The Ultimate Guide to Accessing the Dewa Sanzan
Written by Timothy Bunting
When it comes to unique experiences outside mainstream Japan, Yamagata’s Dewa Sanzan should be at the top of the list. You can read our other articles about why you should visit this place, but this article is a comprehensive guide on all the best ways to access the Dewa Sanzan; plane, train, bus, or car. Heard about Japan’s great outdoors? Keen to discover the culture and history of rural Japan? The Dewa Sanzan, the Three Mountains of Dewa, has your back.
First things first, where are the Dewa Sanzan? The Dewa Sanzan alludes to three sacred mountains, Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono, of the former Dewa Province. Dewa Province encompassed modern-day Yamagata and Akita Prefectures located on the west coast of the Tohoku region in northern Honshu. These days, the Dewa Sanzan lie entirely in the remote Yamagata Prefecture. In fact, they split inland Yamagata with the Shonai region along the coast of the Sea of Japan. This means you’re going to have to decide where in the prefecture you want to visit before you come.
Next, you’ll need to decide where on the Dewa Sanzan you’re going. Technically, all three of the Dewa Sanzan lie in the Shonai region on the Sea of Japan coast. However, you can access Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono from both inland and coastal Yamagata. If you’re wanting the ultimate Dewa Sanzan experience, we highly recommend staying somewhere in Tsuruoka City in the Shonai region. We especially recommend a Shukubo Pilgrim Lodge on Mt. Haguro, or Saikan at the top of Mt. Haguro. Why? This puts you in by far the best location to reach all three peaks, plus is a short walk from the Five Story Pagoda. Not only that, staying in a Shukubo or Saikan all but guarantees an immersive cultural experience only available on the Dewa Sanzan.
In saying that though, there are numerous other locations surrounding the Dewa Sanzan that are well worth the visit. Mt. Gassan is home to Hijiori and Shizu Onsen (hot spring) villages, and there are many other Onsen villages around. In fact, Yamagata Prefecture is famous for having an Onsen in every municipality. Tsuruoka itself has four famous Onsen towns; Yutagawa, Yunohama, Yura, and Atsumi, all located in convenient locations to reach the Dewa Sanzan. Not to mention the super-famous Ginzan Onsen, just like the Onsen from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
Other popular locations for visiting Mt. Gassan include Nishikawa and Sagae. While you’re in the region, why not check out other famous locations in inland Yamagata? Mt. Zao is available for skiing in winter and hiking in the summer, Yamadera is always available for a spiritual hike, which will put you in touch with your inner Matsuo Basho.
The remote location of the Dewa Sanzan can be a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that only those who truly want to visit do so. It’s a curse in that public transport can be infrequent and expensive. If you don’t have your own transport, or don’t speak Japanese, getting there can be a challenge. Fortunately for you, I’ve compiled this guide exactly on how to access the Dewa Sanzan.
Now that’s out of the way, there are many options available for getting to the Dewa Sanzan. Plane, bullet train, bus or car, put simply you are spoilt for choice on accessing the Dewa Sanzan. Obviously, the best method will depend on a number of factors; where exactly you wish to visit, where you are coming from, whether you have a JR pass, are an international resident with a flight back home, and of course how much money and time you have to spare. In this article, we take all these points into consideration, giving you the full picture on accessing the Dewa Sanzan. Finally, let’s review the best ways to access the Dewa Sanzan. Take your pick: foot spa trains, picturesque views of the Sea of Japan, snowy landscapes, or all of the above!
Air travel to the Dewa Sanzan is perfect for:
Fortunately, Yamagata Prefecture has good flight access from a few locations around Japan. Yamagata is rare in Japan in that it is served by two airports, Shonai (SYO) and Yamagata (GAJ). For ease of access, it’s much better to fly to Shonai Airport if you’re choosing that route. Remember, if you are an international resident and have a flight home, you can take advantage of ANA’s experience fare.
Shonai Airport has low-cost flights from Tokyo Narita on Jetstar, and flights from Tokyo Haneda on ANA. Jetstar is a low-cost carrier with one-way flights at around ¥5,000. Until August 31st, 2019, ANA offers discounted fares called ‘experience fares’ to Shonai Airport for international residents with an overseas return flight. If neither of these options are available, a one-way flight on ANA generally costs around ¥15,000 or more.
There is one flight a day each way on Jetstar to Narita; leaving Narita at 1:00 arriving Shonai at 14:05, then leaving Shonai at 14:50 arriving Narita at 15:55. There are four flights each day to Haneda from Shonai with varying times, but always around these hours: 7:10, 8:35, 12:50, 17:50. The return flights leave Haneda at 6:55, 11:10, 15:55, 20:15. Flights to and from Haneda take one hour.
