JSPS Quarterly
No.34 2010 Winter Topics

Introducing Japan: Tsuruoka

By Dr. Hervé Martial Poumalé Poumalé


With a population of around 140 thousand people, Tsuruoka is one of the major cities of the Shonai region of Yamagata Prefecture. Lying along the coast of the Sea of Japan, it is also the gateway for trekking in the sacred mountains of Dewa (the old name for the prefecture). This range of three mountains (Dewasanzan) has a 1,400-year history of attracting mountain ascetics, called yamabushi, who engaged in rigorous practices including standing under waterfalls, walking over fire, and even mummifying themselves while still alive. On their pilgrimages, the first of the mountains Haguro (414 meters) represents birth, from which Gassan (1,984 meters), the world of the dead, is ascended before making the ladder-clad descent to rebirth in the deep and holy recesses of Mt. Yudono (1,500 meters), a place so sacred that visitors have over the centuries been prohibited from talking about what they see and hear in it after going home. Though each of the three mountains has its own gods, all can be worshipped at the Gosaiden Shrine on the peak of Mt. Haguro, accessed via a 2,446-step stone stairway through a fragrant old forest of towering cedar trees.

Back to Tsuruoka, the Shonai area’s rich natural endowment of seashores, mountains and plains, makes this old castle town an especially wonderful place to visit. Its unique cultural traditions and properties, including historical buildings and castle remnants date back to the Edo Period (1603-1867). Within the city, Tsuruoka Park occupies the former site of the castle, in which the Sakai family, rulers of the Shonai fief, lived for about 250 years from the early 17th century. The castle moats and stone walls remain amidst groves of old cedars within the park. The park is also the prefecture’s most beautiful place for viewing cherry blossoms, which adorn some 800 trees in the spring. In it, a visit may also be made to the Taihokan Museum, dedicated to historical personages of the Shonai region.

Another of the city’s unique features is the Tsuruoka Catholic Cathedral, which was built in 1903 with assets donated by the French missionary, Father Dalibert. This 23.7 meter high cathedral is renowned for its exquisite Meiji-Romanesque architectural style, its beautiful stained glass windows, and its rare black statue of the Virgin Mary. Yet another place of interest is the Chido Museum, in which historical structures have been transferred and rebuilt and over 5,000 cultural artifacts are exhibited. The premises are designed in such a way as to allow the visitor to experience the traditional lifestyle of people in the Shonai region.

During the year, many colorful events are held in the city, including a flower festival on 15 July, a fire-burning ritual that culminates a week-long yamabushi pilgrimage through the sacred mountains on 31 August, and a purification torch-light festival on new year’s eve, all held atop Mt. Haguro. While in Tsuruoka to participate in its exciting events, enjoy its cultural traditions, or to go walking in its sacred mountains, be sure not to miss the chance to partake of its tasty local cuisine, such as moso bamboo-shoot soup, Shonai melons, grown on sand dunes, and its indigenous dadacha beans.

Taihokan Museum
Taihokan Museum
Tsuruoka Catholic Cathedral
Tsuruoka Catholic Cathedral

page top

JSPS Quarterly No.34 2010