• Nagai Kurojishi Festival

    Nagai Kurojishi Festival

    The Nagai Kurojishi Festival


    Nagai Kurojishi

    It’s mid-May in Nagai City. White azaleas swirl like snow in the wind, carrying with them the sound of wooden flutes and drums in the distance.


    The sound marks the commencement of a tradition passed down over 1000 years; kurojishi. The mythical black lion dragons begin to dance simultaneously at over a dozen shrines within Nagai city, snaking through the streets like a raging river, before congregating at the White Azalea Park to complete their mystical ceremony signaling the start of the Kurojishi festival.

    What is a Kurojishi?

    Nagai Kurojishi

    Each shishi – lion  has a different face, carved with expert care by local artisans, all sharing the same wild hair and angry, bulging eyes. They gnash their teeth as they wind through the city – but this sight is nothing to be frightened of. In fact, Nagai citizens and visitors alike gather in the hundreds to take part in the annual ritual. Groups eagerly wait for their turn to bow under the clashing jaws of the shishi, offering their respects and prayers for prosperity. 


    Although lion dances are commonly seen in East Asia, the Nagai Kurojishi Festival is unique – while most lion dances are performed by one or two dancers, the kurojishi dance is performed by more than a dozen dancers beneath a large black curtain painted with white waves. The kurojishi’s monstrous carved head may look like a lion, but it actually represents a giant snake or dragon, meant to symbolize the spirit of the local rivers. 


    The white hair flowing from the beard and nose of the shishi comes from yaks in Tibet and other high altitude areas. The chief priest of each shrine wields a hossu – a short staff with hair bundled at the end meant to exorcize evil spirits – made of the same yak hair, and the shishi weaves along with the hossu’s movements. The chief priest leads the the shishi from house to house, sometimes stopping to fight with the wild spirit, and directing it to give blessings to the people by snapping its jaws over their bowed heads. 


    To fully understand this ancient festival, one has to dive into the centuries of interconnected history and legends that Nagai City is built upon.

    History of the Kurojishi Festival

    Nagai City

    The embodiment of a dragon god, the shishi, with its long, snake-like body, is colored black to represent water in accordance with the Japanese onmyodo, “the way of Yin and Yang.” 


    Nagai, known as the “city of water”, is the perfect home for this god. Surrounded by mountains, the land where Nagai City was founded was created by runoff from mountain streams that formed a lush delta. The Mogami and Nogawa rivers carry especially soft, smooth water through the area, perfect for growing crops and drinking. Blessed by the water, people gathered and thrived in the area. 


    However, the blessings came at cost – the villagers lived in constant fear of violent floods. 

    In 801, the 44 villages in the area came together and erected a Shinto shrine at the confluence of the Mogami and Nogawa rivers, to pray for peace and calm waters. Enshrined here are the local deities of each of the 44 original villages, and the shrine became known as Somiya Shrine, the ichinomiya (highest ranked shrine) of Nagai to this day.

    Nagai Kurojishi

    The Ledged of Princess Unohana

    Over 200 years later, the lines of history blur into legend.


    During the late Heian period, the Imperial Court in Kyoto and the Abe clan of Mutsu Province, modern day Northeast Tohoku, struggled for the upper hand in the Zenkunen War (1051-1063).


    The Abe clan led the Emishi indigenous peoples of the region, and often fought with the province’s governor over taxes and administrative control. Seeing that the Abe clan refused to bend the knee, The Imperial Court sent samurai lord Minamoto no Yoriyoshi and his 15-year-old son Minamoto no Yoshiie north to meet Abe no Sadato, leader of the Abe clan, in battle and reclaim power over the Tohoku region.


    Meanwhile, Abe no Sadato recognized Nagai as a stronghold vital to his cause. Strategically, he sent his beloved daughter Princess Unohana to rule over the area and send intel back to him.

    Nagai Kurojishi

    It is said that Princess Unohana was as beautiful as a deer running through the woods. Strong-willed and skilled in training horses, she was often seen galloping the 400 meters (1300 feet) between Henshoji Temple and Somiya Shrine on horseback. 


    One day, Minamoto no Yoshiie and his retainer came to Nagai to pray for victory in the war. Yoshiie ran into the princess praying to Bato Kannon, the horse-headed Bodhisattva of Compassion, and she fell in love at first sight. Yoshiie made her believe that he did not want to fight her father’s army, telling her that though he sent troops to fight against Abe no Sadato, he only did so because he could not disobey the emperor’s orders. He assured her that he did not want to fight in vain, spilling more blood than necessary. If her father delivered his army to Kyoto, he said, he would beg the emperor to stop the war and let the Abe clan be safe and sound.


    Princess Unohana, believing Minamoto no Yoshiie to be a trustworthy man and of the same heart and mind as herself, told him of her father’s strategy. 


    As soon as he heard this, he betrayed her by laying siege to her father’s fortress on the Kuriyagawa River in Iwate Prefecture. Abe no Sadato launched a strong counterattack, but it was too late. After several days of fierce fighting, with his water supply diverted and his fortress in flames, Abe no Sadato surrendered to the Minamotos. They carried his head back to Kyoto as a war prize.

