A bounty of natural wonder
Just an hour’s flight northwest of Tokyo, you’ll find Shonai, in the Yamagata Prefecture. This scenic and intriguing destination is famous for its natural bounty – it produces some of the finest rice (and sake), is home to indigenous crops and its waters deliver some knock out seafood. Is it any wonder, then, that it has a designated UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy? But it’s not all sake breweries and awarded restaurants here – rich in culture, history and nature, there are fascinating mountains, including the Dewa Sanzan, a popular religious spot, and Mt Chokai, which is a popular for hiking. Shonai also has beautiful coastlines, and some gorgeous shrines, temples and onsens. The main towns in Shonai are rural, mountainous, and wide-planed Tsuruoka City (the one with the gastronomy gong), and the port city of Sakata, with its museums, waterfalls and historic sculptures.
Things to do
Eat in Tsuruoka City!
A combination of natural bounty and the preservation of community cultures has resulted in Tsuruoka City getting a worldwide reputation for its diverse food culture. In 2014 it was designated as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, and you’ll find dishes here that celebrate indigenous mountain herbs and vegetables, while the areas along the coastline champion pristine seafood. Naturally, the rice is incredible, as is the sake, and restaurants really celebrate plates with provenance.
Located right on the coastline, Kamo Aquarium is a wonderworld of aquatic life, especially jellyfish. It’s a striking aquarium, with large, circular windows and dramatic lighting showcasing the hypercoloured jellyfish. They even have a 5-meter circular tank – the largest of its kind in the world! The aquarium showcases other fish, as well as seals at the outdoor seal shows. Finish your visit on the rooftop deck where you can take in the sea views.
Three sacred mountains
The Three Sacred Mountains of the Dewa Sanzan - Mt Gassan, Mt Haguro and Mt. Yudono – are sacred mountains, each with a shrine either on, or almost on, its peak. It’s a wildly picturesque area, with lush foliage. Dewa Sanzan is a centre for Shugendo, a folk religion based on mountain worship, and you’ll see a lot of mountain monks here. Avoid the heavy snowfall and time your visit for July to September, when all three shrines are open.
Hike amongst the waterfalls
The Yamagata Prefecture has more waterfalls than any other prefecture in Japan, so where better to go for a hike than on Mt Chokai, where you’ll find the Tamasudare no Taki waterfall – the biggest in Yamagata. It’s 63m tall, 5m wide and framed by Japanese cedar trees. For a week in late April and mid-August, the falls are illuminated to create a magical, otherworldly glow.
A volcanic monument
Out on the coast, you’ll find a fascinating monument called the Jûroku Rakan Iwa, or the ‘Sixteen Rakan Rocks’. Dating back to the mid-1800s, it’s a tribute to the local fishermen and consists of 22 busts carved into volcanic rock by a Buddhist monk. They’re a stunning sight with the backdrop of sky and sea. Late every July, the sculptures are illuminated, adding another layer of charisma to them.
Distance to central Sakata 15km
From the airport You’ll find Shonai Airport just south of central Sakata. Buses are scheduled alongside arrivals and departures, so you can catch a bus into central Sakata, which is about a 35-minute journey.Back to top
When to go
Weather in Shonai is pretty temperate, but it does get high winds, significant rainfall and winters can be icy cold and very snowy, which can interfere with some attractions’ opening hours. August is the warmest month, with temperatures in the mid-20s. July and August are the busiest months for festivals, including sake festivals and fireworks.Back to top
Limousine Bus service connects Shonai Airport to downtown Tsuruoka and Sakata, as well as other major stops. Sakata's main transport hubs are Sakata Station and Shonai Bus Terminal, and there is a network of buses that goes from the station to the tourist sites. There is also the option of renting a car or a bike.Back to top