Shonai Is The Secret Corner Of Japan Where You Can Live Like An Emperor For Cheap
In recent years it feels like everyone has been to Japan. Last year 550,000 Aussies made the journey to this beautiful land for a multitude of different reasons; world-class snow, traditional culture, ramen, Mario Kart, and drinking convenience store beers on the street.
While there’s plenty to do on the main tourist haunts like Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima and more recently Takayama, these locations are barely even the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. Japan is a nation with so many layers, countless secret delights, that may be a little more difficult to sniff out and Shonai a little known town located in Yamagata Prefecture, is one such place.
So, what’s so great about Shonai?
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In short, pretty much everything! But if we’re going to get more specific, it’s a place as historic as Kyoto, with a traditional food culture on par with Tokyo, hiking trails as lush as the Mt Koya, a passion for getting boozed up that could easily rival the hard-drinking Osakans and nearby skiing opportunities as abundant and far more untouched than Hakuba. But what makes it even better is that outside of Japan, only a select few even know about Shonai.
In fact, according to local travel company The Hidden Japan, in 2016 at a time when international tourism was well and truly peaking, “less than 1 percent of overseas tourists to Japan visited” simply because they didn’t know about the place. It may be a little more enigmatic than other pockets of the nation, and there’s not a lot of English-friendly information on the place, but for those willing to do a little extra homework, you’ll be more than generously rewarded.
Where is it, and how do I get there?
Shonai is positioned the northwestern corner of Yamagata Prefecture, in northern Honshu, practically opposite from Sendai. For those who are only familiar with the major cities, it’s a one-hour plane ride via ANA from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.
The best way to get there is by airplane because there’s no bullet train link to the area, and if you want to go by rail you’ve got to be willing to put aside a good five or so hours, and it’s often more expensive than flying too. As of May 2019, you could fly direct for about 8,000 yen ($105 AUD), while rail will set you back ¥12,000 (AU$160).
Once you get there though there’s enough to keep you occupied for a handful of days at least, and if you have an international drivers license (pretty easy to get, you need it for those infamous Mario Karts too) your opportunity for exploration will benefit exponentially.
Where condiments are serious business and Jellyfish ramen exists
Chat with the locals of Shonai, and you’ll realise that they low-key love to boast about the affordability of the area’s incredible food. From shojin ryori (multi-course vegetarian dishes typically created for monks) to freshly caught seafood, if you like to eat, you’ll love Shonai. Here, locals claim you can expect a high-end sushi meal to set you back about 2,000 yen, which is practically chump change compared to Tokyo.
Beyond the big stuff though, they also love all the little details, one great example is Honcho, a local pickle factory that’s been running for over a century now. It’s well worth a visit if you’re serious about snacking, as the store next to the factory is filled to the brim with sour and salty delights. Staying on the salty theme Hanabusa Soy Sauce Factory is another snack centric destination for chefs of all levels. Founded in 1823, the factory produces soy sauce, miso-based treats like warm, hearty soups and fresh vegetables covered in sweet and salty miso paste.
Looking out onto the Sea of Japan Kamo Aquarium is your last unlikely culinary destination. Sure, this is also an aquarium, and the idea of eating fish at an aquarium does seem a little barbaric, but this particular marine wonderland focusses on jellyfish.
The hypnotic LED-illuminated displays of alien-like jellyfish blobs floating through the black water make for some incredible displays. Also, in the lobby, you can buy jellyfish ice cream and jellyfish ramen, but if that’s not to your taste, there’s an excellent sushi restaurant attached to the facility too.
Yamagata, the region in which Shonai is located has long been known as home to some of the best rice in Japan, which by default means that they brew some rather incredible sake here too. Takenotsuyu is a Gold Medal award-winning sake brewer with a factory in Yamagata. Open to the public there’s limited English, but if you sign up for a tour, you can see all the brewing in action and sample some of the best batches.
Seeking spiritual enlightenment
Shonai region is one of the nation’s most diverse spiritual centres. It’s the heart of Shugendo, an amalgamation of Japan’s two major religions, Shinto and Buddhism, as well as animism (the belief that everything has a spiritual essence) and shamanism.
The area’s primary spiritual focus is mountain asceticism, a dedication to the spiritual powers of the mountains and the belief that it’s here departed souls and the gods reside. There are several temples and shrines very much open to the public and worth exploring, however, for the purpose of keeping it concise, these are the key three:
Zempoji Temple: With its colourful Buddha statues and towering pagoda, this mystical temple has plenty to admire from the outside, but inside is where the magic happens. Every day a collective of local monks hold a pray session where in unison they pour open the pages of ancient scripts to ‘fill the air with the wisdom of the books’ it’s a mesmerising display of meditative synchronicity.
Gyokusenji Temple: This foliage flanked temple sits at the base of the Dewa Sanzan, one of Japan’s most majestic mountain peaks. Although the surrounding area is stunning, the temple’s garden is its most boast-worthy feature. Filled with seasonal flowers, it’s been designated as a national cultural heritage site of scenic beauty.
Dewa Sanzan: Technically a collection of three shrines, Gassan, Ideha, and Yudono Shrine, Dewa Sanzan aka the three mountains of Dewa are three of the most sacred mountains in Japan. Dewa Sanzan is the centrepiece of Shugendo, Japan’s mountain worship, and where since the beginning of time monks have endured backbreaking feats endurance to transcend the physical world.
Where to stay in Shonai
To enjoy Shonai in authentic Japanese style, Yunohama Onsen Kameya is where you have to stay. Situated on the coast, this traditional ryokan inn offers panoramic views of the coastline, where the sun sets over the sea. The hotel was founded in 1813, and you can feel the history practically permeating through the immaculately maintained tatami mats and thick onsen bath steam.
If you’re headed to Japan, definitely also check out its storied whisky distilleries, the underrated city of Otaru, or what you need to eat from the country’s legendary 7-Elevens.