Mountains of Sakura Cherry Blossoms and the serene Arakura Jinja await.
Located along one of the most picturesque parts of the Shonai Coast, the next peak on my 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata is Arakura-yama (荒倉山); famous for Yamazakura mountain cherry blossoms and the former Shugendo paths that weave to Arakura Jinja (Shrine), The Haguro of the West.
荒倉山 | あらくらやま
Arakura-yama (Mt. Arakura, 荒倉山, あらくらやま) is a 307m (1007 ft.) peak in the Shonai region of Yamagata prefecture best climbed from March to November. Arakura-yama is a level 1 in terms of physical demand, which means it is easy to hike, has a A technical grade, which means it requires little expertise, and you want to allow at least 1.5 hours for a climb.
307m (1007 ft.)
Three: 1) The Yura Trailhead (3 hours return) 2) The Aburato Trailhead (2 hours return) 3) Arakura Jinja Trailhead (90 minutes return)
Best time to climb
When there is no snow (Mid-march to November)
Day trip possible?
Minimum Time Required
While it’s no Yoshino-yama, Arakura-yama sure offers some of the best mountain Sakura (cherry blossom) views in Japan. The paths were not too difficult, only a few steep inclines, and the trees provided plenty of cover from the sun and rain. A beginner might struggle in places, but I would recommend Arakura-yama for anyone who loves mountain sakura, awesome views, and awesome forest shrines.
Founded in 717 and located in the middle of a forest on a steep mountain slope, Arakura Jinja was one of the coolest I’ve ever been to. Not only is the place itself cool, the god/ goddess it worships has quite a famous myth about them. Arakura Jinja is dedicated to Arakura Gongen (Avatar), Ukemochi-no-kami, the god/goddess (still contested) who protects food, and Hayagriva (horse-headed avatar). According to Kojiki, one of the ancient books of Japan, Ukemochi-no-kami prepared a feast from all crevices in their body, including rather unsanitary locations.
This disgusted Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto (the god of the moon) so much that he killed Ukemochi-no-kami. Hearing of Ukemochi-no-kami’s death at the hands of Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto, Amaterasu-no-omikami (the goddess of the sun) was so disgusted that she vowed never to meet the killer again. This is the origin story of night and day in Japanese mythology. Interestingly, the nearby Gassan of the Dewa Sanzan is said to be Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto as opposed to Amaterasu-no-omikami enshrined at Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture.
In the Arakura Jinja complex, there is a long staircase with red bridge and pond at the base, a small clearing in the centre with various artefacts dedicated to the gods, and some of the most beautiful shrine buildings at the top that looked brand new. In the middle ages, Arakura-yama supported the uprising against Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590, but lost to Echigo Uesugi. As a result, the 33 Shukubo (pilgrim’s lodges) on the mountain were all completely destroyed, and the land forfeited. In recent years, worship of Arakura Gongen (avatar) and its Buddhist manifestation Hayagriva (a horse-headed avatar) has been revived at Arakura Jinja. A Taishu horse is dedicated there, and the shrine complex also holds Oshima and Yakumon Shrines. Needless to say, Arakura Jinja is sure a sight to behold.
Usually beginning in mid-March and ending around November, Arakura-yama’s climbing season corresponds with the snowfall. I’d definitely recommend coming when the mountain sakura are in bloom. This would mean maybe a week or two after the Sakura are blooming in central Tsuruoka, so around late April. I also enjoyed the cover of the trees the whole way, so the sunlight wasn’t very intense. It should be a good place to climb in summer before jumping into the ocean in Yura, and I can guarantee the mountain would be great amongst the autumn leaves.
Arakura-yama is about 30 minutes by car from central Tsuruoka City (Google Maps Link) on the Shonai Coast of Yamagata Prefecture. Tsuruoka is accessible from Shonai Airport, about one hour flight from Tokyo, or on the Joetsu Shinkansen Bullet Train and Inaho Express via Niigata (more details here). Like most places in rural Japan, public transport is minimal at best, so you’re going to want to go by car if you can.
