As I am rounding off my time in Japan, I want to make the most of the opportunities that I have – such as the luxury of random stretches of time off. This mid term exam week (in late May) I was researching my next domestic travel destination and settled on Yamagata. I wanted to visit somewhere in northern Japan (東北) and happened across some incredible photos of Yamagata prefecture and as Yamagata City is easily accessible from Tokyo (a short 2 hour and 45 minute 新幹線 ride away – albeit price-wise quite steep) I headed up on Monday morning for a short 2 night solo trip.
Top Right: One of the amazing things that I have discovered is vegan bento boxes at Tokyo station! Bottom: Welcome to Yamagata!
It is always refreshing to leave the big smoke (and what bigger smoke can you get than Tokyo!) for a couple of days. Stepping off the train it was clear that this was a smaaaaalll town, with a population of just over 250,000 people. It felt quiet and spacious and the first stop on my agenda was Yamadera (山寺), however, the train over was an hour’s wait (there is only one train an hour).
山寺 literally means mountain temple so I had prepared for a bit of trek up (1015 steps up to the top to be exact). By some miracle it was the most spectacularly beautiful spring day (and not the usual rain!) so it was the perfect weather for a hike. It was significantly cooler along the path up to the summit as there were the most majestic (I’m guessing) cedar trees lining the path providing plenty of shade.
As it was the middle of the day on Monday, the only other people making the pilgrimage up were senior citizens and a massive group of junior high school students on an excursion. Seeing the students (and some of the senior citizens) sprinting up the mountain spurred me on and there was no shortage of beautiful greenery and historical buildings to appreciate along the way. Here a few of my favorite pictures that I took:
The iconic red Nokyodo building
The view of the valley below was amazing from the top. Well worth the hike.
Rewarding myself with snacks after the hike – cherry flavoured ice-cream and a sesame rice cracker
After heading back into the city centre, I headed to the guesthouse (Guesthouse Mintaro – which I later found out was named after a place in New Zealand that the owner and been to and loved) that I had booked for the next couple of nights. It had glowing reviews on Booking.com and was super cheap to boot, which made my decision to travel to Yamagata all the more easier. The guesthouse is run by Sato-san and is set up in such a way that you feel as though you are staying in his house (which you literally are, expect the staff and Sato-san and his family live in a separate part of the house). He gathers his guests every evening and shares a meal and drinks with them which was a significant part of the guesthouse’s charm. You really felt like you were part of the family, chatting to the other guests who were travelers from different parts of Japan.
The other place I knew was a must see was Zao Okama Crater Lake (御釜). I had read a few blog posts of people who had visited and they had all highly recommended it, however, they had mentioned that access to the crater is quite tiresome and difficult without a car. I tried to look up public transport access online but it was proving fruitless so I just decided to play it by ear and ask the local tourist centre once I arrived in Yamagata. And that is what I did and I found out that there is only one bus that runs up the mountain at this time of year, twice daily. In addition to this, as the crater is actively volcanic and very high above sea level, the weather is quite temperamental. So chances of getting a good view were slim but by some miracle the weather was perfect. Also, by some other miracle I met Sayo (my new friend who lives in Tokyo) at the guesthouse and we ended up going to the crater together! She had wanted to go but wasn’t sure if it was worth the trek or how to get there so it was fate that were to meet (we have since hung out in Tokyo too!)
So we set off before 8am to catch the train to Kaminoyama Onsen Station to wait for the bus which would take us to the summit in just over an hour. There seemed to be so many working pieces that if one mode of transport failed then that would put an end to the whole thing. Once at the top we were informed that the bus back down the mountain was in about half an hour, so we had a short window of time to catch the chair lift up and back plus bask in the beauty of the lake.
The free shuttle bus from Kaminoyama Onsen Station to the Okama Crater
On the scary as heck chairlift – there were no safety restraints! There was the most amazing view of the snow capped mountains on the way down
These pictures really don’t do it justice, it was the most unreal view I have every seen. The crater is not immediately visible from the top but after a short walk, the blues and greens of the lake come into view and it is an out of this world experience. There weren’t many people around and the weather was sunny and warm but with a slight chill (we were at the top of a mountain after all, and there was still some snow around!) I know I have said this about many places in Japan before, but I think this has been my favourite place that I have visited so far. I am not sure what can top it!
The gorgeous shrine at the peak
My lovely friend Sayo and I
From here we caught the bus back to Kaminoyama Onsen (上山温泉) and then caught a couple of buses to Zao Onsen town (蔵王温泉). Sayo and I parted ways at Zao Onsen as she was going to visit an onsen then head back to Yamagata in order to catch her train back to Tokyo whereas I had a bit more time to explore.
When I visited the tourist information centre, I was informed that many of the ropeways and lifts were under repair during the off season (Zao Onsen is primarily a ski resort so it is packed during the colder months with skiiers and snowboarders from around the world) so only one was in operation and at the top there was lake and a waterfall that I was recommended to check out. So I made my way to the ropeway and found out that I was literally the ONLY person going up or down. It was nice to be alone but also a little unnerving.
Not a single soul around
The lake was beautiful and clear and then I saw a sign indicating a short trek to a waterfall. I started along the trek and it felt quite a bit longer than I had anticipated. There were still bits of snow and ice around as I made my way further and further down to the waterfall. In my haste to get there and back before catching the ropeway and bus back to the guesthouse, I lost my sunglasses that I had bought in Korea! 😦 Oh well, the view of definitely worth it, and I got to make use of the self timer function on my camera!
My final day (or rather half a day) I had before catching my shinkansen back to Tokyo I decided to head to an art museum in the area.
I had an amazing two and a half days in Yamagata. A short escape into the countryside was much needed and I loved visiting a place that was not so frequented. A highly recommended prefecture to visit!