July 30, 2020

Yes to Yahiko!

Located to the southwest of Niigata City, Yahiko and its ancient shrine are a real hidden gem that more visitors to Japan ought to experience.

A tree-lined path in Niigata Prefecture that leads to Yahiko Shrine's main gate

Ever since hearing of Yahiko several years ago, I’ve been itching for a visit. I first encountered this area of Niigata Prefecture while perusing the channels of several Tokyo Creative’s content producers. At that time, the company was going by the name Odigo and had yet to make the complete switch to an influencer marketing firm. Since my initial viewing, I’ve gone on to befriend many of these content creators who first turned me on to Yahiko. Alas, for one reason or another, it was only until quite recently that I was able to visit the town in person.

As of this writing, it’s July 2020 and we are still amidst the coronavirus pandemic. While the government continues to send mixed messages by kicking off its Go To Travel campaign to stimulate domestic tourism, the fact remains no one really wants we accursed Tokyoites visiting. While it pains me to say this, you can’t really blame them. After all, the country’s capital is the epicenter for the majority of new infection spikes. Oftentimes I can maintain the ruse of hailing from other areas of Japan; nevertheless, my cover always gets blown when checking into my accommodations.

Seeing as it’s rather insensitive to be scheduling overnight trips right now, I recently hit up Yahiko during an aggressive day-trip. While the hamlet is well suited to a day-long excursion, I would not suggest that overseas visitors follow in my footsteps. If you’re going to commit to trekking all the way up to Niigata, it would really behoove you to spend more time exploring the prefecture. I’ve previously covered much of what’s on offer in this piece on Snow Country but suffice to say, a visit to Yahiko pairs well with another day or two in Niigata.

Getting to Yahiko

A bullet train bound for Niigata Prefecture on the Joetsu Shinkansen Line

Let’s quickly go over some key travel logistics before diving into Yahiko’s recommended sights. Assuming that you’re coming from Tokyo, you’ll need to hop a bullet train on the Joetsu Line. While certainly not infrequent, these trains don’t have the same departure rate as the bullet trains running to Kyoto and Osaka. As such, you’ll want to refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to help calculate the most suitable train schedules. Your first destination will be Niigata Prefecture’s Tsubame-Sanjo Station.

Once you’ve completed the bullet train leg of the journey, the next slice of the trip requires you to travel via local lines. At Tsubame-Sanjo Station, you’ll need to transfer to the JR Yahiko Line. From there, you’ll want to ride until reaching the final stop, Yahiko Station. Note that in many cases, you’ll need to transfer at Yoshida Station as not all trains on the JR Yahiko Line go to the terminus point. Additionally, you’ll want to remain mindful of the train schedules considering the infrequent departures. Remember to store this tidbit of information when planning the return portion of your trip.

After arriving in Yahiko, you’ll need to walk a few minutes until you happen upon the town’s major allures. Unfortunately, for those who don’t like hoofing it, there are few other alternatives to walking in Yahiko. What’s more, the area has the additional challenge of being somewhat hilly. Though nothing too arduous, there’s a constant incline as you make your way towards the main attractions. During the summer months, the rolling terrain can encourage a bout of profuse sweating. Thankfully, you can wash up at some of Yahiko’s many ryokan that open their baths for a day use option.

What to See in Yahiko

The main hall of Niigata Prefecture’s ancient Yahiko Shrine

When it comes to content, Yahiko’s many attractions are something akin to a charcuterie board. The various allures are spread out over different sections of this sleepy town. What’s more, there is no real unifying theme to what’s on offer. As such, I am going to opt to introduce my recommendations in a bullet list format and leave it up to you, the reader, to determine which venue resonates most given your interests.

  • Yahiko Shrine
    Yes, I just finished saying that Yahiko is like a choose-your-own-adventure style of destination however this is the one spot that I am going to insist you visit. Sitting at the foot of the 634 meter-tall Mt. Yahiko, this shrine is as ancient as they come. In fact, a poem dating way back to Japan’s Nara period (710–794) describes Yahiko Shrine as already being old. While much of the original architecture burned to the ground following a fire during the early twentieth century, the main object of worship remarkably survived. Yahiko Shrine withstood the blaze because it doesn’t have a honden. Instead, the shrine uses Mt. Yahiko itself as the place of enshrinement.
  • Mt. Yahiko
    Speaking of Mt. Yahiko, know that this peak makes for a popular climb. As far as Japan’s mountains go, the hike is not particularly challenging and can be completed in under two hours. Alternatively, there’s a ropeway that will ferry your behind to Mt. Yahiko’s upper elevations. From there, the summit and Gojin-byo, the actual place of enshrinement for Yahiko Shrine’s deity, can be reached in approximately ten minutes on foot. Should you venture to the top of the crag, be sure not to miss out on the killer views of Sado Island and the Sea of Japan.
  • Yahiko’s Onsen
    Seeing as it’s located directly next to a mountain, it should come as no surprise that Yahiko is home to many onsen. The only public bath that I could spot was quite removed from the attractions yet many of Yahiko’s ryokan open their doors to day trippers. You’ll find a collective of these traditional inns on the main street that leads up to the Yahiko Shrine grounds. During my visit, I opted for a long soak at Minoya which I’ve linked above.
  • The Velodrome
    In the mood for a little gambling? Well, know that Yahiko’s Velodrome is home to a killer Keirin racing circuit. The sport is one of four in Japan where it is legal to gamble. A typical race consists of five laps around a 2,025 meter-long track. At the Velodrome, visitors can catch heats from April to November (the winter months are too snowy). Oh, even if you aren’t interested in placing a bet, it can be thrilling to just watch the bikers as these top athletes can reach speeds of up to seventy kilometers per hour!
  • Yahiko Park
    Located back near Yahiko Station (which by the way, looks like an Inari shrine), this public park is a must-see during the autumn months. As fall rolls in, all of Yahiko Park becomes illuminated by spectacular seasonal jues of crimson and yellow. These autumnal tones accent the vermillion Kangetsu-kyo Bridge and set the scene for amazing Instagrammable moments. Additionally, you’ll also find a short hiking path in Yahiko Park that leads to Yu Shrine. This sepulcher is said to be the birthplace of Yahiko’s hot spring waters. No question you’ll work up a sweat getting there but I encourage onsen enthusiasts to make the pilgrimage.

All in all, visiting each and every one of the above attractions should take you a little over half a day.

Attractions Near Yahiko

The view of the Sea of Japan from Mt. Yahiko in Niigata Prefecture

As mentioned in the opening paragraphs, you’d be a fool to come all the way up to Niigata Prefecture just for Yahiko. While I love that little town with all my heart, there is just so much more in this neck of the woods that also deserves your time. So, what else do I recommend to see? Well, for starters how about hitting up Sado Island? Visible from the top of Mt. Yahiko, this isle in the Sea of Japan is quite honestly deserving of its own guide. Assuming you are able to drive, definitely do some research on this hidden gem.

Not able to get behind the wheel for whatever reason? Fret not. There’s still a lot more in Niigata Prefecture that can be done by train. For starters, portions of Snow Country are amenable to those without a set of wheels. Additionally, Niigata Station can be reached in just over an hour from Yahiko. There, you’ll find one of the infamous Poshukan. For the price of a mere 500 yen, visitors can sample from a choice of five locally produced sake. With over one-hundred variants to savor, a trip to the Ponshukan is certainly a visit that you’re bound to (not) remember!

Until next time travelers…