TIM BUNTING

KIWI YAMABUSHI

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Why I’m Hiking the 100 Famous Mountains Of Yamagata

For fun. But also to put this must-see prefecture on the map.

A yamabushi’s role is simple: Lead others into nature.

Everything else is up to them.

With my words and videos, I hope to convince you that getting out into nature on the regular should be one of your top priorities in life.

Part of that is showing you the beauty of nature in Japan. And I’m starting with my own backyard, Yamagata Prefecture.

Made of Mountains: Yamagata Prefecture

A shrine on the side of Haguro-san’s stone stairway. Haguro-san is one of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata.
The stone stairway of Haguro-san during autumn. 

Locals in Yamagata are a different breed.

Providing not only the most beautiful backdrop known to man, but also a source of sustenance for millennia, mountains have a say in almost every aspect of the lives of the people of Yamagata.

So much so, the word Yamagata literally means ‘mountain shape’. Or, as we like to say, ‘made of mountains’.

Why 100 Mountains?

The red torii shrine gates of Yudono-san jinja (shrine) bask in the late autumn sun. Yudono-san is one of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata.
The Torii (shrine gates) of Yudono-san Jinja in Tsuruoka City. 

In 1964, mountaineer and author Fukada Kyuya published Hyakumeizan, One Hundred Mountains of Japan.

This book has since become a cult classic.

It was so popular, in fact, even the current Emperor Naruhito is a major fan.

Not to be outdone, in 2016 Yamagata Prefecture set about creating their own list of 100 famous mountains. In the process, they whittled down some 2,774 peaks into a top 100. 

I’m climbing them all.

And I’d love you to join me!

(And yes, Yamagata does have that many mountains!). 

Criteria for choosing the mountains of Yamagata

Zao-san’s emerald green crater lake in the middle of summer. Zao-san is one of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata.
The emerald green crater lake of Zao-san.

Fukada chose the original 100 famous mountains of Japan based on three criteria:

  1. Grace
  2. History
  3. Individuality

In contrast, locals in Yamagata Prefecture selected their list according to:

  1. Number of visitors to the mountains, starting with locals
  2. Mountains that play a considerable role in the lives of locals
  3. Mountains with great views or other special appeal worth sharing with the world

Fukada’s mountains versus Yamagata’s

Haguro-san’s Five Story Pagoda in the middle of the cedar forest in winter. Haguro-san is one of the true highlights of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata Project.
Haguro-san’s Five Story Pagoda during the heavy snow of winter, Jijisugi The Grandfather Cedar in the foreground. 

From the outset, Fukada’s list is obviously more objective. Not only are we talking about Japan as a whole, Fukada purposely didn’t include any mountains below 1,500 m (4921 ft.). Nor did he feel the need to ask locals how they feel about their mountains.

As a result, if you’re coming for traditional mountaineering, Yamagata’s list may sorely disappoint you.

Only four of Yamagata’s famous mountains are over 2,000 m (6562 ft.). Plus, only six Yamagata mountains appear in Fukada’s original 100.

Should that bother us?

Not in the slightest.

You see, what the mountains of Yamagata lack in stature, they more than make up for with an intriguing culture. 

Let me show you.

The Mountains of Yamagata

A river reflects the blue sky as the surrounding yellow and red leaves near Jizomori-yama bask in the sunlight.
A river flows near Jizomori-yama in Hijiori Onsen. 

While exploring the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata, I found:

The list goes on

Gassan Hachigome, the eighth station of Gassan next to the Midagahara marshlands, Shonai plains and the Sea of Japan in the distance.
The Midagahara marshlands at Hachigome, Gassan’s Eighth Station. Gassan is not only one of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata, but also of Japan.

Run to the hills – Of Yamagata

Red Zuishinmon gates of Kinbo-zan completely surrounded by fresh green leaves.
The Zuishinmon gates in front of Kinbo-zan, one of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata

We know the name Yamagata means ‘mountain shape’. In olden times, however, the name used another Kanji character altogether; 方, kata ‘in the direction of’.

Yamagata wasn’t ‘shaped by mountains’, it was ‘go to the mountains’.

But not just any mountains.

Our mountains.

In a country full of mountains, that says a lot.

