The Shonai Region of Japan
The Most Special Place in the World
Since 2010, I have been blessed to live in the Shonai Region of Yamagata, simply the best place to experience rural Japan. This is a place with the most unique culture, the best food, and amazing nature in all of Japan, let alone the world, yet not many people have heard of it and I wish to do something about that. But what is it exactly about this place that makes it so special?
More than a Millennium of History
The Shonai region is the only place in Japan to have three Japan Heritage properties; The Kitamaebune Ships that traded rice and safflower with what would become the biggest metropolis in the world, the timeless Dewa Sanzan with its unique Yamabushi culture that combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Shugendo (a native Japanese Nature Worship religion) with Shintoism, and Samurai Silk, an industry born from the unnerving culture of the Samurai about 150 years ago that manufactures some of the world’s best silk to this day. These cultural heritage properties have had a profound impact on the Shonai region, helping it to develop into the eclectic mix that it is today.
The Cultural Identity of Shonai
That such a large range of cultural diversity can fit into a location comparable in size to the whole of Tokyo City is tantamount to the people who have lived in the region over the millennia. I have been lucky to meet many hundreds of these people; Yamabushi from the Dewa Sanzan, such as Master Hoshino who is regarded as a sage throughout the country, humble farmers who produce Japan’s finest rice, some of Japan’s somewhat unfortunately rare organic farmers (which make up less than 0.5%!), direct descendants of the Samurai rulers of the Shonai Domain that interacted with the true last Samurai Saigo Takamori, direct descendants of the once richest family in Japan, the Honma Family, the curator of the world’s largest jellyfish aquarium, chefs at world-class restaurants, owners of world-class Ryokan, not to mention journalists, art curators, photographers, and other creatives from all around the world.
Cuisine to Rival the World’s Best
Shonai is home to some of the best cuisine in the world, but don’t take my word for it, take UNESCO’s. Of all the places in Japan to be famous for its food, only Tsuruoka in southern Shonai has achieved UNESCO status as a creative city of
gastronomy thanks to its distinct geography, variety of foods available throughout the year, foods that developed because of the spiritual culture of the Dewa Sanzan, and large range of heirloom vegetables passed down through generations of the same families. Other areas in the region are known for their fresh fruit and vegetables, and some of the best meat in Japan, not to mention the freshest fish taken straight from the Shonai coast.
Untouched and Unprecedented Nature
From the subdued hydrangeas and deafening cicadas in the summer, to the bright yellows, reds, and greens of the autumn leaves, to the shrill silence only brought about by the deep snow of the winter and the enchanting pink leaves of the cherry blossoms and budding flowers in spring, I have spent numerous days out in the vast nature of the Dewa Sanzan as a Yamabushi, out in the Mt. Chokai Geo-park, and in the Sea of Japan, and all through the Tohoku region of northern Japan.
Sakata City, Yamagata, Japan
All photos my own. Contact for more.