Rural Japan: Yahiko Village in 40 Photos

At 7:48, when the morning sun was still reflecting off Tokyo Station’s silver towers, the Shinkansen Max Toki 305 slid from the platform. Sleep deprived because I accidentally discovered Olympics badminton the night before, I went straight to napping.

Yahiko is about a 3-hour, super comfortable, train ride from Tokyo. Japan’s Shinkansen make me love long train trips.

My destination lay right under a mountain that faced the sea. It’s not what you think. Yahiko Village is on the fertile Niigata plains that stretch between the Japanese Alps and the Sea of Japan. On this flatland, a small mountain range forms a mini wall against the sea, and the holy mountain is none other than Mount Yahiko. I was visiting using travel tips from Odigo Japan, and you can see my itinerary at the end of the post.

First, arrival and food!

Yahiko Bunsuido 弥彦村 分水堂

Pandayaki (パンダ焼き) is a specialty of Bunsuido.

Yahiko Pandayaki 弥彦村 パンダ焼き

Pandayaki (パンダ焼き)

Yahiko-6431 Pandayaki 弥彦村 パンダ焼き

Soy bean Pandayaki (パンダ焼き) is Bunsuido’s signature sweet.

It’s one of those assuming shops, Bunsuido, but it makes a famous snack called panda-yaki, a panda-shaped stick-rice pancake with various fillings. The most creative one is the edamame flavour, which has a subtle, savoury soy flavour to compliment the sugar in this sweet. I also recommend their matcha green tea soft ice cream, which is also not too sweet!

In my eagerness to eat, I dropped my lense cap into the sewer and spent a good 15-minutes getting it back out. Thankfully, it didn’t have running water, or I’d have been quite despondent the entire trip.

Yahiko-6457 弥彦村

Old-school, *ahem* traditional, wine caskets

Yahiko Shrine-6460 弥彦神社

Iconic Yahiko Shrine Bridge

I entered Yahiko Shrine, the main attraction of the town, close to noon. The shrine grounds, which is a well-tended expanse of cedars sprinkled with younger saplings, offered instant reprieve from the over-active sun. Most of the visitors aglomerated here.

Being used to small and even abandoned shrines, part of me reflexively cringes when I see more than 10 people. Still, the families, tour groups, young couples, and elderly pairs created a harmless air of bubbly ambience. The shrine approach is wide enough for several horses to march side by side and had plenty of space to accommodate the ebb and flow of traffic.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

The thing that caught my eye.

弥彦神社

And the sound that caught my imagination.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

The Fujifilm X100 gave me black and white again.

I wanted to find something about the shrine that was personal, whatever that meant. Shrines in Kyoto and Nikko are impressive feats of human skill gathered by wealth and power. I like studying that type of workmanship. The shrine at Miyajima commands attention, drawing the visitor inwards. Shrines like Yahiko are better for highlighting the surrounding area.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

Final approach to the main worship hall.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

The courtyard and the prayer hall where visitors make their prayers.

For photographers, dawn and dusk are the best time to photograph temples, in my opinion. The daylight creates too much contrast for photography. It doesn’t dampen the spirits of the visitors, though. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the families coming through the gates. This struck a balance of casual ambience and reverence.

Yahiko-6493 弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

Ame no Kagoyama no Mikoto, great-grandson of Amaterasu Omikami, is the enshrine deity here.

201608 Yahiko-6494

The usual sake offerings found in big temples. Each is from a local brewer.

After clapping my hands (mistakenly twice, instead of the special 4 claps for Yahiko Shrine), offering my coin, and saying a prayer, I moved off to explore the rest of the grounds.

Yahiko-6501 弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine

A private moment at a specific shrine.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine Shinto

May this lengthy wish come true.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine Shinto

A modest auxilary shrine belies the might of the kami to grant our wishes.

The best way to enjoy them, in my opinion, is to find the perfect moment. Perfect moments are different for everyone.

I stumbled upon a lady who laid her wishes before a specific kami, spirit / god. Just 50 metres away, over a hundred people walked by the main boulevard while she prayed. Many major shrines (and temples) also have smaller shrines. These more modest structures are auxiliary shrines that act as conduits for spirits housed elsewhere.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine National Treasure-6508

This small moss-covered thatch hut is a national treasure.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine Shinto Stone Guardian

Stone guardians

Then, being a history junkie, I headed off into the Treasure Hall. Places have more dimension once I place them in history. History becomes more anchored when I can see artifacts and read stories.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine treasure hall Sword Katana

Many blades in the treasure hall had their hilts removed.

弥彦神社 Yahiko Shrine treasure hall Sword Katana

The blades on display in the treasure hall.

I didn’t know what to expect at the Treasure Hall. A cursory skim of the items yielded a bland cataloguing of names and dates. However, when I arrived, paid my ¥300 and headed to the second-floor, I was quite surprised. Some of the blades on display were huge (I had to stand back 5 metres to fit 2 into my frame), while others were more pragmatic sizes.