And there was one extra special person in particular who made an extra special effort to visit the mountains of Yamagata:

Haiku Poet Matsuo Basho

The view from Risshaku-ji Temple at Yamadera in winter. distant mountains covered in snow.
Risshaku-ji Temple AKA Yamadera in Yamagata City. Amayobari-yama is a mountain that backs on to Yamadera, and had a thriving mountain worship culture.

The man who practically single-handedly put Haiku poetry on the map, Matsuo Basho.

While in Yamagata, those days known as Dewa Province, Matsuo Basho visited numerous spots including Risshakuji Temple at Yamadera, and his main destination, The Dewa Sanzan mountains.

In the process, Matsuo Basho created Japan’s definitive collection of Haiku poetry and travel journal: The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Japan Heritage Sites in Yamagata Prefecture

You can barely make out the torii shrine gates at Chokai-san’s crater lake. Chokai-san is one of the 100 Famous Mountains of both Japan, and Yamagata Prefecture.
The Torii shrine gates near Chokai-san’s crater lake shrouded in mist.

Plus, Matsuo Basho is lucky to have witnessed three of Yamagata Prefecture’s four Japan Heritage sites.

First is the mountain temple locals convinced Matsuo Basho to visit, Yamadera in Yamagata City.

Then, of course, another of Matsuo Basho’s destinations; the three mountains of Dewa, otherwise known as the Dewa Sanzan.

The Kitamaebune North Sea Route that utilised the Mogami River was the reason Yamagata developed into a lead rice and safflower producer. It was also one reason why Edo, modern-day Tokyo, became the biggest city in the world during the 18th century. 

Lastly, Tsuruoka City’s Samurai Silk; a silk industry born on the backs of former Samurai. These Samurai created Japan’s northernmost silk industry that still does the whole process from planting the mulberry trees to silk production until this day.

These last three sites all belong to the Shonai Region on The Sea of Japan coast, an impressive feat for a place about the size of Tokyo’s 23 wards.

UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy

Video I appeared in for The Office of The Prime Minister of Japan introducing the secret to Japan’s healthy gastronomy

In addition, Yamagata Prefecture is home to Tsuruoka, Japan’s first UNESCO certified Creative City of Gastronomy. A large reason for this certification is the mountains that provide abundant nutrients for the best possible produce grown in the area.

Welcome to Water World

The huge 63 m drop of Tamasudare Falls in Sakata City, the tallest waterfall in Yamagata Prefecture, surrounded by the green leaves of summer
The 63 m-high Tamasudare Falls in Sakata City near Chokai-san. 

With all these mountains, Yamagata is also a source of some of the freshest water in the whole of Japan.

Yamagata Prefecture is famous for having the highest number of waterfalls (over 5 m in height) of any prefecture.

In fact, Chokai-san, with the highest precipitation of any mountain in Japan also has the most waterfalls of any mountain in Japan.

READ MORE: The Astounding Waterfalls of Chokai-san – Tim Bunting

The Longest River in One Prefecture: Mogami River

The Mogami River seen from Sabane-yama. The Mogami River is the longest contiguous river in any prefecture in Japan, and is the pride of Yamagata Prefecture.
The Mogami River seen from Sabane-yama.

Further downstream, at 224 km, the Mogami River is the longest contiguous river in one prefecture. The Mogami River played a massive role in transporting rice and safflower to Sakata City on the coast.

Coupled with the aforementioned Kitamaebune North Sea Route, Yamagata Prefecture played a direct role in the development of Edo, modern-day Tokyo. Ships sailed all the way around to Edo full of Yamagata’s finest rice, sake, and safflower. 

Terms for Mountain in Japanese

Located near the summits of Gassan and Yudono-san, Ubaga-take is one of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata.
Hikers look out over the mountain views from near the summit of Ubaga-take, a mountain between Gassan and Yudono-san.