There are three main trails up Arakura-yama; the Yura trailhead, the Aburato trailhead, and the Takeura Trailhead using the main path to Arakura Jinja (shrine). The Yura Trailhead is probably the most action packed, and it offers views that the other two don’t, such as the port town of Yura. The Aburato trailhead is shorter yet steeper than the Yura Trailhead, so is good for some trail running, or a quick hike. The Takeura Trailhead basically cuts straight to the point, taking you via Arakura Jinja, which was one of the most beautiful shrines I have ever been too tucked into a secret mountain forest.
From Tsuruoka station, go to Route 7, and follow Route 7 until you get to Route 131 that leads into Yura. Follow Route 131, and take a right on Route 50. After a short while, you will find Yura Yaotome Hotel on your left. There is a small gravel path in front of the Yura Yaotome Hotel. Follow this path to the end and you will see a white fence and a bear sign. This is the correct location. Park your car behind the bear sign, and the path goes up into the mountains where the fence ends.
Be warned, this is not the entrance on the yamagatayama.com website. In fact, it’s a whole hill away. Before I went the right way, I walked straight past the car park into an area that I assume was formerly rice fields before I realized that the path ended and I had to turn around! Don’t make my mistake! When I got there, I had no idea where it was.
Luckily I know the town a little bit, and I headed further up the road and saw these two women who looked like they had just gotten off the mountain who gracefully helped me out. I have no idea how people who don’t know the place are expected to find it. You have to go through a tunnel to get to the right spot. Also, there are zero signposts. The only signpost I could find was that one saying to watch out for bears.
Follow the path that takes you up along a long ridge. This ridge is covered in trees that keep you somewhat protected from the elements. There will be a T intersection at the top of the ridge that you want to take to the left. This new ridge then takes you to a glorious lookout with views out over to Yura and the rest of Arakura-yama. Right next to this lookout is the small mountain hut called ホットハウス Hot House (I think this name is a pun as hotto in Japanese means to be relieved).
This path takes you down the mountain a bit until you come out at a clearing with a view of the real Arakura-yama. Follow the road to the left and up the hill. The road splits into two, with the right path being the Chiroru-no-michi, Tyrol Road, from some famous novel. This path will take you to the pond and bridge that mark the entrance to Arakura Jinja. Before going up to the shrine, there’s a clearing and you get a pretty good view of Kinbo-zan, Yoroga-mine, and Gassan in the distance. You might also be able to spot Chokai-zan from here as well.
From the area where the main shrine buildings are, take the path back down the hill. About halfway down, you will find a path on the right that leads up to the summit. Full of an array of mangled beech and Gingko trees, this forest is really cool too. Before you get to the summit, there’s one clearing that has great views of Chokai-zan, and you can see the nearby Takadate-yama quite easily from here. The summit isn’t exactly exciting, just a clearing amongst a forest. But it’s the journey that counts, right? From here, you can quite easily find your way back down the mountain using the same path. The paths were not too difficult, only a few steep inclines, and the trees provided plenty of cover.
From Tsuruoka Station, head to Route 7. Take a right when you get to Route 112, and keep following this road when it changes to Route 336. Take a right where the road goes into the hill again towards Aburato (油戸). The entrance is on a road perpendicular to this road. This trail meets the other two somewhat near the summit, just before the lookout over Chokai-zan.
To get to the Takeura Trailhead, take the same route as the Aburato entrance, but instead of taking a right towards Aburato, keep following Route 336. In the next hamlet called Nishime, take the road to the right that goes up into the mountain. The Takeura Trailhead should be here. From the main hall in at the top, there is a path that leads off to the left. Go down this path and you will come across an access road. Take this road up the hill a bit, and the path to the summit is there. Once you go through a beech forest, with one really good lookout onto Chokai-zan with Takadate-yama in the foreground, you will come out at the summit of Arakura-yama.
Yura is a quintessential fishing village with the trademark Hakusan Jinja on the picturesque Hakusan Island. The red bridge that crosses to Hakusan Island is one of the most famous photo spots in Tsuruoka City. On good days, you can even get views of Chokai-zan from here. The village of Yura is famous for its Onsen Hot Pools. Most famous of which is probably Yurayaotome (Japanese website, I’m in one of the videos), and as the landing spot of Prince Hachiko, founder of the Dewa Sanzan, The Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa.
