been around the block a few times, it’s time to expand your horizons.
Get up there to the countryside of Yamagata City, the friendly locals and cute bartenders are waiting to welcome you. If you’re nervous about venturing out by yourself, let The Hidden Japan be your guide. They’re an easygoing company working to promote local tourism in Yamagata Prefecture and they have all the insider info on the best spots. Tell ‘em GaijinPot sent you.