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Yamagata Spiritual Tourism / Acceptance : The spirit of Uketamo

contact : mice@wondertrunk.co

Discover first-hand how new ideas start here through experiences where nature and humans live as one.

In July, we had the opportunity to cover spiritual tourism in Yamagata. Spiritual tourism was selected in March 2015 as one of five main themes for the Yamagata Prefectural Hospitality Tourism Plan, and these efforts aimed at overseas tourists from Oceania, North America, and Europe have been greatly received.

Our flight arrived in Shonai airport about an hour after setting off from Haneda airport. ANA offers four flights per day from Haneda, and Jetstar one a day from Narita. This marked the start of our brief four-day spiritual tourism coverage. In this article, I will introduce my thoughts on MICE activities related to spiritual tourism in Yamagata during “a trip of the heart in another side of Japan”.

Photo: Makiko Yamamoto, Honorary Japan Chapter Chair, Japan Chapter of Meeting Professionals International, attending spiritual tourism in Yamagata.

■Zen and Yamabushi Training

●Ryutakusan Zenpoji Temple

Ryutakusan Zenpoji Temple is one of the big three Soto sect locations for worship in Japan. The temple worships a dragon god (believed to control water), and as such it is known for praying for the safety of those working at sea, such as those in the trade or fishing industries.

At Zenpoji, we trained with Zazen meditation, official prayers, calligraphy, and Shojin Ryori (ascetic cuisine). First, we learned that training is not the harsh training we had in mind. To live means you simply accept body, mind, relationships, time, and space, essentially everything that exists. So, how does one learn to accept? Well, it’s not a matter of amassing experiences, rather only through letting go can we learn to accept. Take for example a hot day. It’s not about saying ‘it’s so hot and I don’t like it’, but accepting the heat for what it is. Training is about ridding ourselves of desires, expectations, and prejudices, forgetting our ego, and building a heart that is capable of acceptance.

For the meals, of course there was zero use of animal protein. The meals that day comprised of rice, miso soup, pickles, sesame tofu, and boiled beans. There was even a certain way we had to place our chopsticks, and we were only allowed to put one thing in our mouths at a time. So, we would take some rice, place our chopsticks down, and chew at least 30 times. Only then would we move on to the next thing. Nothing was to be left behind. If you touched something, you had to eat it all. By chewing everything in silence, our awareness of the raw ingredients was heightened, and we felt greater appreciation towards the gifts of nature.

I thought the calligraphy would be simply copying characters, however, we had seek peace and maintain a Zen state of mind throughout. I believe this is something children or overseas guests would take an interest to, and I felt it would be easy to implement into a MICE program.

●From the Pilgrim Lodges to Mt. Haguro

The Dewa Sanzan are known as mysterious mountains for ascetics where the Kami gods reside. The Dewa Sanzan is the collective name of the three mountains of Dewa, Mt. Haguro (the present), Mt. Gassan (the past), and Mt. Yudono (the future), and by visiting each of these three mountains it is believed that you can be spiritually reborn.

During the Edo period (1603 to 1868), each mountain entrance to the Dewa Sanzan had a Shukubo pilgrim lodge and they numbered around 300, however these days only about one tenth remain. We stayed at Daishinbo, a Shukubo pilgrim lodge with over 300 years of history and tradition that in recent years has been welcoming in ordinary tourists, including from overseas. By the way, Shukubo are lodges that were originally set up for
pilgrims to purify body and mind before beginning worship.

After gaining energy the next morning from a breakfast centered around vegetables prepared with warm and loving hands, we had a mountain-entry ceremony at the altar. This is where we learned about the philosophy of Uketamo. Similar to Zen, Uketamo is about accepting things for what they are. I heard that the training to become an official Yamabushi requires completion of a week-long training with Dewa Sanzan shrine five times. And, during training, any word besides Uketamo is not allowed. In essence, we have to accept everything. In this way we come face to face with our true selves where the Kami (gods) reside in the mountains, come to realizations, and begin to see a new world.

