A View of Yahiko From Above

Visiting a village is probably not the first thing to occur to most non-Japanese seeking a fun time in Japan. How unfortunate. Some of the country’s best-kept secrets are to be found tucked away in little, unassuming places where the legends are grand, the environment is lush and the people are warm. I present Yahiko Village.
 Exploring the charming streets of Yahiko Village -- Photo by Julie Fader
Nestled in Niigata Prefecture on the Sea of Japan, the village is endowed with a stunning array of natural and created assets, from shrines to onsen to mountains to forests. If you’re into the outdoors, but also enjoy a little R&R (rest and recuperation), Yahiko Village may just be the place for you.
I’m not exactly an outdoor guru or an onsen cognoscenti; I’m more of a cities and cafes kind-of-guy. But lovers of metropolises like me may from time to time have to take one for the team—even if that means reconnecting with mother nature by hiking up a mountain or stripping down for a hot public bath.
Start off your explorations at Yahiko Station -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
A good place to start in Yahiko Village is right next to Yahiko Station. Bear left, if you’re standing with the station behind you, and you soon come to Yahiko Park. The park is literally a 1-minute walk from the station, but is easily overlooked.
Like most parks in Japan, the one in Yahiko is immaculately landscaped. The spacecomes complete with a zen-style garden with large stones, moss and a pond containing carp. The flora, a mixture of low hedges and shrubs as well as trees of various heights, is arranged to achieve balance and contrast. The customary stone and red wooden bridges are present, too.
Now, one thing that makes humans human is our innate sense of adventure. While roaming this park is nothing akin to The Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now, the layouthas been designed to tickle the curious little being contained in all of us.
Looking up, I noticed some stone steps beyond the pond, leading up the only mound in the park. Overcome with curiosity, I decided to follow it. As the path narrowed and the foliage thickened, a child-like sense of naughtiness—as if doing something I probably shouldn’t—overcame me. What if I ran into a bear? Didn’t I read that this area houses wild boars?
 Adventuring and following stone steps in Yahiko -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
Thankfully, nothing of the sort happened. My little adventure through Yahiko Park led me down some backroads that ended up right next to Yahiko Shrine, a designated tangible asset and one of the major attractions in the village. Mind you, my exploration took an hour, having at first lost my way, but then recovered after being helped by two friendly septuagenarians.
 Exploring inside the gates of Yahiko Shrine -- Photo by Julie Fader
My main goal on this day, however, was not the shrine per se. Instead, I took to the paths and streams that ran hither and thither around the park proper. Often overlooked, the woods that surround Yahiko Shrine are a world unto themselves. Impressively tall pine trees give shade to a plethora of flora and fauna. One simply has to close the eyes and listen: a cloud of sound from birdsong to the chorus of cicada hangs everywhere, a natural and sonorous reminder of life.
Walking along the southeast part of the shrine, next to a stage for sumo wrestlers, I found myself in the middle of a pleasant surprise: a pen with some half-dozen deer.
 Meeting some furry friends at Yahiko Shrine -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
Confident and calm, yet a little shy, they appeared to be as curious about me as I was about them. Even more remarkable was the battery of rare chickens arranged next to the deer park. These fowl would give any bird of paradise a run for its money.
But the real peak of my outdoor escapades across Yahiko Village lay still ahead of me: Mount Yahiko. To get there, I waved sayonara to my furry and feathered friends and walked right into the main area of Yahiko Shrine. Bearing left as I entered the sacred space, I found myself at a side gate that led back into the woods.
A small dirt road leads one up to the ropeway—and with it to the summit of Mount Yahiko—or down to the main gate of the shrine. You can take a free shuttle bus service from the same place, but in keeping with my goal to be as one with nature as possible, I braved the 15-minute walk instead.
The ropeway—a smooth 5-minute ride to the summit—allowed me to catch my breath. Braver souls would have trekked their way up the mountain; not me. Keeping some energy in reserve turned out to be a good idea.
 Taking the ropeway to the top of Mt. Yahiko -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
The views from the summit of Mount Yahiko are something about which to rave. What catches the eye first is the vastness and serenity of the Sea of Japan, which lies beneath.
 Gorgeous views of the Japan Sea -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
Look around and you notice Yahiko Village itself sitting resplendent and tiny on the Echigo Plain. Downtown Tsubame Sanjo, which feels like a vast city when you first arrive, is equally small in the distance.
Apart from hiking the stone paths along the summit, you can enjoy a picnic next to the Goshinbyo Mausoleum (if the weather allows) or enjoy a sumptuous meal in one of two restaurants in a two-storey complex right next to the Ropeway.
 Mt. Yahiko commands great views from 634m above -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
 Udon noodles and ice cold beer on the top of Mt. Yahiko -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
When I was there, I took my place on the second-floor restaurant and ordered udon noodles and a draft beer. It was just me, my noodles, a cold brew and my undisturbed view of the Sea of Japan and the Echigo Plain.
 Relaxing in a hot spring food bath near the shrine -- Photo by Lauren Shannon
An hour later, I dipped my feet into a foot onsen back down by the shrine, and my outdoor adventure above Yahiko came to a lovely and serene ending.

John Amari