Some people may find the admission fee a turn-off, but I feel that it’s a worthwhile investment for the maintenance of not only the artefacts, but the entire shrine grounds.

With that, I headed off to more temple-hopping.

Yahiko Hoko-in 宝光院

Hoko-in temple 宝光院

Yahiko-6537 Hoko-in 宝光院

The Amitabha Buddha Hall was built in 1328

I also didn’t know what to expect of the Hoko-in, having seen my fair share of temples. Old things can be big or small, impressive or underwhelming. That a building has survived half a millennia or just been erected two decades ago rarely changes our immediate, superficial, reactions. On the surface, this temple is a well-kept, simple structure. The altar is open and visible to visitors. But it would be a disservice to say it’s a typical temple, simply because typically authentic and old temples generally make great places to sit and just watch the afternoon go by.

This temple is about a 10-minute walk from Yahiko Shrine and could be easily missed on the undulating paved road. Small signs point to the Hoko-in and the Basho Monument behind the building.

201608 Yahiko-6589

Monument to the Emperor’s visit. Momnuments are everywhere in Yahiko,

Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) is the preeminent poet of Edo Japan, famous for taking the famous 5-7-5 syllable haiku form to new heights. His masterwork Oku no Hosomichi, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, one of my favourite literary travelogues (literary aside – Basho was influenced by the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu). The Deep North was the old Northern Frontier that loosely included places like Yahiko (you can see the full route in the map below).

Unfortunately, I didn’t find Basho’s monument. Or, perhaps I did and didn’t know it for there were many weather-worn stone graves behind the Hoko-in. The path behind the building led to a small cemetery that seemed to have grown up with the trees protecting the stones. Some were so worn they could be mistaken for boulders if it wasn’t for the shide and laurels placed carefully beside them. Some also had fresh rice laid on a leaf, a sign that a family member has visited for Obon, a summer festival to visit the dead.

Yahiko-6550 Hoko-in 宝光院 Shide 紙垂, 四手

Shide (紙垂, 四手) are paper streamers that are used in Shinto rituals, often for purification.

This cemetery is the warmest I’ve ever visited, an unexpected highlight. There’s something about the mix of freshly carved tombstones mingled with the moss-covered nameless markers, although I couldn’t place my finger on what. I moved on to find the 1000-year-old Baba Sugi deeper into the grounds.

Yahiko Hoko-in 宝光院

Natural path leading to graves behind Hoko-in

Again, it was just a place where I wanted to stop and stare. A fresh current came through the bushes without rustling the leaves. A beam illuminated the log bench where I could have sat. Looking up, this cedar’s branches seemed like they were the sky.

Yahiko Hoko-in Baba Sugi 宝光院 ばば杉

1000-year-old cedar tree watching over the graves.

Yahiko-6565 Jizo 地蔵

Jizo 地蔵 statues with faces worn with age, still cared for.

Jizo, protector of pregnant mothers and travellers. My time on Shikoku will always endear me to this protector and all those who take care of him. One of the things I love most about these rural places is how people continue to care for things, even as they accept the fading features and dissolving identities.

弥彦村 Yahiko-6612 Japanese house

Such well kept traditional houses and gardens!

弥彦村 Yahiko-6614 village house

These simple buildings aren’t so simple to maintain!

Yahiko-6611 Ivy Windows

Small moments.

Within an hour of arriving, I was taking photos of people’s front lawns and gardens. The village is a small one, and some homes are still crammed into typically small Japanese lots, but people still take time to grow things. The families that do have space tend to keep their trees trimmed and their pots filled with blooming flowers.

弥彦村 Yahiko-6615

Oh the Japanese and their cute signs

弥彦村 Yahiko-6617

My favourite alley in Yahiko Village reminded me of the Secret Garden

My favourite street was an alley (I think that was once a stream) I wandered down in search of late lunch.

弥彦村 Yahiko-6622

Warning: restaurants are disguised as houses.

Yahiko-6584 Sweets Shop

Sweets shop

I spent so much time walking, I walked past lunch hour (typically 12-2pm in the inaka, rural parts). I had the option to try more Japanese sweets or settle down somewhere to rest my feet. I was fascinated with these traditional shops, which are frequented enough to afford their upkeep. The interiors are usually a subtle juggle of maintained wooden beams, Shinto worship items, modern signage and posters, and well-kept retro items (at least for us North Americans).

Anyhow, by now, I needed food, and my options dwindled to the cafe right across from the Yahiko Shrine torii gate.

6627 Yahiko Shasaian 社彩庵

Shasaian 社彩庵 right in front of the Yahiko Torii Gate

6654 Yahiko Shasaian 社彩庵

Shasaian 社彩庵 cafe interior

Yahiko Shasaian 社彩庵 Parfai Menu

Handy photo menu. Options include parfait, cake, coffee, and anmitsu (traditional red bean dessert)

Yahiko Shasaian 社彩庵 Parfait

This kinako parfait was quite impressive!

