The Tsuruoka area of Japan’s Yamagata Prefecture is filled with intense natural beauty. This is nothing like crowded Tokyo, this is a land of snow-capped peaks, curvy mountain roads and giant pine trees. It’s the oldest area of mountain worship in Japan, temples were first built here over 1,400 years ago. The Saikan Shinto shrine is high in the mountains, located atop Mount Haguro, one of the three sacred Mountains of Dewa. The temple offers overnight stays to visitors, along with a range of mountain activities. We hiked (led by a mountain priest) through the snowy mountains to visit the area’s famous five-story pagoda. Before the hike, we learned how to wear the sacred headwrap and rope necklace worn by the priests.
The overnight stay was in traditional, ricepaper-walled accommodations. Basically a small room, with sliding rice-paper panels on three sides. To sleep on, there was a pile of mats and a very comfortable buckwheat-filled pillow. The room had a small TV and a single hanger. There was also a kerosene heater which became a necessity as the night wore on and the temperatures dropped. There were communal toilet rooms and a large communal bath (hot tub). They did not have showers, they had traditional washing stations. This was a low stool, a bucket and a wall-mounted sink with a shower wand. They also had pump-dispenser bottles of soap and shampoo. You sit on the stool and wash yourself and soap yourself up, then you hose yourself off and also use the bucket to dump water over your head. There is hot and cold water, so once you get used to the procedure, it’s kind of cool. There was also a large very hot, tiled hot tub.
Aside from the stay, we had an amazing, multi-course, all-vegetarian tasting dinner, hosted by the temple’s chef. The sacred vegetarian meal was complemented by copious amounts of local beer and sake, turning in into a big party after a few hours.
To get to Tsuruoka, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo north to Ichinoseki. We explored that city and area for a day and the next day headed to Tsuruoka by car. The drive through the Japanese countryside was wonderful. I flew to Japan from LA in the foodie-friendly Business Class cabin of Cathay Pacific, via their hub in Hong Kong.