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Sam's Japan Travel Journal
by Sam, staff writer of japan-guide.com

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2017/07/27 - On the road in Tohoku: Driving through Miyagi and Yamagata

The road to Momijigawa Gorge

Located in the Tohoku region in the north of Japan's main island of Honshu, Miyagi and Yamagata are two prefectures which are certainly not visited as often as other areas of the country, including the ever-popular areas surrounding Tokyo and Kyoto. Despite this, these two prefectures boast some of the most amazing sites in the country and are brimming with majestic mountains, hot springs and stunning nature spots.

Being a vast territory of remote towns along rugged and winding roads, the way to get the most out of this area is to travel by car, with car rental outlets being present near many of the region's bigger train stations. With this in mind I packed my bags, picked up a car and began my journey to experience the mystique of Miyagi and Yamagata.

The first stop on my journey was at Zao Fox Village in Miyagi Prefecture. Foxes are revered in Japanese culture as messengers of the gods with thousands of shrines across the country featuring fox statues. Here at the fox village hundreds of the cuddly canines roam the spacious grounds, and visitors can get up close and feed them from the safety of an elevated platform. There's even the chance to hold and have photos taken with a few of the village's tamest residents, making this place a must visit place for any fox lovers in the area.

One of the Fox Village's sleepy foxes basks in the mid-morning sun
Gathered for food

From the fox village I drove into the mountains, taking the Echo Line, a winding road with inspiring vistas. I was on my way to see Okama Crater, the most unique feature of Mount Zao. An active volcano with a dazzling crater lake, Okama is named for its resemblance to a traditional Japanese cooking pot. I arrived at Mount Kattadake, where I parked up and took a short hike to get the best views of the adjacent crater. Visibility was poor at first but luckily the fog soon dissipated, allowing for magnificent views of the crater.

An awesome sight
Hikers can often be seen traversing this landscape
Looking down on the crater from up near the trail head

Following Okama, it was back on the road to descend the mountain into the quaint Yamagata town of Zao Onsen. This small hot spring town has been a popular destination among travelers for many centuries, boasting some of the most acidic waters in the country. Today the town is dotted with traditional bath houses, and, due to its location on the mountain slopes, serves as one of the country's premier ski destinations come winter.

I spent the afternoon exploring the town's meandering streets and soaking in some of its baths, all the while working up an appetite to finish the day with a meal of succulent Yamagata Beef and local vegetables cooked on a traditional-style hotplate.

The town is surrounded by slopes that are utilized for skiing during the winter
The old town consists of a labyrinth of narrow, winding streets
Inside one of the town's traditional bath houses
The town is dotted with natural beauty and interesting landmarks
Yamagata-beef and local vegetables fried on a hot plate

The next morning I rose early and made my way to the town's main attraction; the spectacular Dai-Rotemburo (big outdoor bath). This pristine gem of a bath is perfectly placed atop a slope above the town and is surrounded by lush forest. Arriving as the bath opened allowed me to have it to myself, and I basked in the warm waters whilst watching steam rise off the surface into the cool morning air. Among the most tranquil onsen experiences I've had the pleasure of, the Dai-Rotemburo is a must do when in these parts.

Zao's famous Dai-Rotemburo outdoor bath
The bath uses gravity to feed into its second, cooler pool

All bathed and energized, I once again pottered around the town, taking a dip in some of its other baths before saying goodbye to Zao Onsen. It was now time to make the approximately 90-minute journey through mountains and valleys to another of Yamagata Prefecture's most celebrated spots; Ginzan Onsen.

Located in the mountains at the site of an old silver mine, Ginzan Onsen has an interesting history, although these days is more famous for its springs than its silver. The town's picturesque main street winds through a narrow valley and is lined with stunning buildings that house public baths, ryokan (Japanese inns) and restaurants. As well as historical institutions such as the Notoya Ryokan, the town also possesses a touch of the modern, with a couple of the town's buildings being the work of famous architect, Kuma Kengo.

The town's picturesque main street
Visitors enjoy the town's free footbath
The elegant Fujiya Japanese inn, designed by Kuma Kengo

I spent the afternoon roaming around the town and made the short hike up the hill behind the town to the old silver mine. One of the old shafts is open to the public and illuminated, making for some interesting and otherworldly sights. Following my subterranean experience, I checked into the Notoya, where I was treated to a traditional Japanese meal featuring Yamagata beef shabu shabu, in which raw slices of the meat are dipped into hot broth as a method of cooking. Delicious!

Down the shafts of the old silver mine
Beginning my evening meal with Yamagata beef shabu shabu
The town comes into its own at night
I was lucky enough to stay in the historic Notoya Ryokan

The next morning I ate a traditional Japanese breakfast before taking one last dip in the ryokan's bath. My time in Ginzan Onsen had come to an end and it was time to make the hour drive to Yamadera, a celebrated mountain temple and centuries-old religious center. The temple was founded around 1200 years ago, and is renowned not just for its religious significance and general beauty, but also as the place where Basho, the famous Japanese poet, wrote one of his most famous haiku poems.

Upon arrival at Yamadera, I made the half-hour hike through the temple's steep, mountain-side grounds to the higher levels, from which spectacular views can be had of the adjacent valley and mountains. Vistas aside, I was impressed by the temple's serene atmosphere, and I arrived back at the bottom of the mountain feeling mentally and spiritually revitalized, if physically a little short of breath from the hike.

The Konponchudo Hall, the temple's main hall near the base of the mountain
Looking out from one of the temple's mountain-side observation areas
View of the mountains beyond the temple
The buildings in the temple's upper grounds
Jizo statues feature heavily along the ascent to the upper grounds

The penultimate stop on my journey was Momijigawa Gorge near the Yamagata-Miyagi border; the drive to which took me along a narrow road that climbed through dense forest. Upon arriving and descending into the gorge I was immediately taken with the beauty of the landscape: a pristine natural world of waterfalls, smooth boulders and steep, verdant hill sides, all flanking the crystal-clear river. A crude path takes hikers along the river, but at times traversing the territory can be challenging, making it a place for strong walkers only.

The view after having just descended into the gorge
Various man-made bridges assist explorers in navigating the gorge

The final leg of my journey saw me at Akiutaki Falls back over in Miyagi Prefecture. At 55 meters high and six meters wide, this powerful waterfall is regarded as one of Japan's most beautiful, and visitors are fortunately able to get close to it for some impressive photo opportunities. I made the short hike from the road and took in the falls' majesty. My trip had come to an end, and so exhilarated and inspired by all I'd seen over the past few days, I headed back to the car.

Visitors commonly flock to Akiutaki Falls to take in its majesty
The falls' considerable power is evident

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List of Posts:
2017/07/27 - On the road in Tohoku: Driving through Miyagi and Yamagata
2017/06/22 - Mount Shirane reopens for exploration
2017/05/30 - Exploring Nikko
2017/04/27 - Wisteria Watching at Ashikaga Flower Park
2017/04/24 - Nemophila flowers at Hitachi Seaside Park
2017/02/21 - Tokyo Early Spring Update
2017/02/16 - Renovations start at Kiyomizudera's main hall
2017/02/09 - Crane Watching in Kushiro
2017/02/07 - 2017 Asahikawa Winter Festival
2017/02/06 - 2017 Otaru Snow Light Path Festival
2017/02/06 - 2017 Sapporo Snow Festival
2017/01/16 - Early Blooming in Atami

2016/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2016
2016/09/13 - Walking the Roots of Japan
2016/07/28 - Hakone Update
2016/04/26 - Tonami Tulip Fair 2016
2016/04/19 - Kyoto Railway Museum