Getting to Yamagata
The fact that Yamagata Prefecture is a little hard to reach is bit of a double-edged sword.
It’s a blessing because the quality of traveller is much higher; only people who truly want to visit do, so you don’t see anything near the massive crowds in Kyoto and Tokyo, and the people who come here come more for the experience rather than to simply see the sights and move on.
At the same time though, travel here is limited to few options that can be difficult to understand if you cannot read Japanese. Read on to see these options which we have translated and gathered in this article.
First and foremost, it must be pointed out that Yamagata Prefecture is divided into two distinct regions divided by a massive mountain range. These regions are the Yamagata Region and Shonai Region.
These regions each have entirely different routes from Tokyo which we will go into detail below.
Accessing the Yamagata Area
Inland Yamagata by bullet train:
Make sure you get on the right carriage in Tokyo, or you’ll have to change trains halfway through your trip! Trains on the Yamagata Shinkansen (Bullet train) line are called Tsubasa つばさ, and are coupled to the Yamabiko Shinkansen until Fukushima. Get on any carriage numbered higher than 11, as carriages 1 through 10 are dedicated to the Yamabiko service.
A timetable can be found here.
This region is covered by both the JR pass and the JR east pass. Not all trains stop at all stations once in Yamagata, so you may need to transfer.
Inland Yamagata by Plane:
There are services from Tokyo daily flying to Yamagata Airport.
Inland Yamagata by Bus:
There are a number of night bus services from Yamagata to Tokyo, usually the cheapest is Willer Express but other services from Shonai (Sakata or Tsuruoka) are also available.
Until Fukushima, the stations are the same as the Tohoku Shinkansen (timetable), and from there the line runs through most of inland Yamagata; from Yonezawa in the south, through Yamagata and Tendo cities, all the way up to Oishida and Shinjo in the north. It takes about 3½ hours from Tokyo to Shinjo, and there are normally 16 services operated daily.
Accessing the Shonai Region
Access to the Shonai Region can vary in difficulty depending on how far in advance you can book your trip or the amount of money and time you have to spend; the flight from Tokyo Haneda to Oishi-Shonai airport is the second shortest flight out of Tokyo Haneda, and can cost upwards of ¥20,000 one-way or as low as ¥10,000 for a round trip ticket. Further, a night bus from Tokyo can be cheaper than ¥5,000 if you book further enough in advance.
Shonai by train.
For those with a bit more time, we highly recommend using the JR pass to take the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo. There are two main routes that take about the same time, both are as scenic as each other. This route offers the most direct access to Tsuruoka City and Sakata City.
Route One via Niigata.
Surprisingly the easiest way to Shonai in Yamagata Prefecture is not by Yamagata Shinkansen; traveling via Niigata on the Joetsu Shinkansen is oftentimes more convenient, plus it has the added benefit of passing through the Japanese Alps, and by the Sea of Japan.
If you time it right and grab the express, the trip from Tokyo to Niigata takes roughly 2 hours. Due to the balance between price and time-savings the Shinkansen route is very popular among Japanese people. Peak times are Friday and Sunday evenings, and Saturday and Monday mornings; public holidays can be especially bad too, so if you have the time it might be wise to travel at less popular times. Reserved tickets can be booked in advance, and at an extra 550 yen* they are a viable option.
Once you transfer to the Inaho Express train in Niigata be sure to sit on the left-hand-side if traveling north, and vice-versa if traveling south to take in the best of the views of the Sea of Japan!
Route Two via Shinjo
This route is for those who are coming to Shonai from Yamagata City or Mt. Zao.
First, get yourself to Shinjo Station on the Yamagata Shinkansen which was explained earlier in this article. Then, take the train west to Amarume Station where you will have access to Inaho Express train or commuter trains with which you can travel down the Shonai Region.
We primarily recommend this route to JR Pass holders wishing to visit the Shonai Region from the Yamagata Region.
Getting to Shonai from inland Yamagata is relatively easy by car, bus, or train (in that order), but when you’re coming from Tokyo, often times it’s easier to travel via Niigata on the Joetsu Shinkansen.
Shonai by plane
Oishi-Shonai Airport has four return flights a day to Tokyo Haneda airport. Tokyo Haneda airport is easily accessible from the centre of Tokyo, taking less than one hour. Shonai airport is located on the border of Sakata and Tsuruoka Cities, and the city centre of each city can be reached by car or taxi within 30 minutes. Mikawa Town and Shonai Town are also nearby.
The flights usually take less than one hour, and if the weather is good you can get excellent views over the sea of Japan, Mt. Chokai, Dewa Sanzan, and on good days you can even see Mt. Fuji, not to mention the Tokyo bay and cityscape.
The Joetsu Shinkansen is also very easy to spot in Tokyo Station as it is the only double-decker shinkansen in Japan!
Perfect for sitting and looking out at the mountains and small towns during your ride.
The Joetsu Shinkansen ends at Niigata Station where you will transfer to the Inaho Express train.
See available rental car options here