The Other Side of the Mountain
Why visit the Okitama region?
Yamagata Prefecture is famous for the yamabushi of Dewa Sanzan, the ice monsters and ski slopes of Zao Onsen, and the rich culinary culture of UNESCO Creative CIty of Gastronomy, Tsuruoka. But with their new fully-guided tours, travel specialists Yamagata Experience and Plat Yonezawa Corporation hope to shine a light on a part of Yamagata hitherto known primarily to locals rather than out-of-prefecture visitors — the Okitama region.
Dubbed the “Arcadia of the Orient” by 19th century travel writer Isabella Bird, the Okitama region — located in the southern part of Yamagata Prefecture — comprises the Yonezawa, Nagai, and Okuni basins. Its hot spring towns, excellent food, and local history and culture are attractive in and of themselves, but the Okitama region is most alluring for its magnificent natural landscapes and outdoor activities.
Small-scale tours in the Okitama outdoors
Active travellers will find the Okitama region has much to offer by way of unique outdoors adventures year-round, with spring canoeing around Lake Shirakawa and winter snow trekking to giant icefalls being memorable experiences.
According to Miyajima Hiroaki, CEO of Plat Yonezawa Corporation, the Okitama region is a particularly convenient destination for nature lovers — especially those seeking winter activities — being located only two hours from Tokyo Station or two hours from Sendai Airport.
The new tours launched by Yamagata Experience and Plat Yonezawa Corporation are as follows:
Canoeing on Lake Shirakawa
A beginner-friendly, two-hour canoeing tour across Lake Shirakawa. Available year-round as long as snow does not impede road access. In spring, snowmelt causes the water levels to rise substantially and flood the surrounding area, creating the illusion of a fantastical “submerged forest” growing out of a lake.
Yamagata Hot Air Balloon Project
An aerial tour highlighting the beauty of the Okitama region’s rich natural landscape from above. Visitors may be able to see a sea of clouds above the basin, depending on the weather.
Snow Trekking to the Icefalls
A moderately challenging but beginner-friendly snow trekking tour to magnificent 30 metre-tall icefalls, from Zao Liza World Ski Resort to the Senninzawa Ice Garden. Snow trekking gear can be rented for an additional fee.
Plat Yonezawa Corporation
The Backyard Tour
A deep dive into Yonezawa City’s craft and culinary traditions, this six-hour tour takes visitors to a 400 year-old sake brewery, followed by a sumptuous lunch featuring Yonezawa beef at a Taisho-era cultural museum. The afternoon is spent at a historic Yonezawa textile weaving studio, and another weaving studio fusing traditional methods with contemporary digital photo-weaving techniques.
Taking place at Yonezawa City Budokan Dojo, participants will experience the same martial arts training and techniques used by Yonezawa clan warriors and mountain priests. These include basic swordsmanship and stick-fighting techniques, and how to don a kimono and hakama.
Thanks to factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing consumer awareness of overtourism, and a growing interest in sustainable travel, the Tohoku region has received more attention as a travel destination in recent years.
Outdoor activities and nature-based tourism in rural Japan have become especially popular, as they are ideal for travellers seeking less crowded destinations, and more intimate encounters with local people — or repeat visitors to Japan wishing to explore more of the country.
“Outdoor activities allow visitors to experience at firsthand the nature of Yamagata,” says Horie Morihiro, President of Yamagata Experience. “You can really feel the seasonal changes here.”
Miyajima concurs, noting that the Okitama region will “surely be a place where travellers will experience life epiphanies.”
In a region with few tour companies catering to English-speaking visitors, both Plat Yonezawa Corporation and Yamagata Experience see tremendous potential in Yamagata’s rich natural resources, and hope to convince domestic and international visitors of its allure.
Newly established in 2022, Plat Yonezawa Corporation’s activities primarily centre on projects and tours involving Yonezawa City; while Yamagata Experience has been operating nature-centric sightseeing tours since 2017.
Yamagata has a wealth of culture and tradition still little-known to outsiders, along with a rich culinary history, stunning landscapes, and friendly residents.
Japan is at the top of the list of countries many people want to visit, and recent international coverage has spotlighted the Tohoku region as an underrated, off-the-beaten-path travel gem. Pieces on the newly-opened 1000 km-long walking path, the Michinoku Coastal Trail, have appeared in the South China Morning Post and BBC Travel, while Mountain Watch has highlighted the region as a must-visit for snow and winter sports lovers.