If you already explored the touristic destinations of Japan and you’re looking for something more authentic, visit Sakata. I am still surprised why I never heard this name before, as it’s really a place to see. The city itself may not surprise you at the first sight, as it really looks like a living port city, too industrial. However, if you like Japanese history, you can learn a lot during your visit.
Sakata is located in Yamagata prefecture, near the Sea of Japan, and no matter how you arrive, one thing is impossible to be missed: the surrounding rice fields.
About 350 years ago, during the Edo period, Zuiken Kawamura developed the westbound sea-lane to support the regional water transportation. This action transformed Sakata from a rustic area along the coast, into a prosperous and bustling city port. The route was meant to connect Osaka, Hokkaido and Tokyo, to transport goods to the capital. Goods like rice, safflower and soybeans were carried by boats down the Mogami river to the sea and then shipped further to Osaka and Tokyo by Kitamaebune ships. On their way back, the ships were bringing other products. Cotton from Kyoto and Ise, timber from Akita, seafood from Ezo, iron from Izumo and salt were the regular trade. It was a very profitable period for the merchants and some of them built enormous fortunes, including Homma and Abumiya families.
The results of trading didn’t make Sakata only a prosperous town, but it helped develop an unique culture. Weren’t just a variety of products exchanged, but also dialects and cultures from around the country. Therefore, you will be able to see influences from Kyoto and Osaka, including geisha! And if I raised your interest, let’s see what can you do during your visit in Sakata.
Sankyo Rice Storehouse
In 1893, warehouses were built on Sankyo Island, wedged between Monami river and Niida river, as a convenient place for loading cargo on the boats. Their architecture is unique. A double roof to diffuse the heat of the bales while also deterring conductive heat radiated from the roof. A line of Japanese zelkova trees was placed on one side to protect the building from the sun and strong winds. These trees are a symbol of the city and Sakata’s landmark.
From a total of twelve, nine warehouses are still in use today. From the remaining three, one was converted into the Shonai rice museum and two are used as a souvenir shop, better known as Sakata Yume no Kura. Inside the shop there is food, drinks, furniture, accessories, small gifts and even a small museum. This is the best place in town for souvenirs and local food. It is open daily from 9am-5/6pm (summer/winter time).
Shonai Rice History Museum
The rice museum is located inside the Sankyo Storehouse (Sankyo Soko) and it’s a great way to learn about the Shonai rice. A rice inspection scene was created to show how the rice used to be inspected and graded from 1 to 5 based on the standard rice sample law of the time. The rice tickets on display prove their credibility and power for being converted into money. A few rooms were created to show how the life in a farmhouse used to be, with many tools on display.
In the past, women could lift massive weights and some people could even carry 300kg of rice on their shoulders. You can try lifting 30kg or 60kg for fun! You can also see and touch different types of rice to better understand their differences. At the end, you can spend another half an hour watching some videos – unfortunately, all in Japanese.
Overall, this experience costs 300¥ and requires about one hour The place is open from 9am till 4:30/5pm and it’s definitely a must for any visit to Sakata.
The history of the place
Somaro is a maiko teahouse and a museum, dating back to over 200 years. The trades with Kyoto brought not only goods, but also the geisha culture. This helped form Soma-ya, the finest restaurant in the area. Thanks to its excellent cuisine and sophisticated style, over 150 maiko and geisha moved here. It was known as a premier spot for merchants and government officials, and because it was a private establishment you could enter only with an invitation.
Unfortunately, the 1895 Shonai Earthquake destroyed Soma-ya excepting a white storehouse. Following the second world war, the restaurant started to decline and it finally close in 1995. It has been restored and reopened in 2000 with the name of Somaro.
Reasons to visit
Today, there are two reasons you should visit the place. The first one is to watch a maiko show. There are normally two shows per day, at 12pm and 2pm, (around 15 minutes each). Book in advance to secure a place, especially during the holiday seasons. The second reason is to visit the house itself, which also hosts the Takehisa Yumeji Art Museum. The place is truly beautiful and is definitely proving its past fame. It only takes about 30 minutes to see it all.
The entry ticket for both, show and museum, costs 1800¥. If you don’t have socks and you are barefoot you’ll also have to purchase a pair for 110¥ (they won’t let you enter other way). If you’d like to extend your visit, stop for a coffee or tea. The green tea is delicious and it comes with biscuits for 600¥. The order is brought by a maiko, which makes the experience even more special. The opening hours are 10am to 5pm, closed on Wednesday. They also have a nice souvenir shop inside, so don’t miss it!
Sakata Aioi Kudo Museum
Built in 1928, this traditional townhouse opened as a private museum in 2006. On display, there are items from Sakata artists, condensed into 3 small rooms. The entry ticket costs 500¥ and is quite pricy for what it has to offer. If you want to check every small item, it can take up to 20 minutes. If not, 10 minutes can be enough. I personally had a great experience, as the owner invited me for a cup of tea and biscuits. He was very kind and 50 years wiser than myself. However, not a place I would recommend for a first visit to Sakata.
