For those who take the time to explore Japan’s sacred mountains, rural Tsuruoka offers some amazing cultural & gastronomic experiences to try…
Tucked away in the Yamagata Prefecture, Tsuruoka is a small rural city defined by its sacred mountains and long-standing cultural traditions. Thanks to its uniquely uncomplicated food culture, it’s the only city in Japan to achieve a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy designation. It’s a quiet, calm and uniquely mysterious spot with the chance to see rural Japan at its best…
Tsuruoka is home to three of Japan’s most sacred mountains – Mount Gassan, Mount Haguro and Mount Yudono (respectively representing the past, present and future) - and a Japan Heritage Site collectively referred to as Dewa Sanzan. Mount Haguro is perhaps the most well-known thanks to its five-story pagoda and the Yamabushi monks who gather at the end of each season, conk shells trumpeting throughout the cedar groves, to pay their respects to the power and beauty of nature.
In a similar celebration of nature, locals take basic, natural ingredients and transform them into something special. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the collection of colourful dishes that form shojin-ryori (the traditional meal of the monks) that Tsuruoka has become famed for.
This dish was once strictly vegetarian (think bamboo sprouts in miso, sesame tofu topped with dainty lily bulbs, and mountain vegetables dried in the sun) but the Meiji era of the 1800s saw Dewa Sanzan follow the path of Shinto under the pression of the government. Shintoism encouraged natural elements to become one with the body; so, meat and fish were gradually added to the selection of dishes.
Today of course, Mt. Haguro is the core of Dewa Sanzan's Shugendo practice (a mix of Buddhism and Shinto beliefs) but you can sample a taste of this much influenced and historically unique shojin-ryori cuisine at Saikan’s Pilgrim Lodge (3,500 yen; £23), which sits at the top of Mount Haguro. You'll understand why Tsuruoka won the culinary UNESCO designation when you taste it, but if the 40-minute hike up the 2,446 stone steps to the top seems a bit out of reach, don’t worry, you can also find shojin-ryori served in 12 other pilgrim lodges at the foot of Mount Haguro too.
Time your visit for the end of the year and you can experience something special. From late December through to mid-March, Tsuruoka is covered with snow; this brings moisture to the soil and, paired with the intense sunlight of summer, creates optimal humidity for some of the best rice in Japan. Locals see this rice as a divine gift, and so use it as a main ingredient to the food and drink at festivals. On 31 December, one of the largest celebrations takes place on snowy Mount Haguro, where toasted onigiri (seasoned rice balls) and hot local saké flows freely, to warm the bodies – and more figuratively the hearts – of participants, ‘purifying them’ for the year ahead.
Atsumi Onsen is a hot spring village with more than 50 onsen establishments and is just a 40-minute drive away from Tsuruoka Station. With a history that dates back to more than 1,300 years old, Atsumi literally means ‘hot sea’ due to the naturally heated waters that flow from the Atsumi river and into the ocean.
Atsumi is also the place where Tsuruoka’s famous Atsumi-kabu (red turnip) has been cultivated for more than five centuries. Even today, farmers still use the yakihata (slash & burn) method to regenerate the soil on the steep slopes without using chemicals and despite being a somewhat dangerous process, farmers use this method to ensure the traditions of their ancestors live on. Atsumi’s turnip is usually eaten daily as a pickled side dish.
Every year during the winter, Atsumi hot spring’s village organises the Atsumi Shun Gozen Festival, which sees every hot spring ryokan (inn) in Atsumi Onsen serve up a special lunch and dinner with local ingredients, seasonal fish and shellfish. Generally, onsen make for a relaxing and uniquely cultural experience on your trip to Japan and if you stay overnight, the food served is of a very high quality with a delicious melody of seafood in store. In addition to Atsumi, Tsuruoka has 3 other main onsen sites:
Yunohama Onsen the biggest sea resort in Yamagata Prefecture, ideally located near the Zenpoji Temple and 10 minute ride from Tsuruoka station.
Yura Onsen which offers grand sunset views scattered through the Hakusanjima islet, and ranked as one of the 100 most beautiful sunset spots in Japan.
Yutagawa Onsen known for its 300-strong plum tree forest and blossom season in early April.
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