    Nagai Kurojishi

    Distraught at this betrayal and her father’s violent death, Princess Unohana saw her father in a dream. He appeared as the horse-headed Bodhisattva she so often prayed to, glaring down fearsomely at Yoshiie. Taking this as a sign, she hurriedly called her retainers and had them make a carving of the Bato Kannon she had seen in her dream, while she made an offering of the eight scrolls of the Lotus Sutra, written in her own blood. 


    Yet the Minamoto army still advanced upon Nagai. Hearing the army approaching, she took her clan and fled into the mountains, relying on warrior monks to lead the way. When at last they reached Mifuchi Gorge at the mouth of the Nogawa river, the monks came fleeing down the mountain, warning her of the fast-approaching Minamoto army who had cut down everyone and burned everything in their path. 


    Hearing this, Princess Unohana could not contain her grief. She knew that she had no chance of escape, and made the choice to throw herself into the gorge rather than be killed by her enemy. Sinking to the bottom of the river, her last thought was a prayer for peace.

    Nagai Kurojishi

    At last, the war came to an end in 1063. 


    In celebration of their victory, Minamoto no Yoriyoshi had his men perform the first Black Lion Dragon Dance as they rebuilt the parts of Somiya Shrine that they had destroyed. 


    Princess Unohana’s spirit was present as well. Legend has it that as she sank into the Nogawa River, her spirit fused with the dragon god of the river – becoming a shishi herself. Constantly worrying about her village, the people of Nagai believe that she returns each year during the festival in her spirit form, bringing with her life-giving rain and promises of a plentiful harvest. 


    In this way, the princess’ love for Nagai and Nagai’s connection to the water that created it has been passed down and celebrated over countless generations. 

    Today, the festival is held annually on the 3rd Saturday in May, and in addition to the lion dancing, street food and festivities light up Nagai White Azalea Park until the late hours of the night.Come experience the mystical Nagai Kurojishi Festival and find yourself transported back 1000 years to ancient Japan, where the spirit and human worlds collide. 
  • Survival Japanese

    Survival Japanese

    Survival Japanese

    Key Words and Phrases for Traveling Japan

    Mount Fuji
    Just like climbing Mt. Fuji, while learning Japanese may seem difficult at first, with a litttle bit of effort and determination, you’ll eventually reach your goal!

    Japan is a fascinating country with a unique culture and a rich history, making it a popular travel destination for millions of tourists every year. While many Japanese people in urban areas can speak basic English, this is not the case for everyone – especially in the countryside!

    Knowing some of the language will make a world of difference in helping you make the memories of a lifetime. Whether you’re trying to order food, ask for directions, or simply introduce yourself, our guide to basic survival Japanese will give you the confidence you need to interact with the locals and immerse yourself in the rich culture.

    Japanese greetings

    Greetings and Basic Expressions

    Greetings are an essential part of Japanese culture. Knowing how to greet someone is a great way to start a conversation and make new connections. Making a slight bow while saying any of these greetings is a sure way to show your respect and knowledge of Japanese culture, and can go a long way in making a positive impression on the locals you meet.

    Japanese greetings

    1. Sumimasen (すみません) – Excuse me/I’m sorry

    The very first thing you’ll want to learn in Japanese is how to apologize. Sumimasen is a versatile Japanese phrase that can be used to mean “excuse me” or “I’m sorry.”

    For example, if you need to get someone’s attention, you can say sumimasen to do so.

    If you accidentally bump into someone, you can say sumimasen to apologize.

    If someone goes out of their way to help you with something, you can even say sumimasen to thank them.

    Basically, when in doubt, sumimasen it out!

    Japanese greetings

    2. Arigatou Gozaimasu (ありがとうございます) – Thank you

    Arigatou gozaimasu is the most common way to say “thank you” in Japanese. It is a polite and respectful way to express gratitude and can be used in any situation, whether you are thanking a shopkeeper, a friend, or someone you are meeting for the first time.

    Other variations include arigatou gozaimashita (past tense), arigatou (casual), doumo (polite casual),  and doumo arigatou gozaimashita (polite formal).

    Japanese greetings

    3. Douitashimashite (どういたしまして)- You’re welcome

    This is a polite phrase used to respond to “thank you.” When someone says arigatou gozaimasu (thank you very much), you can reply with douitashimashite to acknowledge their thanks and express that you were happy to help them.

    Japanese greetings

    4. Konnichiwa (こんにちは) – Hello

    Konnichiwa is the most common way to say hello in Japanese and is used during the daytime from around 10 am to 6 pm. It is a polite and formal greeting that can be used in any situation, whether you are meeting someone for the first time or greeting a shopkeeper. As with other greetings, it is polite to accompany this greeting with a bow.

    Next time you enter a shop or restaurant in Japan, try greeting the staff with konnichiwa!

    Japanese greetings

    5. Ohayou Gozaimasu (おはようございます) – Good morning

    Ohayou gozaimasu is the greeting used for “good morning.” It is a polite and respectful greeting that can be used in any situation. As with other greetings, a bow is customary when saying this phrase.

    A good time to use this phrase is either when you are greeting your guide before beginning your day or when you are checking out of your hotel in the morning!

    Japanese greetings

    6. Konbanwa (こんばんは) – Good evening

    Konbanwa is the greeting used for “good evening”, typically from around 6 pm to midnight. It is a polite and respectful greeting that can be used in any situation, whether you are meeting someone for the first time or greeting someone you know. As always, it is appropriate to accompany this greeting with a bow.

