A replica of the Kitamaebune used in trade with Kyoto at Hiyoriyama Park
Mention geisha and ryotei (high-end Japanese restaurants) and Kyoto comes to mind. But Sakata, a small port city in Yamagata Prefecture, also boasts a strong tradition in these areas as it was once a flourishing trade town that had to entertain important businessmen coming to and from Kyoto. This trade was brought by the Kitamaebune, or ships that plied the major shipping routes of Japan in the Edo era. A replica of these ships can be spotted at Hiyoriyama Park, which is also a popular location for cherry blossom viewing. From the park, you can enjoy a mesmerizing sunset with Sakata's port in the back.
The safflower, a famous and prized product of Sakata City
Enjoy traditional fine dining in an authentic ambience.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), the main products that made salesmen from Kyoto come all the way to Sakata, were rice, whetstone (utilized to sharpen blades) and safflower, a flower used to produce traditional Japanese lipstick as well as dying cloths red, including kimono.
A significant number of ryotei, or classic Japanese restaurants were established during these days, at which tradesman from Kyoto were entertained in the hope to make good business deals.
Today, ryotei style restaurants are no longer frequently visited by the locals, which forced most ryotei in Sakata to close down over the last few decades. Still, most of their buildings remain to this day, making a scenic stroll around this historic town full of atmosphere.
The main entrance to Somaro.
Maiko dancing at Somaro
The most famous ryotei during Sakata’s glory years was without a doubt Somaya, which closed down in 1995 after more than two centuries. One year later, it changed its name to Somaro and reopened its doors as a tourist facility.
At Somaro, you cannot only get a tour through the building’s many traditional Japanese rooms and learn about ryotei culture, but also enjoy a dance performance by maiko (geisha apprentices), which is a common form of entertainment at ryotei.
A moutain priest blowing a conch horn
Traditional Japanese vegan food at Ideha shrine
Located nearby Sakata City, is Mt. Dewa. Here, three sacred shrines each stand on a different peak. With a history of more than 1,400 years, the mountain is known to be Japan's oldest site for Yamabushi (mountain priests) to worship.
Monks here have developed a unique kind of shojin ryori (traditional Japanese vegan food) that relies on wild mountain vegetables. Try it for yourself at the lodging of Ideha shrine at Mt. Haguro. (Reservation required)
4h from Tokyo via Niigata Staition (JR Joetsu Shinkansen Line) to Sakata Station by JR Uetsu Main Line.