Sakata from Tobishima

Sakata

Sakata

Sakata City

Situated on the Sea of Japan and the Mogami River, beneath towering Mt. Chokai, lies the beautiful harbor town of Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture


Once a vital hub for the kitamaebune (northern-bound ships) trade route that connected southern Osaka to northern Hokkaido from the 1600s to the turn of the twentieth century, Sakata brought together countless people and goods from all over Japan, fostering its unique culture and spirit of open-mindedness that flourishes to this day.

Early History of Sakata

Archaeological evidence of peoples living in the Shonai plains area has been dated back as far as the Jomon period (14,000-300 BC), but the written history of the Shonai Region begins in the early Nara period, when Dewa District (present day Shonai area) was established in 708 AD, and expanded to become Dewa Province (present day Akita and Yamagata) in the year 712 AD. 

 

Several military campaigns were dispatched to the region, leading to the establishment of settlements by armed colonists throughout central Dewa. The newly formed province’s capital was first set up at Dewanosaku, a fortified settlement situated in modern-day Sakata. This stronghold played a crucial role in pushing the indigenous Emishi peoples further north and facilitating the expansion of Yamato influence and permanent settlement in the area. 

 

Settlements expanded through the years, and the Heian period (794-1185) Imperial Court continued to control the Dewa Province government from Kiwanosaku Castle, the ruins of which were discovered in present-day Sakata city.

Kitamaebune Trade Route

Kitamaebune Boat

During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), there are mentions of a trading port at the mouth of the Mogami River, but trading ramped up exponentially during the Edo period (1603-1867), when many wealthy merchants began to line the streets of the town as a strategic location for transportation along the Japan Sea coast and inland rivers.

 

This is when the kitamaebune trade route was established. Rice, fish, and other specialties including Yamagata Safflowers used to make red dye were transported by ship from Sakata and other ports on the Sea of Japan to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and Osaka in return for goods such as salt and cotton.

 

Ships were divided into two routes: the eastbound route through the Tsugaru Straits to Edo and the westbound route through the Seto Inland Sea to Osaka and Edo. The east-bound ships had to travel against the Kuroshio Current heading north on the Pacific Ocean side, so the west-bound ships could transport goods more cheaply and were used more frequently. 

 

The kitamaebune did not just transport goods, however, they would also buy high-quality, inexpensive goods at each port and sell them at a higher price along the route when they could, making the kitamaebune one of the first general trading businesses.

 

Many Sakata merchants took advantage of the favorable circumstances and became rich through trade during this period. Two of the most well-known merchants were Sozaemon Abumiya, who was one of the top shipping agents and the largest purchaser of rice in northern Japan, and the Honma family, who became the wealthiest family and largest landowners in all of Japan through trading rice and safflowers. 

 

You can visit the well-preserved historical residences of the Abumiya family and the Honma family today, as well as the Sankyo Soko rice warehouses, built in 1893 to store rice to be used along the trade route. There is also a ½ scale model of a kitamaebune ship in Hiyoriyama Park – the largest scale model of the ships in Japan.

 

Among some of the well-known kitamaebune port towns are: Ishikari, Otaru, Hakodate, Noshiro, Akita City, Niigata City, Nagaoka, Joetsu, Toyama City, Kanazawa, Tsuruga, Obama, Tottori City, and Hamada.

Things to Do in Sakata

Somaro Maiko Teahouse

Sakata Maiko

Connected with other cultural hubs in southern Japan, Sakata developed its own culture different from inland Yamagata, and is one of the only places outside of Kyoto where one can find maiko (apprentice geisha).

 

Established during the boom of the kitamaebune trade, Somaro was once a traditional Japanese high-class restaurant named Somaya that entertained guests for over 100 years. After World War II, Somaya fell out of use, but was renovated and its maiko culture revived when it was reopened as Somaro in the year 2000. 

 

Today, the maiko of Somaro perform twice a day, at noon and at 2pm. Guests can order a traditional boxed lunch during the noon performance, and are welcome to explore the traditional teahouse before and after the performance to enjoy the beautiful architecture and paintings, calligraphy works, and other antiques on display. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to catch the maiko training in their traditional song and dance!

Sanno Club

Sanno Club Kasa Fuku

Originally a high-class Japanese restaurant built in 1895, today Sanno Club is a registered tangible cultural property of Japan most known for its expansive display of kasafuku hanging ornaments. Kasafuku is one of the top 3 traditional tsurushi-kazari (hanging ornaments) in Japan, and has been passed down the generations in Sakata since the Edo Period (1603-1868). 

 

Made with kimono scraps, kasafuku are sewn in the shape of small everyday objects, such as animals, flowers, fruits, or vegetables, and are hung in strings beneath bright red umbrellas. Originally a craft of the commoner class, women in Sakata have been sewing kasafuku as a wish for their family’s happiness and prosperity for centuries. 

 

The different charms are used as wishes for different things. One kasafuku might be made with only charms that have to do with money as a wish for wealth, while another might be sewn with children’s items as a wish for more descendants. They are also used as seasonal decorations depending on the colors flowers, and various other charms.  

Sanno Club also offers sew-it-yourself kasafuku charm workshops for those who want to try their hand at the traditional craft! Even guests with no sewing experience can create beautiful art to take home under the guidance of the professional kasafuku teacher leading the workshop.

Sankyo Soko Rice Storehouses

Sannkyo Soko Storehouses

This complex of 12 warehouses were built in 1893 to store rice used in the kitamaebune trade route. Painted black to help protect the wood from the corrosive winds blowing off the coast, the storehouses are very well-preserved and are lined by a row of 150-year old zelkova trees, offering stunning photo opportunities. 

