Shonai, Yamagatas Luxurious Little Secret

Tucked in the northwestern pocket of Yamagata Prefecture, Shonai is an enigmatic town. It’s an area full of incredible culture, luxury and beauty, but relatively untraversed by international visitors, making it the perfect ‘secret’ destination for next Japan adventure. 

Shonai’s attractions: An overview

Shonai is a town as historic as Kyoto, with a traditional food culture to rival Tokyo. Winding out of the town centre you’ll find hiking trails as lush as Mt Koya. The rice-rich area boasts an appreciation for sake that’s unparalleled, and in winter nearby skiing opportunities as abundant and far more untouched than Hakuba. 

The best thing about Shonai: It’s still a secret

According to local travel company The Hidden Japan, in 2016 at a time when international tourism was peaking, less than 1% of international tourists travelling to Japan visited the area.  

While it may be a little more remote and enigmatic than other pockets of the nation, it’s authentic. Although there’s not a lot of English-friendly information available on area, for those willing to try something new, you’ll be generously rewarded with the change to immerse yourself in a Japan very few other guests experience.

Culinary highlights:

Chat with the locals of Shonai, and you’ll realise one of the area’s most exciting features is the affordability of the area’s incredible food. From shojin ryori (multi-course vegetarian dishes typically created for monks) to freshly caught seafood, if you like to eat, you’ll love Shonai. Here, locals claim you can expect a high-end sushi meal to set you back about 2,000 yen, which is far more affordable than the major cities. 

The Shonai food scene is all about the little details, though. One great example is Honcho, a local pickle factory that’s been running for over a century. It’s well worth a visit if you’re serious about snacking, as the store next to the factory is filled to the brim with sour and salty delights. 

Hanabusa Soy Sauce Factory is another snack centric destination for chefs of all levels. Founded in 1823, the factory produces soy sauce, miso-based treats like warm, hearty soups and fresh vegetables covered in sweet and salty miso paste.

Looking out onto the Sea of Japan Kamo Aquarium is your last unlikely culinary destination. Sure, this is also an aquarium, and the idea of eating fish at an aquarium does seem a little barbaric, but this particular marine wonderland focusses on jellyfish. The hypnotic LED-illuminated displays of alien-like jellyfish blobs floating through the black water make for some incredible displays. Also, in the lobby, you can buy jellyfish ice cream and jellyfish ramen, but if that’s not to your taste, there’s an excellent sushi restaurant attached to the facility too.

The sake scene:

Yamagata, the region in which Shonai is located is home to some of the best rice in Japan, which by default means that they brew some rather incredible sake here too. Takenotsuyu is a Gold Medal award-winning sake brewer with a factory in Yamagata. Open to the public there’s limited English, but if you sign up for a tour, you can see all the brewing in action and sample some of the best batches.

Seeking spiritual enlightenment

Shonai region is one of the nation’s most diverse religious centres. It’s the heart of Shugendo, an amalgamation of Japan’s two major religions, Shinto and Buddhism, as well as animism (the belief that everything has a spiritual essence) and shamanism.

The area’s primary spiritual focus is mountain asceticism, a dedication to the spiritual powers of the mountains and the belief that it’s here departed souls and the gods reside. There are several temples and shrines very much open to the public and worth exploring, however, for the purpose of keeping it concise, these are the key three:

Zempoji Temple: With its colourful Buddha statues and towering pagoda, this mystical temple has plenty to admire from the outside, but inside is where the magic happens. Every day a collective of local monks hold a pray session where in unison they pour open the pages of ancient scripts to ‘fill the air with the wisdom of the books’ it’s a mesmerising display of meditative synchronicity.

Gyokusenji Temple: This foliage flanked temple sits at the base of the Dewa Sanzan, one of Japan’s most majestic mountain peaks. Although the surrounding area is stunning, the temple’s garden, filled with seasonal flowers, is its most boast-worthy feature. It’s been designated as a national cultural heritage site of scenic beauty.

Dewa Sanzan: Technically a collection of three shrines, Gassan, Ideha, and Yudono Shrine, Dewa Sanzan aka the three mountains of Dewa are three of the most sacred mountains in Japan. Dewa Sanzan is the centrepiece of Shugendo, Japan’s mountain worship, and where since the beginning of time, monks have endured backbreaking feats endurance to transcend the physical world.

Where to stay in Shonai

To enjoy Shonai in authentic Japanese style, Yunohama Onsen Kameya is where you have to stay. Situated on the coast, this traditional ryokan inn offers panoramic views of the coastline, where the sun sets over the sea. The hotel was founded in 1813, and you can feel the history practically permeating through the immaculately maintained tatami mats and thick onsen bath steam.

How to reach and travel around Shonai:

The best way to get there is by aeroplane because there’s no bullet train link to the area. By train, the journey from Tokyo will take five or so hours, and it’s often more expensive than flying too. Once you get there though there’s enough to keep you occupied for a handful of days. If you have an international driver’s licence, your opportunity for exploration will benefit exponentially.