There is no better place in Japan to have " forest baths" than in the Tohoku region. The Tohoku (North-Eastern region of Japan) is the less visited area of all in Japan. Its calm, coupled with its lush, wild, untouched nature, makes it the perfect place for shinrin'yoku 森林浴.
Shinrin'yoku is a Japanese concept that considers nature walks as a kind of therapy to cure depression and tiredness. In fact, many academic studies even outside Japan proved the link between interactions with nature and happiness. (1) (2) (3) (4)
Taking walks in nature makes us happier, less tired, less angry... But sometimes it can be hard to find a peaceful place for a wholesome shinrin'yoku experience. There are indeed beautiful mountains all around Japan, but chances are that if you have already heard of those, on social media or in a travel magazine, that the place has already become too touristy, and will not provide the calm you're expecting.
In that aspect, the Tohoku region is interesting to consider when planning your shinrin'yoku travels.
Very small media coverage, very few travelers, and very few buildings or city noise to hinder the experience... It is likely you will be the only one in that forest. A forest all for yourself, how amazing is that..?
In this article, we will present you the best shinrin'yoku places around Tsuruoka, if you happen to be in Yamagata Prefecture during your travel. Needless to say, we won't evoke places in Dewa Sanzan, that have been talked about in the media quite a number of times. We recommend you to bring a bear-bell with you, to warn-off the bears of your presence.
1. Yutagawa Onsen's surroundings
Yutagawa Onsen was once the public baths used by the pilgrims of Mt. Haguro until the 17th century. Even if the travel from Mt. Haguro to Yutagawa Onsen takes more than 8 hours to accomplish, it was common to see a pilgrim use the baths of one of the hot spring establishment of Yutagawa. In fact, Mt. Haguro had built annexes of its temples around Mt. Kinbô (the mountain near Yutagawa Onsen), in an effort to spread its faith in the Tagawa region of Tsuruoka until the mid-1600s.
For that reason, you will find plenty of little shrines and temples around Yutagawa Onsen, built inside sacred forests around holy trees, offering an occasion to not only bathe "physically" in the onsen's water. Such as:
1) Yuzusame-shrine 由豆佐売神社
This beautiful ancient shrine is located inside Yutagawa Onsen itself. Yuzusame shrine was first built in 650 and is one of the most ancient Shinto monuments in Tsuruoka (has been rebuilt in 1882). It was for a long time worshiped as a Shinto and a Buddhist place together, to the point it was called "Kannondo" (eng: "the Palace of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy") even though the building was Shinto in the first place.
It worships 3 gods: Seoritsuhime, a water goddess, Sukunabikona, the god of onsens among other things, and Onamuchi, one of the founder gods of Japan's lands. It also features a giant "breasted ginkgo" where women come to pray to have bigger chests.
Estimated time of visit: 30min. to 1 hour
2) Kumano-jinja Shrine 熊野神社
For this one, you will have to walk 20 min. from Yutagawa Onsen alongside the rice fields, or take your bicycle for a 10min. ride. This scenic shrine hidden inside a bamboo forest in Mizusawa hamlet is said to have first been built between 1227 and 1228. It worships Kumano Gongen, the deity living in Kumano Sanzan, in Southern Japan. In Tsuruoka, you will find several shrines entitled Kumano Jinja, in reference to the famous sacred site Kumano Kodo, that is at the origin of the Dewa Sanzan, that all show how important Kumano's culture was important in Dewa Sanzan's region. The shrine also hosts a giant holy tree called goshinboku 御神木, which you can usually admire by sitting on little wooden chairs, but they are covered with fresh moss.
As a souvenir of your visit to the place, you can use the shrine's stamp for your collection.
Warning: this shrine is hidden behind habitations, don't miss it out!
Estimated time of visit: 30min. to 1 hour
Bring your bear-bell!
3) Minakami Hachiman-jinja Shrine 水上八幡神社
Minakami-hachiman is only 200m away from the Kumano Shrine, that we showed you in one of our previous posts. This shrine has been protecting the villagers since the 15th century. Its beautiful thatch-roofed shrine made the place an Important National Property in 1950. But the highlight of the place truly is the rocky path covered in bright green moss that will lead your steps from the entrance up to the top of the site.
Estimated time of the visit: 30min.
2. Mt. Kinbô (Kinbôzan 金峯山)
As we stated previously, this mountain was once an annex for Mt. Haguro. Hence, you will find plenty Buddhist statues and temples around this mountain that is much less famous than its big sister. This very ancient mountain affiliated to shugendo religion has been the place of mountain worshiping practices for thousands of years ago. This is where the annual "snow lantern festival" of Tsuruoka takes place, and also where you'll find the two "lover trees" (meoto-sugi 夫婦杉).
Please bring insect repellent spray and your bear-bell.
Estimated time of visit: 1 to 3 hours