Tokyo Haneda airport is easily accessible from the centre of Tokyo, taking less than one hour by train or bus. Tokyo Narita, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult to reach from the centre of Tokyo, taking 90 minutes to two hours. If you have a foreign passport, probably the best option is to take the Narita Express to take advantage of cheaper return travel.
Shonai airport is located on the border of Sakata and Tsuruoka Cities, and the city centre of each city can be reached by car or taxi within 30 minutes. There is a shuttle bus to Tsuruoka Station that costs ¥760 and leaves 10 minutes after every arriving flight. Then, from Tsuruoka Station you will have to take the bus to Mt. Haguro.
Yamagata Airport (GAJ) has flights to and from Tokyo Haneda, Osaka, Nagoya, and Sapporo on JAL. Fuji Dream Airlines serves the Nagoya route, and you can see Mt. Fuji on this route if the weather is right.
Be careful that Yamagata Airport is a little hard to access, especially in winter. However, there is an Airport Shuttle to Yamagata City that takes about 35 minutes and costs ¥980 for adults and ¥490 for children (under 6s ride free with one adult fare). A timetable and more information can be found here. Busses from Yamagata Airport to central Yamagata depart 15 minutes after every arriving flight. No reservation is required, and you can pay the fare when you get on the bus. In the reverse case, the shuttle busses to Yamagata Airport are designed to arrive 40 minutes before a flight departure.
There are a few options available to get to the Shonai region from Yamagata Airport. Of course, by far the easiest option is a rental car. However, other than that, you’ll have to take the bus to Yamagata Station, then take another bus from there to Tsuruoka before going onwards to the Dewa Sanzan. Since you’re already in the area, why not check out Yamadera?
For those travelling from places other than Tokyo such as Osaka, Nagoya, or Hokkaido, it might be a good idea to take advantage of the bus to Tsuruoka from Sendai Airport. From Sendai Airport or Sendai Station, there is a bus that costs ¥3,300 one-way or ¥6,100 return (halve the prices for children) and stops at S-Mall directly next to Tsuruoka Station.
Travel by train to the Dewa Sanzan is perfect for:
If you have the time, we’d highly recommend taking the train. The mountains and coast of the Sea of Japan in Yamagata Prefecture is one of the most beautiful places to travel in the country. In addition, if you’re taking the inland Yamagata route, the stretch from Fukushima to Shinjo includes a bullet train with a foot spa. Yamagata Prefecture is served by JR meaning the JR Pass and JR East Pass can both be used here. Trains without the JR Pass can be a bit expensive, costing around ¥14,000 one-way between Tokyo and Tsuruoka, or from Tokyo via Shinjo and Amarume.
Surprisingly, the easiest way to Shonai is not by Yamagata Shinkansen (Bullet Train). The number of trains available and timing between local and bullet trains means travelling via Niigata on the Joetsu Shinkansen and the Inaho Limited Express is often more convenient. In addition, the route takes you through the stunning Japan Alps, and along the coast of the Sea of Japan. This coastal route was voted one of the best drives in the country, and is definitely worth the added time it takes. If you time it right, the trip from Tokyo to Tsuruoka takes around four hours all up. Then, you can to take the bus from Tsuruoka Station to each of the Dewa Sanzan: Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, or Mt. Yudono.
The Niigata route is very popular amongst Japanese people due to the time and cost. Weekends and public holidays such as Golden Week around the first week of May and Obon in mid-August are very popular. It would be a good idea to avoid these times if possible, or to grab a reserve ticket as far in advance as possible. Travelling north from Niigata? Sit on the left-hand-side. Travelling south from Shonai? Sit on the right. This ensures you get the most of the views out onto the Sea of Japan.
Thinking about hitting up Mt. Zao, Yamadera, Ginzan Onsen, or the other attractions of Yamagata Prefecture on the way? Take the Yamagata Shinkansen called the Tsubasa. The Tsubasa is combined with the Yamabiko Shinkansen until Fukushima Station. Just make sure you sit in carriages numbered 11 or above, carriages 1-10 travel on a different line. The Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shinjo in the north takes about 3 and a half hours, with 16 services daily. A timetable can be found here. Be aware that not all trains stop at all stations once in Yamagata, so you may need to transfer.
Fancy a foot spa while you ride? How about a tatami seat, or a nice drink in a bar? Switch to the Toreiyu Tsubasa service between Fukushima and Shinjo. This service takes 2 hours 15 minutes and stops at every station along the way from the normal (i.e. non-Shinkansen) platforms. Be aware that this service is not run all year. If you want to visit Yamadera or Mt. Zao, get off at Yamagata Station and take the busses to Mt. Zao, or local train to Yamadera. The busses to Ginzan Onsen depart from Oishida Station.
