Japan is filled with some amazing food travel experiences. While many people are familiar with popular Japanese foods like sushi, ramen or wagyu, there is also a wonderful range of vegetarian and vegan options. It’s popular to visit Japan and do an overnight stay in Buddhist or Shinto temples around the country and many include a special “shojin ryori” vegetarian menu as part of the experience.
Tsuruoka is a mountain region in the prefecture of Yamagata, in the center of the country. The area is home to Mount Haguro and the other sacred mountains of what’s called the Dewa Sanzan. High atop Mount Haguro you can find the Saikan shinto temple. The temple complex is home to the yamabushi or mountain monks.
You can take trains from Tokyo to Tsuruoka or fly into Sendai, which is about two hours away by car. I went there with a group from the city of Ichinoseki in Iwate prefecture which I visited after arriving in Tokyo. I took the train from Tokyo to Ichinoseki, which took about four hours.
Saikan Dewasanzan Temple
Saikan temple is open to the public for temple stays. You can stay overnight and experience the life of the yamabushi. One of the highlights of the experience is enjoying a traditional vegetarian temple meal, as eaten by the monks. The traditional Buddhist vegetarian temple cuisine is called shojin ryori and it’s made up of only local, mountain vegetables. The vegetables are served various ways: fresh, cooked and also preserved by various methods. Read more and see another video about my temple stay here.
Our dinner was hosted by one of the yamabushi (mountain monks) as well the temple’s chef. He has traveled around the world to various food expos to promote the unique temple cuisine. The food was joined with liberal amounts of locally brewed sake and beer, enjoyed via the Japanese custom of repeatedly pouring refills for your guests.
You can see the details about each individual item in the video, I show close-ups of the food and the chef describes each thing in detail, along with the philosophy behind temple cuisine.
My trip was part of a Japanese government tourism initiative called Savor Japan, designed to highlight certain rural regions of the country known for their special food or food products but not normally on the international tourism itinerary. Tsuruoka is one of those regions. During this trip I also visited Ichinoseki and Tokachi on the island of Hokkaido in search of unique food and food products.