To start off with, Sakata is the gateway to Dewa-San-Zan, three mountains that are among the holiest in Japan. The summits of the mountains were formed by two separate volcanic eruptions.
A brief history of these peaks is as follows: a prince escaped to Dewa-San-Zan after the death of his father sometime in the sixth century and developed Shugendo, a mix of Buddhism and Shinto. The followers of this religion became known as the “yamabashi” (ones who sleep in the mountains) and were said to have mystic powers. Even today, you can see them in their white robes and black hats, carrying conch shells said to stir the mountain gods when sounded.
So besides the trekking opportunities that exist on Dewa-San-Zan, you have the added benefit of getting a glimpse of these mystical men, who exist nowhere else in Japan. Trekking isn’t the only option for extreme sports. There are plenty of other things to do.
1. Bungee jump in Dewa-san near Asahi village. Not only can you dive off a bridge, but you can also dive so low as to dunk you hands in the mountain river below you. Nothing like a dive and dunk to get you going. And all for the price of around 6,000 yen.
2. Scuba dive off the island of Tobishima and swim through water-filled caves.
3. Go spelunking on Tobishima, where there are a lot of natural caves, below and above water. Spelunking is essentially cave exploring, sometimes in water-filled caves, sometimes in dry caves.
4. Set off on a fishing expedition on the Japan Sea Coast. You might just catch something, which could be immediately served up as fresh sashimi.
5. Rent bikes at Sakata station for around 500 yen and cruise the streets, making sure to stop off at Somaro, a famous restaurant where you can watch maiko dancing at night.
6. Trekking. This one is obvious. A traditional pilgrimage through Dewa-San-Zan takes about two or three days but you can actually hike all three mountains in one very long day if you can do it. Just another challenge to add to your list.
After all of your extreme sport activities, you are bound to be tired. Luckily, Yamagata is filled with hot springs, some secretly tucked away into the mountains and some more easily accessible. A natural hot spring that is very nice is Akayu Onsen, where you can soak away your pains in a dragon god hot spring. This hot spring is a bath that is hollowed out of volcanic rock from Mt Zao and weighs over 100 tons. The Aomori cypress tub is also highly recommended.
The day, of course, would not be complete without a nice, big meal to refuel your muscles after all those extreme sports and outdoor adventures. Yamagata’s specialty is Yonezawa beef, which is exactly the same as Kobe beef; the tender, marbled and fatty beef that seems to melt in your mouth. This beef doesn’t come cheap, though, so if you can’t afford it, try the “yama-imo soba,” a famous Yamagata buckwheat noodle that is combined with yam, creating a thicker and firmer noodle. These are truly delicious.
To wash it all down, try Yamagata’s “umetogarashi kombucha,” a tea made from “kombu” (type of seaweed), hot red pepper, and plum. It’s a spicy, hot drink and a little salty but it’s said to be good for the health so drink up.
If you need to buy “omiage” for someone, don’t forget leave Yamagata without a “kokeshi” doll. These dolls are from the Tohoku region and each prefecture’s doll is a little bit different. The people of Tohoku began carving these wooden dolls a little over 160 years ago to pass away the long, bitterly cold winters. Each newborn baby in this area of Japan is given a “kokeshi” doll at birth and the height of the doll is actually equal to the length of the baby.
So if need an escape from the city or are just simply bored, head to Yamagata Prefecture and get that kick back in your step.