    If you are checking into your hotel at night or are eating dinner at a restaurant, konbanwa is the way to go to greet the staff!

    Japanese greetings

    7. Hajimemashite(はじめまして) – Nice to meet you

    When meeting someone for the first time, it is appropriate to use the phrase hajimemashite. This phrase is a formal way of greeting someone and is only used the first time you meet them.

    You can also use it to introduce yourself to others, followed by your name.

    For example, “Hajimemashite, watashi wa Jon desu” (はじめまして、私はジョンです) means “Nice to meet you, I’m John.”

    Japanese greetings

    8. Gochisousama deshita (ごちそうさまでした)- Thanks for the meal

    This is a polite phrase used to thank the host for the meal. It literally translates to “it was a feast”, and can be used in both formal and informal situations. When you finish a meal at a restaurant or at someone’s house, you can say gochisousama deshita to show your appreciation.

    Try using it when you leave a restaurant, by shouting it back to the staff so that they know you appreciated the meal!

    Japanese greetings

    9. Mata ne (またね)- Bye/See you later

    Mata ne is the casual way to say “bye” or “see you later” to someone who you plan to see again soon. It is often used among friends or acquaintances as a friendly and informal way to end a conversation or a meeting. Since this greeting is casual, you can wave your hand instead of bowing.

    Try saying mata ne to any friends you make on your trip to let them know that you are hoping to see them again in the future!

    Japanese greetings

    10. Sayounara (さようなら) – Goodbye

    Sayounara is the formal way to say “goodbye” in Japanese. It is a polite and respectful way to end a conversation or a meeting. However, it is considered formal and feels quite final, so it may not be necessary in many situations.

    Think of sayounara as a phrase to be used whenever you are saying goodbye for a long time and don’t know when you will see the other person again. For example, leaving your guide at the airport when you return home to your country may warrant a sayounara, whereas saying bye to your friend with the intention of seeing them very soon would be when to use mata ne.

    Feeling Ready?

    Traveling to a non-English speaking country like Japan might feel like a daunting challenge, but rest assured, your time here will be unforgettable and the memories you make during your adventure will last a lifetime!

    Remember, no one here expects your Japanese to be perfect! However, any effort you put into learning the language will be greatly appreciated, and locals will be impressed by your willingness to go out of your comfort zone and try something new in unfamiliar lands.

    Take it to go!

    Download our phrasebook as a PDF, print it off, and take it with you in case you forget on the road!

  • Yamagata Hanagasa Festival

    Yamagata Hanagasa Festival

    The Yamagata Hanagasa Festival


    Hanagasa Festival
    The Yamagata Hanagasa Festival is nearly synonymous with Yamagataitself and attracts nearly 10,00 spectators each year

    Yassho makkasho!” cry out the kimono-clad Hanagasa dancers as they parade their way through the streets of Yamagata City! As the colorful dancers sing and shout songs passed down from generations past, they brandish their round straw hats strewn with Yamagata Benibana Safflowers known as Hanagasa through the air to the pounding rhythm of Taiko drum.

    History of the Hanagasa Festival

    Hanagasa Festival
    There are over 2,000 dancers in the Yamagata Hanagasa, each with their own style and dress

    The orgin of the festival reaches back to 1963 when the Hanagasa was integrated into the Zaō Summer Festival in an effort to make up for the lack of tourism that the Zao area misses out on in the summer. Being famous for its hot springs, snow monsters, and ski resorts, the summer can be economically a pinch for many businesses that rely on seasonal tourism, and so having a large summer festival helped bring in much-needed customers during the slow season.

    As the years rolled by, the event grew and grew to the extent that it could no longer be held in Zao Hotspring Town, and now it takes place each year in Yamagata City over a three-day period between August 5th and 7th. The festival is now considered one of the four major festivals of Tohoku, standing alongside Aomori’s Nebuta Festival, Akita’s Kanto Festival, and Sendai’s Tanabata Festival.

    Most recently, the festival has been known to draw a massive 1 million visitors annually and sees people visit not only from the entirety of Japan but from all over the world. Over 10,000 dancers from all over Yamagata are featured in the festival, and everyone who participates is all proud to celebrate the unique folk culture of Yamagata that binds us all together as a community.

    The Hanagasa Dance

    Hanagasa Festival
    Participating in the Hanagasa is no easy job, most dancers will practice for up to two months before the festival

    For many, the biggest draw of the Hanagasa festival is indeed the 10,000 dancers all brandishing their crimson benibana hats in perfect unity to the ton ton ton of the Taiko. The name of the dance traditionally performed by the Hanagasa dancers translates to the “Fragrant Breeze of the Mogami” in English, or in Japanese, it is officially known “Kunpu Mogamigawa” dance.

    In Yamagata, it is said that the Mogami River is the “Mother of Yamagata” as historically, culturally, and even economically, the Mogami has been a source of life and prosperity for the people that call this region home. Therefore, the movements of this dance are meant to mimic the sway of a cool breeze on the Mogami during a hot summer day. The moves of the graceful dancers are said to have a refreshing, relaxing effect as well, lulling you into the tranquility that is the dog days of summer.