In addition, Yura Beach is one of the top places for an ocean dip in summer. This tiny village is one of my favourite spots in Shonai. In fact, there was even a time I strongly considered buying a house located on the coast there. The house was on the hill and had awesome views of Hakusan Island and Chokai-zan, from the bathroom even. However, I decided against it when my father-in-law said extensive work on the foundations were necessary to stop it falling off the cliff :).
Yura itself is also a very special location for Haguro Shugendo Yamabushi. This is said to be where founder Prince Hachiko landed in 592 during his voyage from Kyoto, before coming across Kan’non Bosatsu on Haguro-san, and establishing ascetic trainings on the Dewa Sanzan. There is a cave on the coast just south of Yura said to be the exact location Prince Hachiko landed. It is said that this cave is connected underground to the Kagami Ike pond on the top of Haguro-san, some 30 odd kilometres away, and that when there was a fire on the temple buildings of Haguro-san, smoke could be seen coming out of this cave.
Hike a short distance from Arakura-yama and you will find Takadate-yama. In fact, they can be climbed in one go. Takadate-yama is located along the Shonai coast to the west of Tsuruoka City. Just north of Arakura-yama, Takadate also looks over the Sea of Japan to the west. Takadate-yama’s Kami’ike and Shimoike lakes to the east that make it a great spot for bird watching. Despite being instantly recognisable due to the cell tower, Takadate has a beech and oak forest that is designated as one of the top 100 forests for Shinrinyoku (forest bathing) in Japan. This makes it excellent for casual or beginner hikers. There is a building located adjacent the Shimoike lake called Hotoria for the Tsuruoka City Nature Study group. Here you should park your car, read up on the local flora and fauna, then head out into the mountain.
If you’re up for it, it’s possible to do Arakura-yama and Taka-date on the same day. Bring a friend, park one car at Hotoria at the base of Takadate, then drive another car to Yura. Hike Arakura-yama from Yura, then head towards Takadate-yama, and come back down to your car in Hotoria. Then all you need to do is pick up the other car.
Kamo Aquarium is the biggest sea jelly aquarium in the world. They even have sea jelly ice cream and ramen noodles, and it’s not as weird as it seems. Lookout for some of the fishing artefacts that they have there, the area is known for Samurai fishermen who secretly fished at night to avoid curfew using these huge 10m-long rods. They had to use their spidey-sense to know when to pull up the fish.
Sanze is one of the coolest beaches along the Shonai coast. Relatively sheltered from the open sea, and with a great rock for jumping off, Sanze is the perfect spot for a dip in the ocean in the warmer months. There is a Ramen shop located there called Konpiraso that my brother in law can’t get enough of either.
Fujikura-yama is located in Sanze as well, a really great hike amongst the autumn leaves!
Yunohama is another beach resort along the Shonai coast. Among locals, Yunohama is one of the most popular places for a dip in the Sea of Japan. There are also a number of famous Ryokan in Yunohama. Perhaps the most famous would be Kameya, which even hosted the Emperor and Empress of Japan in 2016 (from memory). Yunohama also has a market on Sunday mornings that is popular amongst locals. The Shonai Country Club golf course is also located nearby.
Atsumi-dake is one of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata located in Atsumi Onsen. Atsumi Onsen is one of Tsuruoka City’s three Onsen towns (the other two being Yutagawa, and Yunohama). Located at the southern end of Tsuruoka, with only Nezugaseki further south, Atsumi Onsen is a great spot for a walk amongst the Sakura in spring, or a visit to the rose garden in June. While you’re there though, if you’re not staying at Tachibanaya with their awesome onsen, do be sure to check out Chitto Mocche, a locally-run cafe that is famous for its outdoor foot baths.
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About the author
TIM BUNTING – KIWI YAMABUSHI
OFFICIAL DEWA SANZAN YAMABUSHI NAME:
RYOSEN – SPREADER OF TRUTH
Hi, I’m Tim Bunting AKA the Kiwi Yamabushi, a New Zealander who became a Yamabushi Ascetic in the Dewa Sanzan mountains of north Japan. I’m part of the Yamabushido team, and we host life-altering Yamabushi training on the Dewa Sanzan (website I made). People come to us for the ultimate mindfulness experience, to reach the next level, or simply connect with nature and themselves.
I’m on a mission to summit all 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata Prefecture to spread the splendour of this fabulous location, and in dedication to all those who lost their lives out in nature, including my father.
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