I have to say, I was quite impressed with the kinako (roasted soy bean) parfait! It came with red bean, mochi (the chewy rice balls), cream, agar agar jelly, and a slice of fruit. It’s the perfect afternoon snack while waiting for sunset. And, because I brought my Fujifilm X100 this time, I could finally take a photo of my complete remote work station.

6642 Yahiko Shasaian 社彩庵

Remote working setup with Android phone, bluetooth keyboard, and food!

Yahiko Shrine 弥彦神社 Shasaian 社彩庵

The big win was the view from my spot.

Shasaian had a great ambiance because the stairway up broke up the two seating areas and kept the ambiance lively, but not too loud. I lucked out by getting a window spot facing the Yahiko Shrine torii, so I could watch as visitors trickled out and the leaves turned into an orange-golden glow.

Sunset over the ocean was around 6:30, but by 5:00, the sun had already dipped below the mountain to the West. At that point, I walked down the Manyodo to the Yahiko Ropeway. The Manyodo means the Manyo Road and references the Man’yōshū 万葉集, Japan’s oldest text representing a period between roughly 600-800 AD. That Yahiko is mentioned in this poetic collection is a testament to the town’s age and importance, a great source of pride for its locals.

6677 Mount Yahiko 弥彦山 Sunset

Walking the ridges along Mount Yahiko

The ropeway took me directly to the top, where I could walk to the observation tower. In Japanese, the announcement told me sunset was at 6:50pm, so I had about an hour to spare. Everyone was flocking to the tower and the dining building, so I headed in the opposite direction to follow the footpaths that traced the ridges.

6684 6677 Mount Yahiko 弥彦山 Sunset

Watching the shadows lengthen on the Niigata Plains.

Geographically, Mount Yahiko is an anomaly. The mountain ridge line forms a small wall against the Sea of Japan, rising out of nowhere and sliding back into the flatlands on either side. It’s no wonder that the place has been sacred for centuries.

6698 Mount Yahiko Sunset 弥彦山 夕方

Sunset at 6:50 in August

After walking along both peaks, I settled on a staircase, which frames the sunset better. On this mountain, I learned something: that the most beautiful sunsets are defined by their sound. First-class sunsets are over the sea and, in my opinion, made better with an island or two. The usual soundtrack is the soothing lap of waves.

The track I had that evening was the slow waking of crickets accompanied by single crow calls. Time slowed even as the ocean air continued to flow.

Two magenta brush strokes made up Sado Island in the distance.

6698 Mount Yahiko 弥彦山 Ropeway

Going up and down the 700 metres!

With sunset over, I had a dinner to hurry to. The ropeway down brief, but fun, perhaps thanks to the family that accompanied me up and down.

At the base, a free shuttle took us from the station back to Yahiko Shrine. Since I had time, I couldn’t help but visit the grounds gain while the sky still glowed.

6711 Yahiko Shrine Night 弥彦神社

Yahiko goes to sleep by nightfall.

6718 Yahiko Shrine Night 弥彦神社

Yahiko Shrine at dusk, after the lanterns are lit, before the sky is black.

The lanterns were lit, lending an atmospheric glow to the cobblestone. By now, only a handful of people were making up the last visitors for the day. The laughs, shouts and clamour just hours before have been replaced by a hush.

Yahiko-6729 弥彦村 いろは寿司

Iroha Sushi was the only place open! The appetizers with the sake.

By now I’m starving, but most of the village is closed. Of course, one or two establishments are still open, so my friends and I choose a restaurant on the main road. The place reminds me of the family restaurants across the street from me in Tokyo. They, too, have only a few tables on tatami mats and maybe one private room. Being able to walk past those places after dark, often with half-open doors and hearty laughter slipping out onto the streets, is what makes Tokyo homey. The menu items are handwritten and the sushi chef is just metres away behind the bar counter. At the end of a long day, spent enjoying all the things Tokyo doesn’t have, this familiar neighbourhood restaurant was the best way to feel at home on the road.

201608 Yahiko-6730 弥彦村 いろは寿司

Iroha Sushi was the only place open!

After dinner, I take my long-awaited shower and pass out. I have to wake up for seafood breakfast at Teradomari tomorrow!

Thanks for checking this out!

Here is my itinerary (made with Odigo Japan), look out for my upcoming post on my Yahiko Day 2 Trip.

In the meantime, you can check out my photo essay on Japan’s Lost Pilgrimage: Kunisaki.

14 responses to “Rural Japan: Yahiko Village in 40 Photos

  1. Thanks for sharing your trip, Athena! I feel like I’ve been transported to Yahiko village just by reading your piece haha. Looking forward to day 2!

    Like

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