    Traditionally, the most common dance associated with the Hanagasa is called the Onna Odori, the “Women’s Dance,” and while very graceful and femine in nature, can be performed by anyone today.

    There is also the Otoko Odori or “Men’s dance” from Zao (also called the Zao Gyoko) which features many powerful and dynamic dance moves that feel very masculine in nature.

    Another common dance that you can see at the festival is the Kasa Mawashi (hat spinning dance) from Obanazawa. This take on the Hanagasa dance has dancers constantly spinning their safflower hats at rapid speeds as they dance while making swooshing movements.

    Each region of Yamagata has their own take on the dance but many other local groups and teams have incorporated their own modern twist. Local dance studios that specialize in styles such as ballet, hip-hop, jazz, and even hula are always in attendance with a refreshing take on something that has been beloved by Yamagatans for decades.

    The Hanagasa Ondo Song

    Hanagasa Festival
    Many schools, companies, and local groups will send a team to participate in the Hanagasa

    The name of the song sung at the Hanagasa Festical is the Hanagasa Ondo. There are multiple speculations as to where the true origin of the Hanagasa song comes from. However, the generally most widely accepted version is that it was an old folk song sung by construction workers in Murayama.

    Supposedly, the year 1910 was a particularly rainy year for Murayama and as the workers diligently pounded away at the earth to construct a flood embankment they would sing to keep the rhythm and boost morale. One half of the workers would rhythmically shout out “Yassho!” to which the second half would return the call with “Makkasho!”

    The song eventually was met with additional lyrics and accompaniment and was given the name Dontsuki Uta or “Earth Pounding Song.”

    The accompanying lyrics added to the iconic chant were polled from the general public, and among the fifteen verses, two are from historical narratives, while the remaining thirteen verses of lyrics were selected to represent the rich, diverse tapestry that is Yamagata Prefecture.

    Hanagasa Ondo Lyrics
    English Translation and Meaning

    Hanagasa Festival
    The floats featuring taiko drummers are an essential part of the Hanagasa as they keep the beat


    There are many versions of the song and quite a number of verses that differ and change depending on where (and who) is playing the song. This is one of the more common versions of the song and often the order of the verses can change as well. After each verse, the chorus “ha yassho makasho shanshanshan” is sung and the audience typically joins in.



    枝も (チョイチョイ)


    (ハ ヤッショ マカショ シャンシャンシャン)

    Medeta medeta no

    wakamatsu sama yo

    eda mo (choichoi) kaete

    ha mo shigeru

    (ha yassho makasho shanshanshan)

    The very auspicious

    young pine trees,

    their branches too (choi choi),

    their leaves prosper as they grow



    茄子と (チョイチョイ)


    (ハ ヤッショ マカショ シャンシャンシャン)

    Washi ga o kuni de

    jiman’na mono wa

    nasu to (choichoi)

    kyuuri to kasaodori

    (ha yassho makasho shanshanshan)

    Oh great country of mine,

    Our things to boast are,

    eggplants (choi choi)

    cucumbers and the Kasaodori Festival






    (ハ ヤッショ マカショ シャンシャンシャン)

    Hana no Yamagata

    kōyō no Tendō

    yuki o (choichoi)

    nagamuru Obanazawa

    (ha yassho makasho shanshanshan)


    The flowers of Yamagata

    The maple leaves of Tendo

    As for snow, (choi choi)

    it’s best viewed from Obanazawa



    とんと (チョイチョイ)


    (ハ ヤッショ マカショ シャンシャンシャン)

    Ura no Ishibashizaka

    nara yokarou

    tonto (choichoi)

    fundara satoru yo ni

    (ha yassho makasho shanshanshan)

    Hidden Ishibashizaka,

    in that case that’s right!

    Completely (choi choi)

    Once you set foot there you’ll understand



    踏めば (チョイチョイ)


    (ハ ヤッショ マカショ シャンシャンシャン)

    Komenonaruki de

    tsukurishi waraji

    fumeba (choichoi)

    koban no ato ga tsuku

    (ha yassho makasho shanshanshan)

    The stalk of a rice plant,

    made into straw sandals

    Once you take a step, (choi choi)

    you’ll leave the print of a golden coin




    米の (チョイチョイ)




    (ハ ヤッショ マカショ シャンシャンシャン)

    Ore ga zaisho ni kite

    mi ya sha n se

    Kome no (choichoi)

    naru ki ga


    (ha yassho makasho shanshanshan)

    To my dear home village,

    please come and see

    rice (choi choi)

    stalks that 

    bow humbly


    Enjoying the Parade

    Dondon Yaki
    Dondonyaki is a favorite snack during the festival and is an unique Yamagata soul food

    Every year the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival is held from August 5th-7th and typically takes place in the evening from around 18:00 until 21:45. In the surrounding areas around the parade, streets are filled with street vendors selling delicious festival food and hosting carnival games where you can try your skill and luck in getting a prize!

    The parade takes place right on Nanukamachi, the main street of Yamagata City, and spans all the way to the Bunshokan. You can get easy access by walking 5 minutes right from JR Yamagata Station.