To get to Tsuruoka from northern Yamagata Prefecture (Oishida or Shinjo), take the Shinkansen to Shinjo and switch to a local train to Amarume. Then, switch to the Uetsu Main Line that takes you to Tsuruoka. If you’re travelling from Yamagata City, Yamadera, Mt. Zao, Sagae, or Nishikawa, it’s best to take the highway bus to Tsuruoka.
Travel by bus to the Dewa Sanzan is perfect for:
Busses to and from Tsuruoka and Tokyo are very popular amongst the price-conscious, so expect to see many students. The busses are operated by Shonai Kotsu and Kokusai Kogyo. Shonai Kotsu has busses from Ikebukuro, Shibuya, and Shinjuku in Tokyo, Tokyo Disneyland in Chiba, and USJ via Kyoto and Osaka. The busses on offer all depart at night time and take around 7 or 8 hours arriving in your destination the next morning. These busess cost around ¥8,000 one-way from Tokyo, or ¥14,000 one-way from Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto, USJ).
You can also take the bus from Sakata Station or Sakata Aeon Mall to Tsuruoka station for ¥820 Yen, but the train is more convenient and cheaper. Shonai Kotsu runs busses to and from inland Yamagata (Yamagata City) and Tsuruoka, all the way up to Sakata and Honjo in Akita Prefecture. Busses from Yamagata Station to Tsuruoka cost ¥2,470. There are also busses from Sendai Station and Sendai Airport. Both of these busses stop at Sagae and Nishikawa and cost around ¥3,200.
If you have a car, getting to Yamagata is basically a matter of travelling north on the Tohoku Expressway. After Murata take the exit onto the Yamagata Expressway, and head towards Sakata. Then take the Shonai Asahi exit and head to Mt. Haguro (Google Maps link).
If possible, we highly recommend getting a rental car within Yamagata Prefecture as public transport can be infrequent and slow. When using public transport, besides the direct busses from Mt. Gassan or Mt. Yudono, the only way to access Mt. Haguro is by bus from Tsuruoka Station. This means that if you’re coming from Sakata City, Shinjo City, or Shonai Airport, you’ll have to make your way to Tsuruoka station first. It takes about 40 minutes from Shonai Airport to the Shukubo Village of Mt. Haguro by car.
Need to get to Mt. Haguro? Busses from Tsuruoka Station cost ¥820 and take about 40 minutes. If you’re staying in a Shukubo, most likely you will want to stop somewhere before Haguro Zuishinmon. Daishinbo and Daishobo are closest to Sakura Koji. Saikan, on the other hand, is located at the top of Mt. Haguro, so it would be best to get off at Haguro Sancho. This is also where the Dewa Sanzan Flower Festival and Hassaku Festival take place. More information for busses between Tsuruoka Station and Mt. Haguro and Mt. Gassan can be found here.
In 2019, the bus to and from the 8th Station of Mt. Gassan and Mt. Haguro runs every day in July and August, and on selected dates in September (1st, 7th, 8th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 28th, 29th, basically weekends and public holidays on the 16th and 23rd). This bus costs ¥1,560 from the top of Mt. Haguro (Haguro Sancho on the timetable), but can also be caught from the Shukubo Village or the Zuishinmon gates at the base. It is an extra ¥1,180 to get back to Tsuruoka Station on this bus. Alternatively, the bus that runs straight from the 8th station of Mt. Gassan to Tsuruoka Station costs ¥2,060.
In 2019, the busses to and from Mt. Haguro or Tsuruoka City and Mt. Yudono operate primarily on weekends from June to the first weekend of November, as well as for Obon (August 8 to 16) and other public holidays (July 15, September 16, 23, October 14, 22, and November 1). It is ¥3,000 for a one-day round-trip ticket. Note that Haguro Zuishinmon is at the base of Mt. Haguro, with Haguro Sancho being the top. Mt. Yudono’s bus stop is known as Sen’ninzawa Yudono.
The bus back to Mt. Haguro leaves from this car park at 14:10 or 16:50 on the dates mentioned. The 14:10 takes you to Mt. Haguro, but the 16:50 bus goes straight back to Tsuruoka station. If you’re staying on Mt. Haguro, we recommend getting back to Mt. Yudono in time for the earlier bus. Otherwise you’ll have to take another bus from Tsuruoka station.
There are many options for you to access the Dewa Sanzan, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Many people use a combination of two, most often flying to Shonai then taking the train to their next destination. I hope this article has provided you with the information you need to be able to access the Dewa Sanzan in a way that is appropriate for you and your group. If you’re stuck, don’t hesitate to reach out, we’re here to help!
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