This time we did a training on Mt. Haguro much like trekking, adorning the white robes of the Yamabushi (mountain ascetics) before setting off. We continued through the awe-inspiring atmosphere following the footsteps of our Sendatsu (Yamabushi guide), past a cedar tree over 1,000 years old (a natural memorial monument), prayed at the National Treasure Five Story Pagoda, and climbed the 2,446 steps through the cedar forest to the top. My recent lack of exercise had me running out of breath, however I accepted things for what they are as I forgot my ego, and step by step, I was able to face my true self (well, at least I tried to).

●Saikan Hagurosan Sanrosho

Saikan was registered as a Tsuruoka City Cultural Property in 2005. Saikan lies near the top of the third slope on the main path to the shrine on Mt. Haguro. Saikan’s entrance dates back to the 16th century when the complex was known as Kezoin Temple, and was one of the three main temples on Mt. Haguro. The complex was renamed Saikan when it was moved during the Meiji period separation of Shintoism and Buddhism. These days, ordinary tourists can also stay here, and it is famous for Shojin Ryori Ascetic Cuisine that uses natural mountain vegetables, mushrooms, and other ingredients taken directly from the mountains. The chef very kindly explained the meals to us saying, “if Yamabushi got sick on the mountains, they couldn’t come down easily. This food was a means of preventing sickness, which they were able to heal quickly by adjusting their diets according to changes in their bodies.”

The ancestors used trial and error repeatedly to make the wild plants growing on the mountains edible. Even now, time and effort is being expended for ingenuity** based on the knowledge gained from these many years of trial and error. This is quite literally ‘food for life’. Yamamoto Makiko, Honorary Head of MJI Japan Chapter, added that we were advised to package the Yamabushi trekking with lunch, but with the chef’s explanation and meals, programs that help deepen the understanding of the traditional food culture of the Yamabushi could be implemented into various other MICE activities.

●Luna Sake Warehouse

Luna’s website accurately states, “Luna is a large green complex where small birds often drop in. The 160-year old Edo-period sake warehouse at the end of a lane inconspicuously yet gorgeously harks back to a foregone era. Luna, where new tastes of Shonai only available here and relaxing times await.” The restaurant is decorated with pieces of antique furniture from both Japan and overseas that surpass time. Dining in such luxury, the Kaiseki meals first draw your eyes to the beautiful array of appetizers on large bowls, and the strength of the raw vegetables of the chilled tomato and cucumber overpowers you. Along with the tableware, the meals that come out one after another are as much a delight for the eyes as they are for the heart, and they moved and astonished us right to the last bite.

Yamamoto also highly praised the location: “The dinner on the second floor is perfect for VIPs, the well-off, and the manager class. As experiential programs have been in the spotlight in recent years, it might be an idea to try the makunouchi bento box for lunch, or other gourmet experiences that use locally-produced, locally-consumed ingredients. This place is great not only for international guests, but also offsite meetings for management from Tokyo.”


About one hour away by bus from Tsuruoka lies Dewaya, a Ryokan specializing in mountain vegetable and mushroom cuisine where we had a wonderful performance for lunch fit for VIPs or management. But first, the facilities. We passed through an entrance dating back to when Dewaya first hosted pilgrims, and down to a converted rice warehouse deep in the back. The warehouse had a traditional Japanese tatami room and bathroom on the first floor. On the second floor, the chef had prepared a table especially for us. The chef had experience working in restaurants in Kyoto, but stated he wasn’t interested in serving Kyoto-style cuisine, rather cuisine that exclusively uses locally-available ingredients to bring out the full flavor of the land. The chef maintains Dewaya’s mountain cuisine and breathes new life into the mountain vegetables using the best cooking and preservation methods in an area known for heavy snowfall where freshness is paramount.

The chef hands out dish after dish as he gracefully arranges each of the ingredients right in front of your eyes, all the while explaining exactly what they are, and the way they are prepared. Even more surprising than the sheer number of dishes available is the breathtaking way in which the chef is able to turn seemingly bitter vegetables into gourmet masterpieces. Not only that, the vegetables look stunning on the old-style porcelain Imari ware, and the marriage between the food and Yamagata wine is euphoric. Incidentally, the coasters say “delicious mountain vegetables” written by the brush of Taro Okamoto. Already blessed with authenticity, Dewaya takes the mountain vegetables even further, and the day that they venture out globally is not too far away.