  • Yamagata Safflower

    Yamagata Safflower

    Yamagata Safflower


    Yamagata Safflower
    For the month of July, “Benibana” Safflowers are in full bloom here in Yamagata

    In the still hours of the morning, the sun peaks over the mountain ridge, and the light of day pours across a sea of golden flowers. As the morning mists swirl and rise into obscurity, the local farmers quietly shuffle into the flower fields to harvest the fine wispy petals while they are still damp with due. Since ancient times, Yamagata’s “benibana” safflower has been considered precious. As even in the modern day, the benibana safflower is worth more than its weight in gold.

    What is Yamagata Safflower?

    Yamagata Safflower
    The Mogami Safflower that is prominent in Yamagata has thorny leaves and long petals

    Safflower is the official flower of Yamagata Prefecture and is often referred to by its Japanese name, “benibana” (紅花). Along with the thistle, sunflower, and the dandelion, the safflower is a member of the Asteraceae family and is also known goes by the scientific name Carthamus tinctorius.

    Worldwide, there are over  25 distinct species of safflower plants that vary significantly in character and appearance. Even within the East Asian variants alone, some plants are known to have as many as 100 flowers simultaneously bloom, while others will only have a single flower. Other safflower plants will have prickly thorns on the leaf, meanwhile, others will feature smooth, rounded fronds.

    While safflowers can be found throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, East Asia, and even Africa, the variant cultivated in Yamagata today is proudly called the “Mogami Safflower” after the Mogami River that was vital in the trade and spread of Yamagata safflower culture.

    Yamagata’s Mogami Safflowers are a brilliant golden color, with the flower’s core being a deep crimson red. The leaves are of the thorny variant, and while it may look like the flower is a single head with thousands of little petals jutting out, each of these thin wispy strands is actually its own flower (at least as far as biology is concerned) with its own seed and cellular structure

    The Mogami Safflower variant was officially declared its own separate variant of safflower in 1968 at the Yamagata Prefectural Agricultural Experiment Station after centuries of selective cultivation. In 1982, Mogami Safflower was designated as the official flower of Yamagata Prefecture, and the safflower is almost synonymous with Yamagata today.

    History of Yamagata Safflower

    Yamagata Safflower
    Every year, safflower towns such as Takase gather for annual safflower festivals

    The earliest traces of safflower seem to have originated in what is now modern-day Isreal, and there is archeological evidence of ancient Mesopotamians cultivating it some 4600 years ago. From there, the safflower is said to have spread in China and Central Asia along the Silkk Road, eventually making its way down the Korean Peninsula and finally into Japan.

    Although it is estimated that safflower first reached Japan during the Muromachi Period (1336-1568), it wasn’t until the Edo Period (1600-1868) that safflower culture in Japan really took off.

    During the Edo Period, the Kitmaebune trade route was a sea route that ran from Edo (modern-day Tokyo) through the Seto Inland Sea, up the Kanmon Straights, and up the Sea of Japan all the Hokkaido.

    Cities such as Sakata became incredibly wealthy through this trade network as agricultural goods such as rice would be sent down the Mogami River from inland Yamagata, collected at the port in the Sankyo Soko Warehouses to be stored, and then shipped out to Edo via ship.

    Yamagata Safflower petals
    The best time to gather safflower petals is in the morning when the flowers are wet with dew

    Safflower was another valuable commodity transported using this method during the Edo Period. While safflower had been cultivated sporadically across the country since its arrival, the Mogami Basin soon became recognized for the high wields and unrivaled quality of the flowers. So by the time the trade route was established, Yamagata Safflowers were already in high demand.

    Safflowers grown in inland areas of Yamagata, such as Shirataka and Takase, became an essential part of the Kitamaebune trade network and were transported in mass down the Mogami River, where they would be sold and sent to Edo by trade ship.

    They reached such a value during the height of the trade that it was said that safflower was worth more than one hundred times its weight in rice and ten times its weight in gold!

    But what made Safflower such a valuable commodity, and why was it so sought after? Let’s look at some of the many uses of safflower and what makes it still one of Yamagata’s most valuable resources.

    How is Yamagata Safflower Used?

    safflower dyed cloth
    From the collected flowers, a number of shades and hues can be mixed and made

    Even before safflowers made their debut in the Land of the Rising Sun, their seeds and extracted oils have been used throughout China, the Middle East, and Central Asia for its medicinal purposes.

    In Japan, however, the primary usage of the benibana dye is as a bright red dye that has held a deep cultural significance in Japan since long ago.

    Due to the high price associated with Yamagata Safflower, only the most important shrine garments in Japan, such as those worn at Ise Grand Shrine, are dyed with Yamagata Safflower today. Some ceremonial garments that feature this vibrant crimson color, such as the kimono on display at the Bunshokan, are priced at well above 30,000 dollars (USD) due to the high concentration of Yamagata Safflower used.

    However, very few garments short of the select few are made using a 100% safflower dye. In fact, most things dyed using Yamagata Safflower are dyed using only a compound containing only 10-20% safflower dye.

    Safflower Rice
    Safflower rice is a popular seasonal dish, most often served in higher-end restaurants in Yamagata

    While augmented pigment activators can help achieve the deep red color artificially, a range of pinks, yellows, and oranges can also be produced naturally with lighter concentrations of Yamagata Safflower at a fraction of the cost.

