10 Reasons to Visit Shōnai with Odyssey Japan

10 Reasons to Visit Shōnai with Odyssey Japan

In partnership withOdyssey Japan

20 million people visit Tokyo every year, but of
these kawaii-obsessed, matcha-tea sipping tourists only a handful
will board the 60-minute flight from Tokyo to Yamagata. A
bountiful, sake-producing region that is also home to Japan’s best
restaurant, we suggest following in the footsteps of our Print
Editor-in-Chief, Olivia, who journeyed through this rural landscape
for The Slow

Located in the northern rice basket prefecture of Yamagata, the
town of Shōnai and its hinterland is one of the most compelling
areas. A broad coastal plain near the Sea of Japan, it’s chequered
with rice paddies and blessed with a rich water supply resulting in
beautifully varied scenery and fertile soil. It is no surprise,
then, that the region is best known for its food.

The only place in Japan to have been awarded the status of
UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy (one of 18 locations world wide)
Shōnai is leading the way in organic farming through family-run
farm-to-table restaurants. Forget sushi conveyor belts, we’ve
hunted down some of Japan’s greatest food artisans; in Shōnai its
all about provenance and precision.

For those guided by spirituality rather than their stomach,
Shōnai’s rebirth practice of Shugendō, an ancient form of folk
religion centred on the three sacred mountains of the Dewa Sanzan,
is a major draw.

God-like notions aside, it’s time to wave goodbye to the bright
lights of Tokyo and embark (by way of Tokyo-Haneda airport – a one
hour flight to Shonai) on a pilgrimage to Shōnai –
in a few years, the path will be a well-trodden one.

Taste and recreate local dishes

Japan’s farmers were encouraged to use pesticides after the
Second World War meaning that today less than 0.5 per cent of all
farming in Japan is organic. Going against the grain, 40 years ago
Naa restaurant founder Kisaku Onodera made the pioneering decision
to return to organic farming – and is encouraging others to do so.
Following collaborations with farmers and chefs, this family-run
homestay was recently voted the best restaurant in Japan. Stroll
among patches of chestnut and watermelon to learn more about the
region’s unique terrain before feasting on sweet aubergine with
miso paste and copious bowls of sticky rice from the surrounding
paddies. We also recommend Kurayashiki LUNA for local, traditional
cuisine and a cooking workshop where you’ll learn to perfect
Tsuyahime rice.

Train with the Yamabushi

If you can’t quite distinguish Zen and Esoteric Buddhism from
Shintoism, trying out Shugendō (a fusion of all of them) will give
you a sense of each. With an emphasis on immersion in nature as the
pathway to Enlightenment, Shugendō’s mountain priests, the
Yamabushi, will give you full licence to channel in-the-know
smugness on your return to the office. They embark on extended
periods of pilgrimage which often involve incredible feats of
endurance, such as traversing perilous terrain, meditating in
enclosed spaces filled with acrid smoke, leaping over fire and, in
the past, self-mummification. Opt in for a half day Yamabushi
lesson experience Gyo-experience on Mount Yudono and get ready to
be reborn.

Relax at one of Shōnai’s hot springs

Get in some chill-out time along the Atsumi River, where large
Japanese ryokans (inns) as well as more modest lodgings cater to
(mainly Japanese) visitors. Take in mountainous views at the Atsumi
Onsen, a bathing spot that is more than 1300 years old and has
inspired writers and poets such as Basho Matsuo and Akiko Yosano,
both of whom referenced the onsen in their literature. Another
popular spot worth exploring is Hijiori Onsen. This hot-spring town
lies an area which claims the most snowfall in Japan’ snowscapes
and sauna-like surrounds a happy traveller make.

Forage for seasonal fruits

In the spring, the Yamagata prefecture is awash with cherries.
Spring/summer is prime pickings, when Japan’s countless cherry
trees come into their own. While most of them are cultivated for
cherry blossom and don’t bear fruit, knowing where and most
importantly when to seek them out is key. Deemed “in season” from
May to July, gorge on these succulent ruddy fruits as you pick.
Also at their best in summer are blueberries, some of which are as
plump as 500 yen coins. Head to the foot of sacred Mount Gassan
where you can fill your boots at one of the largest blueberry farms
in Shonai.

