“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.” This phrase is found in one of Japan’s most famous and beloved classical literature texts called “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, which was written by legendary haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, while he journeyed the pristine nature of Yamagata Prefecture more than 300 years ago.
Little known to international travelers, Yamagata is home to a vast array of spiritual, historical, and architectural marvels, not to mention glorious natural beauty. JI Core 50 member Adam Fulford has been actively involved in supporting the regional activation of a small community in Yamagata called Nakatsugawa since 2014, however this time, he spent two days in Shonai, located further north nearby the Japan Sea coast.
Shonai is surrounded by three sacred peaks of Dewa Sanzan, a renowned pilgrimage route, one of which Adam visited during his stay. Surrounded by towering Japanese cedars and gazing up at the iconic five-storied pagoda on Haguro-san, Adam learned about the area’s over 1,400-year history directly from a follower of Shugendo (the religious tradition closely associated with these mountains). Another highlight of his trip included experiencing maiko entertainment at Somaro tea house, located in the historic port city of Sakata.
It’s rare to have a chance to see maiko up close, and it was a pleasure to watch them perform three short dances with shamisen accompaniment. The entire building is also captivating, with countless photogenic nooks and crannies, some of which I was able to discover with the help of Kosuzu, the shamisen player and singer. She explained aspects of the building’s history and patrons of yore with the same informative ebullience that had earlier characterized her commentaries on the maiko dances.
Built in 1893, the Sankyo Soko still functions today as rice storehouses, offering visitors the chance to learn about ordinary life centuries ago, and traditional knowledge passed on over generations.
The storehouses are visually striking, and the museum and adjacent shop are packed with opportunities to learn and appreciate local culture. Only two stops into my visit, a few Shonai themes were already coming into focus: rice, sake, colorful crafts, and a sense of how tough life was for local people in the old days, whether for men pulling unloaded boats back upriver, or for women carrying massive loads of rice on their backs.
If you’re a lover of history, nature, masterful crafts, and delicious cuisine, as well as interested in experiencing the authentic roots of the Japanese spirit and culture, Yamagata might just be worth adding to your next Japan travel itinerary.
Learn more about Shonai HERE.
Adam Fulford helped launch an online store called My Shuraku Nakatsugawa, where you can purchase local products from Nakatsugawa in Yamagata Prefecture. From maple syrup to traditional side dishes, check out the delicious products HERE.