    Another usage of Yamagata Safflowers is in the making of the red makeup and lip tint used by geishas and maiko, such as the Maiko of Sakata City. Like garments dyed using Yamagata Safflower, makeup produced this way is also very expensive, so it is used sparingly.

    One other alternative usage of Yamagata Safflower is in cooking, as it can be enjoyed as a topping, tempura, or even on rice! While the taste isn’t very strong, it offers a sweet, smokey floral flavor palette that adds culinary depth to the dish.

    Yamagata Safflower Today

    Only Yesterday
    “Only Yesterday”, Studio Ghibli (1991) takes place in Yamagata Prefecture

    Today, over 50% of all safflower produced in Japan still comes from Japan, and Yamagata Safflower culture is still wildly celebrated with festivals such as the Takase Benibana Festival.

    Benibana also has a special place in contemporary Japanese pop culture as the 1991 Studio Ghibli Film, Only Yesterday, takes place in Yamagata and features a young woman who ventures out of Tokyo to help with the local safflower harvest. While not Studio Ghibli’s most popular film, it is a nostalgic portal of rural Japanese life in the early 90s and a beautiful ode to the beauty of Yamagata.

    Yamagata Safflower Experience

    Yamagata Safflower Experience
    Participants can come and try their hand at Yamagata Safflower harvesting for themselves

    Come and experience Yamagata Safflower Culture for yourself! For the duration of July, through our Yamagata Safflower Experience, you can come to Shirataka and Learn about Yamagata Safflower Culture in person!

    The experience starts with a trip out to the flower fields, where you will pick the safflower petals that will be used as a dye. Wearing gloves to protect your hands from the thorns, you will pluck just the head of the flower and place the petals into a basket on your hip.

    Safflower Safflower Experience
    After you dye your Yamagata Safflower handkerchief, you can take it home as a souvenir!

    Next, you will return to the farmhouse, where you will prepare the cultivated petals by first washing them, kneading them, and then rolling them into “benimochi” pigment chips that will then dry and become the base for the dye.

    Finally, participants will use real Yamagata Safflower dye to dye their own handkerchiefs that they can take home as a souvenir of your time here in Yamagata.

    For more information about our Yamagata Safflower Experience, please check our Experience Page

  • Jingisukan




    Jingisukan or “Ghengis Khan” is a Japanese grilled lamb dish that takes its name from the 13th-century ruler Genghis Khan who founded the Mongol Empire.

    Jingisukan has a very storng earthy taste and the meat is very tender

    Up until the late 19th century, mutton and lamb were not part of the Japanese diet and could rarely be found in Japan. The large majority of protein in the Japanese diet was from chicken, pork, beef, or seafood which is still very much the case so today.


    At the turn of the century, however, the government began pushing the wool industry in Japan, bringing in sheep in large numbers and encouraging the consumption of mutton. Slogans floated around urging Japanese people to eat mutton, claiming that it would make them big and strong, just like the Mongolian leader Ghengis Khan.


    Somewhere along the way, the name got attached to a certain dish, and in the 1930s, “Jingisukan” was born.

    The white block in the center is the mutton fat whis is melted and helps prevent the meat from sticking to the pan

    Jingisukan is grilled on a specific cast iron pan that looks a bit like a traditional Mongolian war helmet with a raised center and a brim around the outside. These pans were originally produced in Do-machi, Yamagata, and can now be found all over Japan.


    After firing up the grill, mutton fat is melted all over the pan so that the ingredients don’t stick, and then the remaining fat is placed on the center point of the pan so that it continues to melt down.


    Vegetables are arranged on the outside of the skillet so that when you put the meat on the center of the pan, the meat juices will dribble down, adding rich flavor to the vegetables. Usually, cabbage, onion, pumpkin, mushrooms, carrots, and eggplant are popular. However, each restaurant uses its own assortment of vegetables, depending on the region and season.


    After the meat and veggies are grilled to perfection, it is dipped in a special jingisukan sauce and eaten over white rice.

    Jingisukan is served all over Japan and is a favorite food if skiers or those in cold climates

    Despite many people believing that jingisukan is originally from Hokkaido, where it is also famed, the original jingisukan is actually from Yamagata, hailing from the Zao region. 


    Today, you can still visit the original and very first jingisukan shop in Kaminoyama, a quaint little restaurant named “Jinguisukan Shiro.” It is very popular among locals, so you might need to make a reservation over the phone.


    You can also enjoy Jingisukan around Yamagata City near Yamagata Station at Hitsujien and at Yamagata’s premier street food district, Hotonaru Yokocho.

  • Bunshokan



    Yamagata City, Yamagata

    The Bunshokan stands proudly as a landmark of Yamagata City

    The Bunshokan is the old prefectural capital of Yamagata Prefecture and was built in 1877 in accordance with the transition of Dewa Province to Yamagata Prefecture in 1869.  Today it serves as a history museum as well as an iconic sightseeing spot in Yamagata City and is a beloved landmark of the people. 

    History of the Bunshokan

    The Assembly hall attatched to the Bunshokan is still used today

    The Meiji Restoration (1868-1889) perched Japan on a new epoch of economic, political, and cultural modernization that changed the fundamental core identity of Japan. Prefaced by an isolation period of 265 years known as Sakoku (1603-1868), the reopening of Japan led to the mass importation of goods, knowledge, and ideas that urged Japan to make significant changes to Japanese society itself in order to avoid getting left behind by the Western world. 


