TIM BUNTING

KIWI YAMABUSHI

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Three best mountains to hike in 2023

Made of mountains, the literal meaning of Yamagata. When you live here, the namesake practically hits you in the face. The place is simply surrounded by mountains at every turn. From the Fuji of North Japan, Chokai-san, to the tiny Kashiwagi-yama on Tobishima Island, or the heights of Zao-san, Yamagata Prefecture sure does have some fun places to explore.

However, many people only stick to the more well-known peaks. This is in most likelihood because they are, in fact, more well-known. But if Yamagata Prefecture has enough mountains to make a 100 Famous Mountains list (it actually has more than 2,500 mountains, but that’s a story for another time), surely many people are missing something, right?

Right. They are.

Having now climbed a third of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata, I felt it was high time to choose my top three mountains to hike in 2023.

So let’s do it!

The Mysterious Marshes and Phantom Falls of Yozo-san

Smack-bang in the middle of the rice fields to the east of central Sakata lies a peculiar sight; a 720 m long beige and red castle wall. Known as Kinowanosaku, this is the remains of an ancient Heian Period (794-1185) castle that was part of the Dewa Province government jurisdiction.

Well, this castle used to connect to current-day Tagajo City to the north of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. It did so by via Yozo Toge, The Yozo Pass between Sakata City, and Sakegawa Village.

This isn’t the only interesting part in the history of Yozo-san. The name Yozo comes from a legendary story about Yozo-Numa, The Yozo Pond (read my article for more on this myth).

Not only does Yozo-san boast an impressive backstory, it’s also an incredible hike. My recommendation is to go with some friends and do The Yozo Loop, starting at Hanesawa Onsen in Sakegawa.

This trail takes you through a beech forest over mountain streams and first up to the summit of Yozo-san.

And then the fun begins.

Your descent takes you past lookouts with expansive views of Shinjo City, the Shonai coast, and even to Taizo-san and Chokai-san. Passing through a dense forest the whole way, you’ll come out at Yozo-Numa, The Yozo Marsh mentioned earlier.

Return to the main path and you’ll come to another marsh full of morigaeru frogs. Soon you will reach a river valley where you’ll find The Phantom Falls, an eclectic collection of waterfalls.

Then all you have to do is drive back to your car, and enjoy a soak in Hanesawa Onsen’s hot springs.

The extinct volcano and precariously placed shrines of Murayama Hayama

Murayama Hayama is an extinct volcano that lying right besides Gassan, but on the inland Yamagata side.

By far the best time to climb Murayama Hayama is during the autumn leaves, but it’s still a very worthwhile hike during the fresh green of summer.

Leaving from the Shiminso, the trail takes you up to the volcano rim at the field of flowers. The hike until here is through various forests, and there are one or two spots to stop for the view.

Once you reach the rim, keep following the trail around clockwise. Eventually you’ll come across the peaks Kozo-mori and Ozo-mori before reaching the real summit. Along the way you will find yourself surrounded with expansive views of not only the inner workings of the volcano, but the vistas of the villages, mountains, and rivers of inland Yamagata.

Off in the distance you will see Hakuban Jinja, which makes a great destination for a day hike. This coupled with the autumn leaves makes for a great day out.

Myth meets mist at Okina-san

Okina-san is located at the end of a long forest road on the borders of Obanazawa City and Miyagi Prefecture. Its remote location means it is extremely hard to get to, but this only makes it that much more worthwhile a hike.

Okina-san is named after the legend of an old man turned great Kami deity. While you’re there, keep an eye out for an old dude, or a white deer supposed to be prowling around.

The hike begins at the Harima hut, a red-roofed hut in the middle of a clearing in the middle of a dense forest. From there the forest only gets denser.

After hiking over multiple mountain streams, up numerous valleys with glorious vistas, and along steep slopes, you’ll come out among a low bamboo forest. Soon you’ll reach the summit where 360 degree views of Miyagi Prefecture and Obanazawa City, and beyond, abound.

Then keep following the path straight, and you’ll do a loop through the bamboo forest, taking in the view the whole way. Finally there will be a right hand turn that takes you back to through the dense forests and back to the Harima Hut.

But not before having to climb down steep slopes with ropes, or crossing a few mountain streams.

In Conclusion

If I hadn’t started the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata project, I would never have found these trails.

I am so glad I did.

Not only do I get to explore these places for myself, I get to share them with you.

Get off the beaten path. Then go even further, with these three magnificent mountains.

ENJOYED THIS? HAVE MORE.

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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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