Jo-huku Temple and Kara Gate
The third generation head of the Honma family donated this gate to the Jo-huku temple in 1800. It is made by zelkova wood and it has withstood many earthquakes, making it an important cultural property of the city. If you’re not passionate about architecture you can skip this place, especially as the temple is close for renovation. Not a must for a visit in Sakata.
We all heard about Egyptian mummies, but does anybody heard about Sokushinbutsu, the mummies of the mountain ascetics? The term mummy usually refers to a corpse that remains intact after death. These are mummified by humans and are dependent upon the conditions that led to dehydration of their tissue and are normally in supine positions. On the other hand, the Sokushinbutsu are flesh-icons, Buddhas in their real bodies. Comparing to the Egyptian mummies, they are sitting in the lotus position and achieved this level of mummification during life. Today, the process is forbidden, but there are 16 sokushinbutsu that can be seen across Japan.
Kaikoji temple belongs to the Shingon School of Japanese Buddhism and it’s the only place where two Sokushinbutsu are placed one near the other. During the Edo period, these two ascetics, Venerable Chukai and Venerable Enmyokai, were abbots of this temple. They belonged to a peculiar group of austere ascetics whose religious devotion and practices were centered on Mount Yudono. When they turned 50 years old, they had to think if the next step is to retire, after passing the title of abbot to one of the disciples, or to practice ascesis. And they decided the last one.
Mount Yudono was known as a sacred mountain, about which one “should not speak or inquire”. Is a mountain that cannot be described using spoken or written language, but which must be experienced through spirit, air and energy, the way that are perceived by out body.
In order to preserve their bodies, the ascetics followed a very special diet. This started with excluding from 5 to 10 types of grain from their diet like rice, wheat, soy, beans, millet, barnyard millet. This helps the body to starve and make it as close as possible to a statue, of nothing but flesh and bones. In order to sustain their bodies, they had to look for alternatives of nourishment like walnuts, Asian hazel, fruits of the nutmeg tree, buckwheat mash. This type of diet is known as the green-eating ordeal. The Venerables kept this diet for 5 and 8 years.
When they were reaching their biological limits, during the final stage of the retreat, they were ready to achieve their enlightenment and enter into the stage of the “suspended animation under the ground”. Their disciples and followers were digging a hole of 3 meters in depth, to build an underground cell inside the hole. The ascetic would enter into the cell and remain there, in the lotus position while fasting, reciting sacred scriptures and ringing a bell. Only a bamboo pole protruding from the cell provided air from the outside.
When the bell stop ringing, the disciples were removing the bamboo stick, open the cell and the check the posture of the body. Then they would reseal the cell and leave the corpse there for another 1000 days. At the end of the process, the body looked exactly as the ones in Kakoji temple today. All this, to pray for people salvation.
The entrance for the Sokushinbutsu costs 500¥ and it consists in one small room which doesn’t take more than 10 minutes to see. Don’t forget to take a souvenir stamp for an extra 500¥.
Located on an artificial hill, this park was created to offer an elevated spot for the shipping agents overlooking the merchants ships. Its name Hiyoriyama is composed from two words, hiyori – good weather and yama – hill. The is park is especially beautiful during sunset and it’s considered one of the 100 scenic spots of Japan. To see it all you need about 30 minutes. Don’t miss the oldest stone compass, the oldest wooden lighthouse in Japan and the half-sized replica of the kitamae cargo ship.
Behind the Kaiko temple there is an extension of the Hiroyama park with several temples and shrines. While there is nothing to take your breath away, it is a good place to hide from the summer heat. The view from up offers beautiful sights over the port but also over the city.
Sakata city museum
Called also Sakata Municipal Archives Center, this small museum exhibits articles and documents from the kitamae shipping trade in the Edo period, traditional and folk handicrafts and photographs from the destructive Sakata fire in 1978. The entry ticket costs 200¥ and gives access to two floors of exhibits. For non-Japanese speakers 30 minutes are enough, as there is no English translation.
Mitsuoka Homma, the 3rd generation of the Homma family started a business transporting cargo by Sengoku ships. He also devoted himself to the business of the reclamation and supply of the water for promoting local agriculture, and the planting of erosion control forest for reduction of wind damage. He was greatly trusted by the lord of the Shonai domain and consulted about the economy of the domain, supporting the development of the community. Since then, the Homma family are continuing their job as merchants and landowners in Sakata until today.
The historical Homma residence was constructed in 1768 by the same Mitsuoka Homma, as the residence for traveling inspectors from the shogunate. It was later given to the Homma family by the Sakai clan. What makes this house unique in Japan is the fact that combines two different architectural styles, from the samurai and the merchant house. – Look for the QR codes to get English explanations. –
Homma family lived here until 1945. It served as a civic center and from 1982 it was been open to the public as a historical site. The house is big and it has a beautiful garden to be admired. Allocate about one hour for the visit. If you’d like to extend your visit to the Homma Art Museum, purchase a combo ticket for 1600¥ to save some money.