 

One of the warehouses contains the Historical Museum of Shonai Rice, with exhibits related to the history of and processes involved in harvesting rice, and the Yume-no-Kura gift shop sells an array of Sakata souvenirs, including specialty sake and traditional crafts made by local people.

Honma Historical Residence

Honma Residence

The Honma family was at one point the richest merchant family in all of Japan – their immense wealth larger than that of even feudal lords, becoming the envy of people across the country. 

 

The Honma Historical Residence was originally built in 1768 by the third head of the Honma Family, Mitsuoka Honma. He presented the residence to Sakai, the lord of the Shonai Domain, to be used as a lodge for delegates from the Tokugawa shogunate coming to inspect the political situation and lives of the local people. 

 

It was originally built using samurai-style architecture, but when government inspections ceased and Sakai returned the residence, Honma added on to the building using merchant style architecture, making it one of the only residences in Japan to combine both merchant and samurai styles. The Honma Family continued to live in this residence until the spring of 1945, and it was opened as a public historical site in 1982. 

 

Visitors are welcome to explore the grand tatami rooms of the residence and take in the atmosphere of the Edo period. 

 

A short walk from the residence is the Honma Museum of Art, one of the first private art museums in Japan, and the pristine Kakubuen Japanese Gardens, where you can savor a cup of traditional green tea while enjoying the view of Mt. Chokai.

Hiyoriyama Park

Sakata Lighthouse

Within walking distance of several other Sakata attractions, including Sanno Club, Somaro Maiko Teahouse, and Kaikoji lies Hiyoriyama Park. 

 

This coastal park is well-known for its iconic white hexagonal lighthouse, annual cherry blossom festival, and stunning views of the sunset over the sea of Japan. The lighthouse is one of the oldest wooden lighthouses in Japan –  founded in 1813 to guide kitamaebune trading ships at night, it was also a focal point for prayers for safe journeys by the boatmen and shipping agents who regularly stopped in Sakata Port. 

 

Each year, in mid-April, the Sakata Hiyoriyama Cherry Blossom Festival takes center stage. During this event, approximately 400 cherry trees burst into full bloom, casting a mesmerizing glow at night thanks to the gentle illumination provided by paper lanterns.

 

You can also see a 1/2 scale model of a kitamaebune in the park’s central pond, and enjoy a 

a panoramic view of Sakata Port and the mouth of the Mogami River from the base of the  lighthouse.

Kaikoji Temple

Kaikoji

On a hill overlooking Hiyoriyama Park lies Kaikoji Temple, founded by the famous Shingon Buddhist monk Kukai 1200 years ago. Kaikoji houses two of the eight sokushinbutsu – those who became a “Buddha in this very body” through self-mummification – in Yamagata. It is the only temple in Japan where multiple sokushinbutsu are dedicated in the same temple. Enshrined here are the Venerable Chukai and the Venerable Enmyokai, who became sokushinbutsu in 1755 and 1822, respectively. 

 

Different from traditional mummies, sokushinbutsu were extremely devout ascetics who began the process of mummifying themselves while still alive, through a strict diet including tree nuts, resin, lacquer, and eventually only salt water. The monks began their harrowing training in the mountains up to 3,000 days or more before they died, in order to rid their bodies of all fat and other materials that cause the body to decompose. 

 

At the end of their mountain training, the monks would be carried back down the mountain to the temple and lowered into a wooden box in a hole in the ground for the final phase of their journey. They would enter a deep meditative state and pass away while reciting the nenbutsu, a mantra honoring Buddha. 

If they were successful in their training, their bodies would undergo natural preservation, remaining mummified with intact skin and teeth, all without the use of any artificial preservatives. It is believed that through this process, the sokushinbutsu would receive the pain and troubles of famine and sickness of the masses on their behalf, and they have long been greatly revered in the community.

Sakata Kaisen Ichiba Seafood Market

Kaisen Ichiba

When it comes to seafood, you will be hard-pressed to find any fresher or more delicious seafood in Japan than at Kaisen Ichiba – and at a steal of a price at that.

 

Kaizen Ichiba is located right next to Sakata Port and the market offers fresh-caught seafood from the Sea of Japan, vegetables, fruits, dried foods, local sake, and various souvenirs, and houses several shops serving simple sashimi bowls, ramen, and more. 

 

During rock oyster season (June through September), you can even enjoy fresh raw oysters on the spot!

 

We recommend arriving early as the market becomes crowded from the market’s opening in the early morning with residents and visitors alike, but we promise that the wait is well worth it!

Tamasudare Falls

Tamasudare Falls

Standing at 63 meters (206 ft.) Tamasudare Falls is the tallest waterfall in Yamagata, the prefecture with the most waterfalls in Japan. Once a location for ascetic Zen training, Tamasudare is now a popular place to recharge one’s spiritual energy. The falls are lit up at night through the periods of April 28-May 5 and August 11-18, and sparkling ice cascades can be seen between January and February when the falls freeze over.

Tobishima Island

Tobishima Island

Yamagata’s only inhabited island, Tobishima is located a 75-minute ferry ride on the Tobishima Line from Sakata Port and under the jurisdiction of the City of Sakata. 

 

A small yet charming island, Tobishima boasts delicious seafood, free bike rentals, one of the top 100 best beaches in Japan, snorkeling, and scuba diving! 

 

During the time when the kitamaebune trading route flourished, Tobishima functioned as a port for the cargo ships, amassing a population of 1700. However, the population has slowly dwindled as young people continue to move to the mainland for work.

 

With a permanent population of only around 160 and no convenience stores or supermarkets in sight, the people of Tobishima are a close-knit and self-sufficient community that relies largely on fishing to sustain their remote island lifestyle. Islanders are always happy to welcome the rare visitor to their island, and you may even make friends with one of the many island cats or the adorable resident Akita Inu, Ugo!