Five Cultural Highlights Of Tsuruoka And Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture

Five Cultural Highlights Of Tsuruoka And Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture

Well-known for its hot springs and scenic views, Yamagata is a wonderful place to immerse yourself in Japanese culture. Let us introduce five highlights of Tsuruoka and Sakata, two cities that boast great spots to visit in the Tohoku region.

Yamagata prefecture is located on the western side of the Tohoku region and is known for its vast natural scenery and stunning panoramic views of the mountains and the sea. Along with the beautiful sights, many visitors seek the great hot springs, nature, historic temples, and delicious seafood cuisine this area is known for. Well-known tourist spots of Yamagata include Ginzan Onsen, the mountain temple Risshakuji in Yamadera, and the Dewa Sanzan mountains.

In this article, we would like to feature cultural and historical spots of two of Yamagata's cities, Tsuruoka and Sakata, through the eyes of MATCHA's lead English editor.

From Haneda Airport, it takes only one hour by a domestic ANA flight to reach Yamagata's Shonai Airport. Visitors from outside of Japan can take a one-way flight for only 10,800 yen using this convenient reservation site.

1. Experience Zen Buddhism at Zenpoji Temple


Zenpoji is a Zen temple in Tsuruoka, founded in the Heian period. It is located approximately 14 km from Shonai Airport. Zenpoji Temple is also known as Ryugeji and is famous for worshipping the Dragon God ("ryu" in Japanese), the guardian deity of the seas.

Zenpoji is surrounded by the Dewa Sanzan mountains and attracts many visitors all year round.


Six of the structures within the temple grounds have been designated National Tangible Cultural Properties. The five-storey pagoda, the main gate, and the Hall of the Five Hundred Arhats allow you to feel the history of this temple. In the main hall, you can visit the prayer space and the zazen meditation hall, and also see valuable and rare Buddhist statues.


In the Hall of the Five Hundred Arhats, which was built in 1855, you will find countless statues of the arhats, Buddhist saints that have attained Nirvana. Even visitors who are not Buddhist are sure to be moved by the sight of these statues.


Aside from admiring the grand structure of Zenpoji, you can also take part in a zazen meditation experience and taste some shojin ryori cuisine. Shojin ryori is a style of vegetarian cuisine eaten by the monks and is considered to be very healthy.

When visiting Tsuruoka, take your time to explore the wonders of Zenpoji Temple.

2. Meet a Mountain Ascetic at Dewa Sanzan

Dewa Sanzan is one of the few areas in Japan inhabited by the mountain ascetics called yamabushi who practice a now rare form of syncretic Buddhist-Shinto belief called shugendo (*1). Dewa Sanzan is a mountainous area consisting of the mountains Gassan, Haguro, and Yudono.

During the winter, Gassan and Yudono become inaccessible because of the snow, but you can visit Mount Haguro any time of the year. As a result, on Mt. Haguro there is the Sanjin Gosaiden Shrine which is dedicated to the three deities protecting the Dewa Sanzan mountains.

*1 Shugendo: An ancient syncretic Japanese religion that appeared during a time when Shinto and Buddhist beliefs merged. The followers (monks) of this religion are known as yamabushi and undergo harsh training within the mountains.



From the foot of Mount Haguro to the summit where the Sanjin Gousaiden Shrine is, you can hike up the stone stairs flanked by cedars. These cedar trees are said to be 350-500 years old and have been designated a special natural monument.


When visiting the Sanjin Gousaiden Shrine, you will be guided by a yamabushi monk of Mount Haguro. Your guide will be able to inform you about the religion, history and the highlights of Mount Haguro.

You must remove your shoes before entering the sacred Sanjin Gousaiden Shrine. Visitors should keep their voices down and be respectful of the solemn atmosphere of the shrine during their visit. The statues in the main prayer hall have the traits of both Shinto and Buddhism, which is quite unusual.

The Dewa Sansan area is a great place to learn about the history of Japanese religious beliefs while touring around Yamagata.

3. Shonai Shrine - The History and Culture of Tsurugaoka Castle


Shonai Shrine was constructed where the castle of the feudal lord of the Shonai province once stood during the Edo period.

The treasure hall located next to the main hall has valuables on display which once belonged to the samurai clan that ruled this area.


If you visit sometime around March 3rd, the day of the Doll Festival in Japan, you will find a marvelous display of historical Hina dolls that are hundreds of years old being shown in the treasure hall. Hina dolls are put on display during the Doll Festival which is an occasion to pray for the good health and growth of young girls.


Take this great opportunity to see the Hina dolls that were once loved by the princesses of grand samurai families!

4. Discover the World of Jellyfish at Kamo Aquarium


Tsuruoka city is well-known for its impressive culture and history, but Kamo Aquarium is an expression of the modern side of Tsuruoka.

At the Kamo Aquarium, in addition to fresh water and sea water fish tanks, you can find a jellyfish incubation center, pools with sea lions and seals along with many other underwater creatures.


Photo courtesy of ©JNTO

One of the highlights of this aquarium is the Jellyfish Dream Theater where you can see jellyfish swimming in a large tank. Kamo Aquarium houses the world's largest variety of jellyfish and is known internationally for the research into bioluminescence that is performed here.

How about relaxing for a while as you watch the pretty jellyfish float about?

5. Somaro - Enjoy the Graceful Performance of Maiko


Sakata prospered as a port town that connected the Sea of Japan and the Seto Inland Sea, bringing the culture and customs of Kyoto and Osaka to the region.

Somaya was a famous restaurant with a history spanning over 200 years in Sakata. It was renovated and reopened in the year 2000 under the name Somaro.


Somaro is a ryotei (Japanese luxury restaurant) serving kaiseki style dishes alongside dance performances by maiko. Within the restaurant, you will find tea rooms with displays of beautiful works of art. The customers can of course also enjoy performances by Sakata maiko here at Somaro.

In Conclusion

Out of the many highlights of Yamagata, we have featured only five this time. If you have at least two days in your schedule, you should be able to leisurely enjoy all the spots mentioned in this article. For those who would like to take their time to enjoy the suburban lifestyle and the culture of Japan, a longer stay is recommended.


Hina Confectionery of Tsuruoka

This article was written by the lead English editor of MATCHA following her participation in the Japanese culture experience tour "O-Hina-sama Cooking in Tsuruoka" organized by ANA Sales.

Tsuruoka is a city well-known for its unique Hinagashi (sweets offered during the Doll Festival), and this tour was designed to allow visitors to experience not only the abundant food culture of Tsuruoka, but also the multifaceted historical spots that are found in Tsuruoka and Sakata. The places mentioned in this article are only a part of the "O-Hina-sama Cooking in Tsuruoka" tour.

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Author & Translator


Translated by Jasmine Nishino


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