    One of these major changes was doing away with remnants of the feudal Edo system of government that consisted of the shogunate, daimyōs, and the samurai, and restoring central power to the emperor and the oligarchy that surrounded him.


    With the new wave of changes that the restoration embraced, came the need to outwardly express the Western modernization that the Meiji era represented, and henceforth a new prefectural capital was constructed in 1877 to lead the way into what would become the future of Japan.

    A New Bunshokan

    The bricks used for the construction of the Bunshokan were sourced all from Yamagata Prefecture

    While a great fire swept through Yamagata City in 1911, devastating the town and many of the cultural landmarks, reconstruction of the new Bunshokan was completed in 1913 and the new building was built in the English Neo-Renaissance style. 


    The newly erected Bunshokan was designed by Tokyo architect Shinnosuke Tahara with the help of Yonezawa architect Eiichiro Nakajo and the building was heavily inspired by modern period reconstruction style buildings around England. Local stone was used in the construction of the building for both aesthetic purposes, and to prevent another fire incident from happening.


    After the construction of the building in June 1913, the newly constructed Bunshokan served as the Prefectural Government Building as well as the Prefectural Assembly Hall until 1975. From there, it was abandoned when the office moved to its current building in the Matsunami district and the building fell into despair as it was left virtually to rot and be ransacked.

    Restoration of the Bunshokan

    Much of the furniture and crown molding had to be refurbished by hand based only on old pictures and records
    The assembly hall is still used today for town events and is the practice venue for the Yamagata Orchestra

    In 1984, the citizens’ love for their local landmark brought the decaying state of the Bunshokan to the attention of the country which eventually led to it becoming designated as an official Important Cultural Property of Japan. This spurred a ten-year-long restoration project and in 1995, the Bunshokan finally reopened to the public as a free museum to preserve and protect an invaluable chapter in Yamagata’s history.

    The Bunshokan lit up with a special art display during the 2021 Kizuna Festival

    Yamagata City
    Walking Tour

    Want to learn more in-depth about the Bunshokan and other historic spots around Yamagata City? Try our guided walking tour!



    Wamagata City Walking Tour
  • Yamadera



    Yamagata City, Yamagata


    Yamadera is the collective name given to the thirty temples creviced into the ancient slopes of Mt. Hoju. Properly known as Risshaku-ji,  Yamadera is located just a one-hour train ride out of Yamagata City. This esoteric complex has been the source of inspiration since its founding over 1,000 years ago, commanding the ink wells of some of Japan’s greatest writers, artists, and poets as the infamous Matsuo Basho.

    History of Yamadera

    Konpochudo Hall
    Konpochudo Hall is the oldest beechwood structure in Japan and houses a 1,300 year old eternal flame

    Yamadera was founded by legendary Buddhist priest Ennin (also known as Jikaku Daishi) in the year 860 as he traversed Tohoku, bringing a new wave of Tendai Buddhism from abroad. Ennin studied Buddhism in China for nine years between 838 and 847; however, when Emperor Wuzong took the throne in 840, it triggered the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution of 842-846, resulting in Enin’s deportation back to Japan in 847.

    Upon returning to Japan, his resolve to spread and galvanize the Tendai sect of Buddhism had never been stronger, and so upon being named “Great Monk” by Emperor Seiwa in 847, he set out across the Tohoku region to erect temples and spread the message of the Buddha. Along his journey, today, he’s accredited with having established 331 temples in the Tohoku region, such as Akutsu Hachiman Shrine in Takahata.

    Yamadera was founded in 860 as a branch of Enryau-Ji temple, the central temple of the Tendai sect, located on Mt. Hiei in Kyoto. Upon its completion, an eternal flame was brought from Enraku-Ji in Kyoto and housed in Konponchudo hall, the oldest structure made of beechwood in Japan.

    The flame has been continuously burning now for over one thousand years, and in an odd twist of fate, when the original flame in Kyoto was extinguished in 1571 during the raids of Oda Nobunaga, it was restored using the embers of the eternal flame at Yamadera.

    Matsuo Basho

    Matsuo Basho
    This statue of Matsuo Basho sits at the mounatin base of Yamadera

    Perhaps the other great historical figure to leave their mark on the great mountain temple of Yamadera is non-other than larger-than-life Edo poet Matsuo Basho. Poet, writer, traveler, and wordsmith-extraordinaire, Basho traveled up and down the Tohoku region during the late 1600s, culminating his experiences into the book titled “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.”

    Matsuo Basho was actually never supposed to visit Yamadera and had intended to continue towards Tsuruoka after staying in Obanazawa for several days. However, when urged to visit by their former host, Matsu Basho retraced his steps, adding seventeen miles to his journey just so he could see what splendors the mountain temples held.

    Matsu Basho arrived in Yamadera on a sunny summer afternoon and stayed at a lodge at the foot of the mountain. The following day, he scrambled to the top of the sacred mountain and was met with an unexpected reward, tranquil silence. So moved by the serenity of the mountains, he sat down and wrote one of his most famous haiku poems:

    Ah, the silence

    sinking into the rocks

    the voice of the cicada




    When you visit Yamadera today, make sure to make an additional stop at the Matsu Basho Museum at the base of the mountain to learn more about the life, works, and legacy of perhaps Japan’s greatest poet. Admission is ¥300 each for the Basho Memorial Museum, Basho Birth House, and the Minomushi-an, or ¥750 for entry to all three.