Opened in September 2018, Suiden Terrasse is a hotel designed by architect Shigeru Ban made almost exclusively of wood. The changing of the four seasons can be enjoyed at Suiden Terrasse as it is built to float on the rice fields, a quintessential Japanese landscape. The simple and open spaces open up the confines of our hearts and bodies. The 143 guest rooms are simple in their beauty and invite comfort. The restaurant has a focus on producing and consuming everything they provide, and there is an outdoor area where you can take in the sunlight and greenery amongst the rice fields. Morning yoga, tomato harvesting, and other activities based on food education are also available.

We didn’t get the chance to see much of it this time, but Suiden Terrasse is part of the Tsuruoka Science Park, another location deserving of attention. The area has a collection of leading-edge bio-technology research facilities and bio-ventures. Yamamoto adds, “there are plenty of rooms at Suiden Terrasse perfect for MICE. The hotel is also at a quality that is able to host higher-class international clientele, and if you can get a booking there is even potential for foreign-owned company meetings from Tokyo. Since there are meeting facilities in the Tsuruoka Science Park, I definitely recommend tying up with Suiden Terrasse, where staying guests get special use of the meeting rooms. Also, as there are companies gaining attention from abroad, a wide range of ideas such as factory visits or guest speaker presentations are on the table.”

●Through Zen and Yamabushi training

The only difference between Zen and Yamabushi training is where the training takes place; Zen in temples, Yamabushi in mountains. Both have the shared characteristic of teaching the concepts of getting rid of the ego, and accepting things for what they are. You face yourself in experiences that take you far away from ordinary life, and the spiritual concept of Zen and Yamabushi, in which you accept everything without any rejection to the location you have been placed in, is one that goes past nationality, race, religion, or culture. Especially in the concept of ‘uketamo’, there is no distinction of right or wrong, able or unable, or desire to do or not do things.

Yamabushi go through a spiritual rebirth in their training where they undertake Zazen meditation to clear the mind, thoughtfully chew their food, and leave the secular world to enter the realm of the ‘dead’. By doing all these in silence, you are able to rid yourself of your ego, sharpen your senses, and while appreciating and living with nature, your life is restored, and new values and a new world open up to you. I felt these activities are perfect for both domestic and foreign company meetings or incentive programs.

There are a number of points that may need to be considered when it comes to actually doing these activities. Of course there is no need to change the main part of the activity, but I think success would depend on proposing activities in line with the hosts’ reasons for holding them, the ways in which the programs are designed, and the understanding of MICE and the ideas behind it. I was only able to see the beginning, but I was able to feel our country’s MICE brand; ‘new ideas start here’. I expect great things in the future for these valuable MICE activities only available in Japan.

●About the Yamagata Spiritual Tourism Experience

The Shonai region is located amongst sprawling nature. The landscape with mountains in the distance and green rice fields as far as the eye can see, that I can picture turning into a sparkling yellow carpet when the rice plants flower in autumn, and the splendor born of the people who live uketamo in their daily lives alongside nature all came together to make it a satisfying trip.

Everyone we came across loved their work, hometown, other people, and their everyday lives, and while accepting the environment they are in, they take a lot of civic pride with passion and drive towards the future. These kinds of people who support the region are critical in any MICE destination. There are many excellent activities in the Shonai region, and although they may not have the scale to host large numbers, I felt the potential for the region to provide valuable activities only available there.

Yamamoto added that the beautiful sight of the rice fields while in transit, and the Michelin-starred cedars of Mt. Haguro were enough to heal her spiritually, and that this ordinary rural life began to feel extraordinary to her. She added that if this could be better defined, then spiritual tourism with a sense of everyday life in Yamagata could be incorporated into MICE activities.

When it comes to food, Yamamoto added, “Tsuruoka City is Japan’s only Creative City of Gastronomy, and if combined with spiritual tourism, can be amplified to promote the whole of Yamagata prefecture. It’s important for us humans to have strong hearts and sharpen our senses in the oncoming AI age. In this sense, I think spiritual tourism is certainly an activity of value”.

contact : mice@wondertrunk.co

TEXT : Mitsuru Moriguchi, Chief Editor, MICE JAPAN
MICE JAPAN : http://www.micejapan.jp/english/index.html
Photo:Kohei Kojima