The city of Yamagata, capital of the eponymous Yamagata Prefecture, is one of Japan’s premier winter destinations. Surrounded by snowy mountains and natural beauty, Yamagata city is the perfect base to visit the ski slopes, hot springs, national parks, and historic monuments that fill the region.
Located in the north of Honshu (the largest of the islands that make up Japan), Yamagata forms part of the Tōhoku region. It is known for being a hub of winter sports centered around Mount Zao. It is also home to one of the National Treasures of Japan: the Five-storey Gojuto Pagoda of Mount Haguro.
This guide to Yamagata tells you everything you need to know about the greatest tourist attractions and things to do in both the city and the surrounding region, as well as how to get there on the Shinkansen trains with a JR Pass.
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How to get to Yamagata from Tokyo
The easiest way to get from Tokyo to Yamagata is to take the famous Shinkansen, or bullet train.
Holders of the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) can use it to board the Tohoku Shinkansen line at Tokyo station.
The Yamagata Shinkansen line branches off from the Tohoku Shinkansen line at Fukushima Station. It is possible to take a train directly from Tokyo without having to change at Fukushima.
There are various stations in the Yamagata Prefecture along the Yamagata Shinkansen line. JR Pass holders can get off at Yamagata Station to visit the city itself or continue all the way to Shinjo.
The journey from Tokyo to Yamagata City takes around 2 hours and 45 minutes on the Yamagata Shinkansen line.
What to do in Yamagata City
There are plenty of reasons to visit Yamagata City itself. It might not be the most well-known place in Japan, but Yamagata has various noteworthy landmarks to visit and events to experience. These highlights make it well worth making a stop here while touring the country with a JR Pass.
- Yamadera – Perched on a mountaintop within the city limits, this temple complex features stunning views. This is said to be where the poet Matsuo Bashō composed his most popular haiku.
- Kajo Park – In the city center, a ten-minute walk to the northwest of Yamagata Station lie the grounds of Yamagata Castle. Accessible by crossing bridges over the moat, this park is the best place in the city to see the cherry blossoms. In mid-April, over 1,500 trees come into bloom here.
- Yamagata Castle – A stronghold of the Edo period, the castle’s impressive stone walls and entrance have been restored and can be visited in Kajo Park, still surrounded by the defensive moat.
- Yamagata Museum of Art – Located 15 minutes’ walk from the station, the city’s art museum houses works by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and Takahashi Yuichi. It is also home to a six-panel byōbu (folding screen) by Yosa Buson depicting the epic work Oku no Hosomichi by Bashō, which is one of Japan’s recognized Important Cultural Properties.
Yamagata hosts various festivals throughout the year. The Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (5-7 August) is one of the Tōhoku region’s 4 major festivals, featuring a huge parade with 10,000 dancers.
The Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival takes place every 2 years, showcasing the achievements of the genre.
The Imoni-kai (taro potato party) is a common event in the fall, where picnic spots around the city are used to cook taro potatoes, thin-sliced meat, and vegetables in large pots.
Tourist attractions in Yamagata Prefecture
When visiting Yamagata, you should take some time to get out of the city and explore some of the wider prefecture.
The snowy mountain resorts are perfect for lovers of winter sports.
The various spas and hot springs are the places to go if you’re looking to get some R&R.
Or, if you simply love being close to nature, take a hike through the mountains and forests that make up Yamagata’s wild side.
Things to do in Yamagata Prefecture include:
- Mount Zao – One 40-minute bus ride from Yamagata Station and you’ll be on Mt. Zao — a snow-covered volcanic mountain. Home to some of Japan’s best ski resorts, it is a top destination in snow season. It is equally great for hikers. Watch out for the snow monsters as you go! These unique natural phenomena are actually trees covered in snow and ice.
- Onsens – One of the biggest draws of the Yamagata Prefecture, these spa towns sit on volcanic hot springs. There are many to choose from, but one of the best is Zao Onsen at the foot of Mount Zao itself. Don’t forget to follow the Japanese hot springs etiquette!
- Dewa Sanzan (Three Mountains of Dewa) – Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan, and Mount Yudono are sacred to the Shinto religion of Japan and many make pilgrimages here each year. There are various shrines and temples that you can visit, including the famous Five-story Haguro Pagoda or Gojuto Pagoda, a National Treasure of Japan.