Written by Patricia MacLeod-Kishi
Sakata - The Unique Appeal Of A City With A Rich History
This article introduces some of the many points of interest in Sakata, a city with rich history and surprising attractions in Yamagata prefecture.
Sakata, located at the mouth of the Mogami River in Yamagata prefecture, has a long history as the Shonai area port on the Sea of Japan. The Mogami River was the main highway for travelers and for the transportation of benibana flowers from central Yamagata, and of fish, salt and seaweeds in the opposite direction from the sea. High quality Mogami benibana was valued in Kyoto and used for creating lip color, makeup and fabric dyes.
The city has evolved naturally and is an eclectic mix of lovely traditional old buildings, cheap post war structures and newer buildings. Because Sakata is by the sea, it can be very windy so many of the roofs are made of heavy tiles. The buildings are strong enough to support the tiles and, because of the wind, snow does not accumulate and add weight to the roofs.
The surrounding wide Shonai plain, irrigated by snow melt from the mountains Chokai-san and Gassan, is perfect for growing rice. Although Sakata is far from the old centers of power - Kyoto and Edo, rice and benibana safflowers were shipped out of Sakata and the ships returned carrying high end goods and fashionable customs from the capital, along with rocks for ballast. (The returning goods did not weigh as much as the rice bales.)
Because of this commercial connection with Kyoto, even now Sakata has maiko (geisha apprentices). Somaro is a famous restaurant that has managed to survive for over 200 hundred years and is certainly well worth visiting. The building itself is a registered tangible cultural asset.
Maiko at Somaro
Classical training for maiko takes place and there is a schedule of maiko entertainment twice a day at 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm. Recommended is the bento lunch set accompanied by maiko dance and music at noon. (closed on Wednesdays)
The Rich History of Sakata
Sakata has many places of interest. Historically, rice was the main commodity traded and used for feudal tribute payments. The beautifully preserved Sankyo rice warehouses include a museum that tells the story of rice, as well as gift shops and restaurants. The rice shipper Abumiya’s former residence is now a museum of Edo Period household life and it was used as the film location for the Kagaya residence where the protagonist of the drama Oshin (2013) worked as a young girl.
Honma is the most famous name in Sakata and speaks of vast wealth derived from rice. Munehisa Honma was an astute businessman who, during the Tokugawa Shogunate, was actually one of the first to deal in rice futures while capitalizing on, or perhaps manipulating, market psychology, and he became the richest man in all Japan.
The Honma residence can be visited, as well as the former Honma villa, located near the Honma Museum of Art. Ken Domon (1909-1990) was a Sakata-born photo journalist. He is perhaps most famous for his photo-realism pictures of poor or ordinary people, as well as his series of Buddhas. His photographs were presented to the City of Sakata and the Ken Domon Museum also shows temporary exhibits of other photographers.
Among the threads that weave together the life of this pleasant city among the rice store houses and parks, are symbols that speak to another dimension of the human soul. Kaikoji Temple has the care of two sokushinbutsu. These are the mummified bodies of two former abbots who died during the Edo Period (one in 1755). They were followers of an austere tradition of ascetics centered on the holy Mt. Yudono.
Their practice led them to eat as little as possible over several years with the goal of reducing their bodies to little more than skin and bone. They subsisted on roots and tree bark, acorns and nuts, but ate no rice or wheat. Towards the end they may have drunk a lacquer mixture to help preserve their internal organs. When they felt ready to enter an underground chamber, their disciples dug out a cell about three meters in depth where the ascetic would just have room to sit in the lotus position while praying and waiting for death. A bamboo pipe was put in place for breathing and the space above the cell was sealed with dirt and stones.
When disciples no longer heard the bell ring to signal that the men were still alive, the ascetics were deemed to have died, and their bodies left in position for three thousand days to mummify naturally. The bodies, fixed in their sitting position, were then exhumed, dressed in robes, and are now placed in glass cases to protect them. Visitors of all ages and religions tend to be moved, even to tears, by the contemplation of such sincerity. The sacrificial gesture is interpreted as an act of generosity in a symbolic taking on of generalized suffering in the world. Their acts are rare, deliberate and precious and have an enduring power that continues to affect us centuries later.
Across the street from the Kaikoji is the NK Agent office, a Meiji Period building that was used as a location in the charming 2008 movie "Okuribito" ("Departures"), set here in the Shonai district around Sakata.
You will enjoy your visit to Sakata, a city of unexpected charms and interest. A nice way to get to Sakata is by the JR Kira Kira Uetsu train up the coast from Niigata. This is a weekend train for passengers who want to enjoy the ocean view, but it does not have a regular schedule during the week. The regular express train service along the coast linking Niigata, Sakata and Akita is called the Inaho Line.