Although many of the hidden treasures of Niigata prefecture require a car to visit, one of Niigata’s most stunning displays of its rich history can be easily accessed via the JR trainline. Yahiko Jinja, an ancient shrine at the base of the Yahiko mountain, is roughly an hour and a half train ride away from Niigata City, and from my experience, well worth the trip for hikers and sight seers alike.
Yahiko is a small town located to the south of Niigata City. To some, the town may feel like a trip back in time, reflected in its display of stylized wooden houses and its rustic, quaint, quiet streets. The shrine itself is located fifteen minutes on foot from the station, and there are many town maps exhibited around the station and town to help guide tourists. For those of you that decide to come by car, free parking can easily be found in close proximity the shrine as well.
The shrine stands at the base of Yahikoyama (Mt. Yahiko). The shrine and mountain contrast together to form a breathtaking view, that can only truly be appreciated in person. Some believe that if you see one Shinto shrine, you have seen them all. I would argue that is not the case, particularly with Yahiko Jinja. The shrine’s dark rich color and perfect symmetry set it apart from many I had previously visited. The architecture of the shrine and backdrop of the looming mountain make it easy to see why the shrine gets an estimated visit of 240,000 people every year.
The shrine and town have a blurred history, as fires unfortunately crippled both in 1912, along with destroying most the notes and writings on the history of Yahiko. The shrine was rebuilt in 1916, and that is the structure that currently stands today. It is rumored, however, that the original shrine was two thousand, four hundred years old. Although it is argued by some scholars to be even older!
For hikers, Yahikoyama has a trail that leads to the mountain’s 634-meter summit behind the shrine that was an enjoyable climb, and not too straining to complete. The trail has ten markers, indicating how far one is from the summit that help a lot in gauging your progress. There is also a natural string after marker number 6, with clean and refreshingly delicious water.
If time is limited, one may also use the Yahikoyama ropeway to access the top of the mountain or return to the base. From the cable car, there is a great view of Sado-Yahiko-Yoneyama-Quasi- National Park (quite a mouthful) and the vast foliage veiling most of Yahikoyama. I visited in the summer and was able to enjoy the many shades of green leaves. But I imagine the autumn transformation of leaves is also breathtaking! If heights are not your thing, the top of the mountain can also be accessed by car.
The summit, like many across Japan, has a small shrine and a splendid panorama. Unfortunately, rain and fog shielded this from me on my visit, but hopefully you will be luckier than I! For those of you hoping to experience the culture of Japan, and specifically that of Yahiko, the shrine has a festival on February 2nd (although this will depend on the COVID situation for next year).
I hope you decide to visit and enjoy your trip to Yahiko and the other treasures of Niigata, as this one was well worth the trip for me.
Delun Attwooll is a writer from Atlanta, Georgia in American. He spent 4 years in Japan, living in both Kanazawa and Yokohama. He has visited Niigata many times.
Delun currently teaches in the Chungnam province in Korea, but he hopes to return to his favorite country, Japan, next year.