In Japan, mountains are so common they have multiple words for them:

  • Yama (山, e.g. Fuji-yama), is probably the most well-known term for mountain in Japanese. Yama can also be read as san (e.g. Haguro-san), and sometimes voiced as zan, (e.g. Chokai-zan).
  • Then there are terms like mine (峰, also 峯 and 嶺, e.g. Kumanonaga-mine), for peak, also read ho, and sometimes fu or pu.
  • Take (嶽, or its simplified version 岳, e.g. Shojiga-take), voiced as dake (e.g. Atsumi-dake), or also read as Gaku, means ‘a tall and precipitous mountain’.
  • Plus, I’ve recently discovered many cases of mori (森), usually meaning forest, also meaning mountain (e.g. Futatsu-mori or Kagikake-mori).
  • Now, here I’m getting a bit picky, but there is also ten, (巓 e.g. Higashidai-ten), which refers specifically to a summit, rather than a mountain as a whole.

READ MORE: Why this mountain is EVERYWHERE in Japan – Murayama Ha-yama (Mt. Hayama (Murayama)) – Tim Bunting

My Favourite Yamagata Mountains So Far

The autumn leaves along the trail of Taizo-san, one of my favourite hikes so far.

Until now, I have summited 29 of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata. Here are my top five:

  1. Arakura-yama: A mountain with views of cherry blossoms, the Sea of Japan, and the tiny port town of Yura, all topped off with a mystical forest shrine.
  2. Okina-san: A mountain on the edge of Yamagata Prefecture with a scintillating back story that keeps you intrigued at every turn on the misty peak.
  3. Maya-san: A former Shugendo mountain with a legendary backstory, and buried yamabushi treasure.
  4. Yozo-san: Part of an ancient trail between the eastern and western coasts of northern Japan with a crazy backstory full of unique places to explore like frog ponds and phantom falls.
  5. Taizo-san: Just an all-round amazing hike through the autumn leaves.

The Mountains of Yamagata By Height

The green rolling hills of Gassan during the autumn leaves. Gassan is both one of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata and Japan.
Hiking from Ubaga-take to Gassan in the autumn. 

Unlike Fukada’s list, The 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata list includes quite a few mountains of less than 1,500 m in elevation. In fact, Kashiwagi-yama at 58 m is the lowest mountain on the list, and is a bit of a stretch to call a mountain.

However, Yamagata’s list does include 45 mountains above 1,000m, and four above 2,000m. The tallest of which, Chokai-san at 2236m, is the tallest mountain entirely in the Tohoku region.

READ MORE: All 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata separated by height

The Mountains of Yamagata By Region

The orange hills of Ubaga-take in the autumn leaves. Ubaga-take is one of The 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata.
Looking down the mountain valleys of Gassan

There are four main regions in Yamagata Prefecture, from north to south:

  • The Shonai Region along the Sea of Japan coast bordering Akita and Niigata Prefectures 
  • The Mogami Region to the northeast bordering Akita and Miyagi Prefectures 
  • The Murayama Region in the centre of the prefecture bordering Miyagi Prefecture
  • And The Okitama Region to the south bordering Miyagi, Fukushima, and Niigata Prefectures. 

READ MORE: Mountains in Yamagata Prefecture by Region

Yamagata’s Mountain Ranges

The red torii gates of Haguro-san really stick out amongst the white snow. Haguro-san is one of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata.
 Torii gates at the summit of Haguro-san in the middle of winter.

Understandably, there are also numerous mountain ranges throughout Yamagata Prefecture:

  • Dewa Sanzan
  • Bandai Asahi National park
  • The Ou Mountains
  • The Shonai Alps
  • The Kamuro Renpo
  • The Ide Renpo
  • The Zao Renpo
  • The Asahi Renpo
  • The Azuma Renpo
  • The Funagata and Goshozan Renpo, to name a few.

READ MORE: Mountain Ranges in Yamagata Prefecture

Yamagata’s Mountains by Hiking Time

The beach town of Yura in Tsuruoka City seen from Arakura-yama, one of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata.
The view from Arakura-yama towards the port village of Yura in Tsuruoka City. 

From 20-minute hikes to full-blown overnighters, Yamagata Prefecture offers hikes for any skill level and duration.

READ MORE: Mountains of Yamagata by Hike Time

Featured articles

If that’s not enough, I’ve prepared a few articles to help navigate your way around the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata.

Here are but a few:

The 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata Project

Thanks for reading this far. If you want to learn more, or to follow my progress on the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata Project, be sure to sign up for my newsletter. Also check out my YouTube channel, and I post on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn often. Would be great to see you there.

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Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

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Sakata City, Yamagata, Japan 

tim@timbunting.com

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