Ski Down an active volcano

Thrill-seekers should make a beeline for a ski adventure down
Mount Chōkai. From the summit you can see the Sea of Japan as well
as Mount Hakkouda, Mount Iwaki and Mount Zao. Even if you’re not a
keen skier (the longest run is 1300m) the views are well worth the
hike to the top. Plotted on the southern border of Akita and
Yamagata, Mount Chōkai is regarded as sacred by followers of the
Shugendo branch of Shinto. At dawn on a clear day, when the shadow
of Mount Chōkai is reflected dramatically in the sea, a palpable
spirituality is enough to ruffle even the firmest

Experience Sakura season

Mention Japan in springtime and images of cherry blossoms are
likely to conjure in your mind. A symbol of the transient nature of
life, watch the flowers that launched a thousand haikus as they
unfold at Tateyama Park and Tsuruoka Park; both perfectly dreamy
backdrops for cherry blossom appreciation. Come spring, float along
the Mogami River where you can expect scenes of budding cherry
blossom. Regardless of season, a cruise along the river as it flows
from southern Yamagata Prefecture in the north, turns west at
Shinjō before flowing into the Sea of Japan at Sakata, is worth
getting wet for.

Sample Yamagata beef and Shōnai pork

A renowned pork- and wagyu beef-producing region, Shōnai and
Yamagata respectively are musts for meat-eaters. Get a taste of the
region’s best cuts for a very reasonable price at Nakajima in
Sakata City. The first floor hosts a butcher shop, while the second
floor is a buzzing restaurant that is popular among locals. It’s
good to note that the staff at Nakajima only speak Japanese but are
happy to accommodate international guests; tastings are a sure-fire
way to get you re-thinking your lacklustre lunchtime sushi-chain

This image is on holiday

Zen out with Zazen

The Soto Zen Buddhist tradition emphasises the practice of
Zazen: silent, seated meditation. While you’re in town, practise
Zazen with a Buddhist Priest at the mid-10th century Zenpoji
temple, in which you’ll learn to give complete attention to each
moment while in the Buddha position. Zenpoji’s ocean-centric pagoda
is dedicated to the sea god Ryūjin and fishermen from all over come
to pray and make offerings at this temple. If you’re planning on
taking a boat trip while in Shōnai (and are superstitious), this
meditation is well worth your time.

Climb the Three Mountains of Dewa

Even if you opted out of Yamabushi training, these sacred
mountains in the ancient province of Dewa are still worth
exploring. Forming a natural hiking circuit, Mount Gassan (the
highest of the three), is best known for its natural scenery as
well as being a popular pilgrimage site. Closed for the majority of
the year due to heavy snowfall, it’s best to visit in summer. The
peaks are home to shrines, pagodas and temples. Each with their own
appeal, Mount Haguro (the smallest of the three peaks) is home to a
600-year-old, five-storey Go-Jyu-No-Toh pagoda, while Mount Yudono
is considered the heart of the terrain, famous for its goshintai or
shintai (sacred objects). The shrine on Yudono is revered as
hallowed land which must be kept secret – photography and video
recordings are still prohibited.

Book a three-day Yamagata Ascetic tour at Mount Yudono-San

This pilgrimage tour offers a prime demo experience for those
curious about ancient Japanese beliefs. Transport is prearranged
and rates include traditional Japanese-style accommodation at the
foot of Yudono-San Mountain. Post expedition, dine on
mountain-fresh fare and follow with an onsen bath; if you’re brave,
challenge the rigorous stone paths extending deep in cedar forests
to experience the Shugendo training practice. An excellent option
for those keen to maximise their time in the region.


To book your tour and for more information about Shonai visit:
odysseyjapan.com, facebook, @odysseyjapan

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