Yamagata City: Capital of Yamagata Prefecture

As capital of the prefecture and home to Yamagata’s largest metropolitan population, Yamagata City has no shortage of activities, cuisine, nightlife, and lodging accommodations, as well as a variety of sightseeing and historic points of interest to keep visitors busy. Though it may be the biggest city in the prefecture, a laid-back countryside culture still presides the city streets. While urban farming might sound like a trendy West Coaster thing, here, it’s just a part of life, with small, agricultural plots commingling with apartment blocks and cherry groves plunked down wherever there seems to be a little extra space. And on all sides, striking, misty mountain ranges abound just beyond the edge of the low-rise city. On a clear day one can view nearby Mount Zao, or the massive, snow packed Mount Gassan rising in the northwest. 

Yamagata City has long been a seat of power of the Yamagata Domain in the north, and with that power has come a turbulent history. During the warring period of Japan, the Mogami clan reigned as feudal lords for 275 years from Yamagata Castle, staving off attempts at consolidation from the south. Under Mogami rule, at one point during the Edo period, Yamagata became the fifth largest domain in Japan, its rulers reaping the benefits of a flourishing agricultural industry, with staples such as rice and safflower in high demand across the country.

Today, portions of Yamagata Castle have been beautifully renovated, while much of the castle site continues to be archeologically investigated.  Just a short walk from Yamagata station, the castle grounds have been converted into a large, cherry tree-lined park, Kajo Koen, which is also home to several illuminating history and art museums.

Yamagata City has many more historical and cultural intrigues, from the Meiji Era Renaissance-style Bunshokan, Yamagata’s original prefectural headquarters, to the ancient pottery and artisan crafts village of Hirashimizu. What’s more, the city makes for an ideal hub from which you can explore innumerable enchanting towns, villages, and natural getaways within less than an hour’s drive away including Yamadera Temple.

While quaint in comparison to any of Japan’s megacities, Yamagata may have the biggest concentration of bars, restaurants, and izakaya this side of Sendai. And quite conveniently many can be found in the nightlife district just in front of the station.  You’ll find plenty of opportunities to try some of the region’s tastiest cuisines, from the humble but filling local stew, imoni, to world-famous Yamagata beef. The area is also famous for its sake with some of the best brewed right in town.

Quick Facts:

  • Population: 253,000 (2015)

  • Is the prefecture’s capital and hosts Yamagata’s biggest festival, Hanagasa Matsuri, every August

  • Was headquarters to the fifth largest domain during the Edo Period, but fell to ruin after the death of its feudal leader, Mogami Yoshiaki

  • Produces 70% percent of Japan’s cherries

  • Yamagata Prefectural Museum houses one of the most famous prehistoric Jomon Era dogu (mysterious clay figurines found throughout Tohoku): The Princess of Jomon

Yamagata City from the 24th floor of Kajo Central

Discovering Yamagata

The Museum of Industry next to Yamagata Station.

Ever since the beginning, Yamagata has been a castle town where trade, the arts, and politics are flourished (and sometimes collided). Today, the city retains its political clout as capital of the prefecture, is home to several universities, as well as a variety of industries. It can be rather easy to get lost in the sprawl, but many of its best places are located within a short walk or drive from Yamagata Station, the central hub of the city.

The kanji for Yamagata—literally translates so “Mountain Shape,” and its easy to see how this place got its name. Secluded by mountains and flocked by long, often brutal winters, Yamagata in many ways has developed its own rhythm in the world. Yamagata is the outback of Japan, and the local dialect, with all its glorious country slang is celebrated throughout the country. Yamagata folks are known for being a little reserved, shy even at times, but quick to revel in what’s good in life: namely good food, hot, hot springs, and showing gratitude for the bounty that the natural world brings. Go further with these suggestions and get to know the locals.

See below to learn more about the many areas in Yamagata to explore and activities that you can take part in during your stay.  

Yamadera Temple

Yamadera Temple 

A beautiful temple complex built up against the mountains.  Yamadera is just 20 minutes outside of Yamagata City and makes for a great day excursion.

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Yamagata Station and Around

You’ll find plenty of dining and drinking options in the buzzing nightlife district just in front of the station.

Nanukomachi

Walk down Nanukomachi street, where Yamagata’s past dances with the present, and visit the former prefectural headquarters at the Bunshokan.

Hirashimizu

This hamlet at the edge of Yamagata City is home to a bevy of artisans, from a two-hundred-year-old pottery shop to a super-small batch sake boutique

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Ginzan Onsen

A picture perfect onsen town that is said to have influenced the imagery in Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away.  Located about one hour from Yamagata City, this is also a must visit for those coming in the winter.

Experiences in and around Yamagata City

Experience the culture and beauty of Yamagata on a deeper level through some of the many special experiences that are available here. 

Temples and Shrines

Take a moment to reflect at one of Yamagata City’s many sublime holy places.

Meibutsu Ryouri (Culinary Specialties)

Yamagata is replete with all sorts of foods that are found nowhere else in Japan (unless you happen to be in a Yamagata-themed restaurant). Find out what makes this truly the land of oishimono.

Hot Springs

There’s no better way to mix with the locals than going full monty and appreciating one of Yamgata’s favorite pastimes: a good dip in the onsen.

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The legendary mountains of Yamagata.
Sakata City
The historic port city of Sakata on the coast of Yamagata Prefecture.
Tsuruoka City
The city of Tsuruoka in Yamagata Prefecture.
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