Homma Art Museum
As dockworkers lost their job during the wintertime, the head of the forth generation of Homma family, made a plan to construct and maintain the garden as a measure against unemployment. Seienkaku was mainly used as the villa of the Homma family. Sometimes, it also served as a lodging house when the feudal lord came to inspect the territory. After the Edo period, it was used as a guesthouse for the imperial family, royalty and government officials until 1945. The museum was built in 1968 as one of the first private museums in Japan.
Somehow, when you look for Sakata’s points of interest, Homma Art Museum is coming first on the list. I would rather challenge this, as the museum is not much of an interest. There is only one big room downstairs and a smaller on upstairs, so 30 minutes are more than enough. Not to mention that the 1000¥ entry ticket is absurd. Do yourself a favor and skip this museum if you’re not really interested in the temporary exhibition.
However, what you shouldn’t miss is the free visit around the Kakubuen garden and the villa (seienkaku). On clear days you can even see Mount Chokai in the far away.
During the prosperous time of Sakata, many Japanese-style restaurants and geisha houses opened to entertain guests with food, sake and geisha. Unfortunately, in 1894, a numerous number of these houses burned down during the great earthquake that hit the area. After the disaster, at the request of wealthy merchants who needed a place to welcome guests and discuss business, a high-class restaurant called Uhachi-ro has been built. The restaurant opened in 1895 and continued doing business until 1941. During the second world war the place was forced to close and the building was used as a dormitory of the Tekkosha Company, which has a factory that produced ferroalloy.
The restaurant reopened soon after the war with the name of Sanno Club, run by a new owner for more than 50 years. In 1999 the restaurant closed again and it was registered as a national tangible cultural property in 2003. Two years later, the building was donated to the city of Sakata and reopened as a tourist landmark in 2008.
Reasons to visit
My experience in this place was absolutely stunning. I spent 2 hours and I had my own private tour. The main reason you should visit this place is for its huge collection of kasafuku, which are decorative objects that brings good fortune (kasa means umbrella, fuku means good fortune). In the past, kasafuku were originally regarded as yorishiro, which were divine objects in which a spirit resides. In old time women made them while saying a prayer with each stitch while dedicating them to the shrine or temple to make wishes. People believed that the ornaments and prayers would draw the attention of the divine spirits that would actually take residence in the kasafuku. Therefore, becoming divine and an object to worship. Today, the kasafuku are given as gifts to celebrate weddings, births or displayed as ornaments.
If you stop by the souvenir shop you will have the chance to purchase some made by the local people. During your visit you may even see them making the decorations. The handmade ones are a bit more expensive and the price varies on the complexity of the model. At the end of the visit, I even received tea and cookies, which made my feel like an honored guest. The entry fee of 800¥ it was definitely worth in. It is one of the best places to visit in Sakata, so plan your visit accordingly (open between 9am – 4.30pm/5pm).
Not an experience for everyone, but if you’d like to see how the daily life is in Sakata, stop by the port early morning. Sakata wholesale fish market is open from 5am till noon, selling fish, fresh fruits and vegetables. If you’d like to rather enjoy a good fresh meal, stop by Sakata Kaisen Ichiba. At the second floor there is a restaurant with a great view over the port that services fresh delicious seafood.
Drink & Food
There are several places I tried in Sakata and I would definitely recommend. Kidosen is 3 minutes away from the train station and offers breakfast for only 500¥ starting with 7am – a rare thing as many of the places open around 10am. They also have a hotel above which is the cheapest from the entire city (2800¥ per night) – I had a great time hear.
Sazanka is a cafeteria 5 minutes away from the Homma residence which looks like a museum inside. The tables have items displayed under a thin layer of glass, so it’s like having a coffee while admiring pieces of art. The owner is also a very sweet man. He showed me a huge musical box he collected from Germany. He even play it for me! At the end, I even received a free portion of melon – which I much appreciated as every piece of fruit costs a fortune in Japan. Their hospitality is definitely a ten out of ten.
Cafe Enbliss in the city center offers great drinks and ice-cream which you shouldn’t miss. The stuff is very nice, they even asked to take me some pictures and even offered me a fruit sandwich I never in my life received so many free gifts as in Sakata. I beat the record with 4 in a day!
Apart from the attractions concentrated around the city center, there are a few more nearby. In the Kawaminami district there is the Domon Ken museum of photography, Sakata Museum of Art, Dewa Yushin-kan (free of charge) and Kura-tanbo kan (the sake museum). And if you want to explore even more, a day trip to Tobishima island is a great option.
Juroko Rakan Iwa
Only 30 minutes by train, North of Sakata, stand 22 faces of Buddhist figures carved into the rocks. Priest Kankai of the Fukura Kaizenji Temple proposed to create them about 150 years ago, in order to mourn the lost fisherman and sailors, and to pray for the safety of those on the sea.
If you want to see all 22 you have to come well prepared, with some good hiking boots and start climbing around. If you’ll succeed finding them all, this will bring you some extra luck. Unfortunately I could find only 21 out of 22 after a lot of effort, climbing on some narrow and dangerous paths.
Today, this place is one of the best to admire the sunset over the Sea of Japan. During the summer nights the statues are even illuminated for an extra touch. Make yourself a favor and don’t miss this at your next visit to Sakata!
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