If you’re coming to Yamagata for the International Documentary Film Festival, to go skiing in winter, or cherry picking in early summer, most highlights of the city itself are within a 15-30 minute walking distance of Yamagata Station. If your energy runs low, the “Beni-chan” community bus runs a loop through downtown every 15 minutes for just 100 yen (7:30 am to 7 pm). It starts at this bus stop on the east side of the station.
The Beni-chan community bus in Yamagata: make sure the front of the bus says 中心市街 (downtown) as you get on.You can also follow the Beni-chan loop for a walking tour. First up: 十日町紅の蔵 (toukamachi-beninokura), the third stop from the station. When you exit the bus, look across the street to find beni no kura, the historic storehouses for safflower (beni), one of the prefecture’s main agriculture exports of days gone by. Used to color lipstick and dye the silk for royal kimonos, safflower once supported a thriving trade between Yamagata and Kyoto.
The complex of classic kuras is still in excellent condition and now houses a soba restaurant, a center for tourist information, and a gift shop of local specialty products.
Not the least of these is the famed homegrown sake, known throughout the country because of the quality of two key local ingredients: water and rice. A selection is on sample in a rotating display case that is reportedly the only one of its kind in the northeast! At 100 yen per sample, this taste testing experience is a great deal for sake aficionados and the curious alike.
Walk out the back exit of the kura complex and cross the street to find the local JA (Japan Agriculture Cooperatives) outlet. Prepare your nose and your taste buds for a treat! Yamagata is known as the “kingdom of fruit” for good reason. No matter the season, here you will find fresh and preserved fruits of every type as well as untold and sometimes un-named unique mountain vegetables. Sweets (including Yamagata gelato!), pickles, and other homemade condiments and goodies are also available. You’ll see locals lining up to have their monthly rice supply freshly milled or packages of fruits sent to relatives. It is the perfect place to observe a market atmosphere bustling with local products and conversation.
Head back to the main street to walk through the commercial district (or get back on the bus). For three nights during the first week of August this street is packed with 10,000 dancers for the Hana Gasa festival. You will also pass Yamagata’s Citizens’ Hall, one of the venues of the film festival.
Make your way to gotenzeki, a collection of shops in a gorgeous old wooden building bounded by a picturesque canal (marked by E on the map below). Here you can try one of Yamagata’s best soba restaurants, Shoujiya.
Gotenzeki in Yamagata
Yamagata community bus: the downtown loop is marked in redThe bus will turn west before “Main Street” ends in a T section at the impressive bunshoukan (D on the map). Once housing the prefectural government, this imposing stone building is a rare example of European-style architecture from the Meiji period. Walk over to get an up-close look; entrance is free and a lovely coffee shop is located inside.
Bunshoukan in YamagataMake sure to stop by and visit Princess, a favorite bakery among locals, across the street from the bunshoukan. The smell of fresh baked bread will instantly warm you up, as will the friendly smiles of the proprietors of this family-run business. Ready-made sandwiches and a wide variety of salty and sweet goods can be taken out or eaten at the lunch counter with fresh coffee.
After taking in the agricultural market and commercial district, follow the western half of the loop to the museum area. If you’re taking the bus, get off at the 霞城公園前(kajokoenmae) stop and walk back to the museum, #10 on the map (500 yen entrance fee, closed on Mondays). Despite Yamagata’s small town feel, you will be astonished to find multiple paintings by luminaries such as Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso. Over ten works by Marc Chagall allow you to enter his fanciful world of flying animals and cosmic flowers. The significant collection of art is a real treasure of the northeast, and the setting allows you to take your time enjoying each piece without the pressure of crowds. The art museum is also a venue in the film festival.
Art museum of YamagataAdjacent to the art museum is the Mogami Yoshiaki “history building” dedicated to the last great king of Yamagata, #2 on the map (entrance is free). The intricately carved wooden life-size statues of the royal leader and his daughter alone are worth a quick visit.
From the art museum, cross over the moat to enter Kajo Park, which is open to the public and free (A on the map). Enjoy views of Mogami’s castle as you stroll the open grounds.
Tucked away on the east side of the park is the city’s old hospital, one of the few wooden buildings that survived the great fires of 1894 and 1911. Its clapboard exterior and unique round shape are rare remaining examples of how Japanese architects, in copying what they believed to be European styles, created a design specific to the era. The building is now the local history museum; admission is free. As you wander through the old patient rooms filled with medical instruments and photos, the walls whisper of tragedies and recoveries from the past.
Old hospital of YamagataHead back to the main street to hop back on the bus or walk up to the すずらん街 (suzurankai) stop. You can’t miss the sushi restaurant by the same name just before the bus stop—it’s plastered with bright yellow advertisements and a colorful mural of a fish tank. It is no wonder that this place is a favorite among locals, as the lunch special provides huge amounts of fresh sushi at bargain prices. It’s also popular as a drinking spot in the evening.
Suzuran sushi restaurantFrom here you can easily walk back to the station. If you want to watch some anime or a subtitled Hollywood flick, the local movie theater and film festival venue, Forum, is just around the corner (one block east on the parallel street).