    Climbing Yamadera

    There are many ways and paths to traverse the mountain temples, each twist infused with history and tradition

    The climb from the base to the peak of Yamadera will make you work for the reward at the end of the trail, but will it be worth it by all means. To get to the top, you first must climb the 1,000 stone stairs through the ancient cedar forest. The path is fringed with stone lanterns, trickling streams, small shrines, and Buddhist statues, and there is a ¥300 entrance fee made payable at the foot of the mountain.


    Depending on your pace, the journey to the top should take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour and there is plenty of places to stop and rest along your journey. 

    Midahora Rock
    If the coin you leave stays, its good luck! Falls however, you better count your blessings!

    As you climb, such distinct features of the mountain as the Midahora Rock, which is shaped like the Amida Buddha’s head, will come into view. Under the stone steelies inscribed with ancient wisdom, visitors will balance coins on the porous cliff face as an offering and hope of currying some good luck and fortune.


    Just past the Midahora Rock, visitors will pass through the Niomon Gate, which is what is said to keep demons out of the holy monastery. The gate was constructed out of Zelkovia in 1848, and large statues of the god Nio stand at either side to fight off any unwanted guests.

    nio Gate
    The nio deity enshrined inside protects the temples from evil spirits and demons

    From here, the path splits off into various directions leading to different temples. Proceeding forwards, Okunoin is the highest of the temples and houses a massive golden statue of the Amida Budda. 

    The iconic Nokyodo delicately perched upon the mountain crown next to Kaisando Hall is perhaps a scene nearly synonymous with the mountain temple itself and tells a different story each time you visit it. However, what makes Yamadera really worth the visit is the viewing platform Godaido. From the platform, the views sprawl all the way over the Tachiya River, across the valley, and all the way to the surrounding mountains. 


    The view has been known to bring even the most hardened souls to tears with its unparalleled beauty and inspired hearts for generations.

  • Akutsu Hachiman Shrine

    Akutsu Hachiman Shrine

    Akutsu Hachiman Shrine

    Takahata, Yamagata

    Akutsu Hachiman Shrine
    Akutsu Hachiman Shrine is a popular spot to view cherry blossoms in the spring

    In Shinto lore, Hachiman is the god of archery, warriors, and battles and shrines devoted to him are said to rally the aid of the god to bring success and victory during times of war. Akutsu Hachiman Shrine was built in 860 under the leadership of the legendary Buddhist priest Ennin and through the support of the local lords of the area. Ennin’s goal at the time was to erect 3,000 Buddhas in the eastern part of the country, and so at the time of its founding, the temple was no more than one of humble local standings.

    During the Gasannen War (1083-1087), forces of the Kiyohara clan and the Minamoto clan clashed, and chaos broke out in southern Tohoku where the City of Takahata lies today. While a peaceful agreement between the two parties was attempted, when negations went south, and the conflict dragged on. It was then that the governor of Mutsu Province, Minamoto no Yoshiie, called upon the power of the Hachiman Shrine, which is said to have delivered him a swift, decisive victory on a silver platter that ended the conflict once and for all. Since then, the shrine has become highly revered and has been a prominent place of worship for warriors and warlords throughout Tohoku.

    Blessed by a sea of sunflowers in the summertime, shaded by crimson groves of maple in the autumn, carpeted by a blanket of snow during winter, and festooned with cherry blossoms in the spring, today the crown jewel and pride of Takahata is the three-tiered pagoda standing proud on the center island of Akutsu Hachiman Shrine. Originally constructed in 1625, this designated prefectural historic treasure features a two-storied roof as well as detailed wooden beam endpoints carved into the heads of lions and elephants.

    In 1790, the original pagoda collapsed due to typhoon winds; however, seven years later, a new shrine tower was constructed, which is the one that still stands today. True to the original style of the shrine, the new pagoda was built using the Kanawatsugi (金輪継) technique, which is a traditional style of Japanese carpentry where the various wooden pieces all perfectly interlock and not a single nail is used. Although the building has been well restored and receives frequent maintenance for preservation, it still retains much of its ancient charm and is a standing remnant of the time in which it was built.

    Akutsu Hachiman Shrine
    Even in the winter, Akutsu Hachiman Shrine still holds a stoic presence

    Every year on May 3rd, Akutsu Hachiman Shrine holds its annual spring festival, where shrine maidens draped in red will perform the ancient Yamatomai dance and the Taumai dance on the shrine stage. The shrine maidens will also sing, play the koto, and perform a fan dance, so it is well worth a visit. Each year, in addition to the shrine maidens, several elementary-aged girls will perform alongside them as well. The purpose of this spring ritual is to pray for a successful rice planting season which will lead to a plentiful harvest come fall.

    Once autumn arrives, however, the annual autumn festival is held on September 15th, and the Ennen no Mai dance is performed by elementary school boys in prayer for a good harvest. Other things that are prayed for during the festival are national security, safety, and longevity. Yabusame Horse Archery is also on display during this festival. Both festivals are considered intangible folk cultural property designated by the prefecture and are an experience like no other.

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