Viewing Fall Foliage in Yamagata Prefecture: A Tour of Bonji-gawa Valley, a Bewitching Spot in the Tohoku Region
Bonji-gawa Valley, near Mount Yudono in Yamagata Prefecture, is a recommendable spot for viewing fall foliage. There are not only the secluded valley but also fall hills blanketed with fall foliage pleasing to the eye. The surrounding dam, bridges, lakes, waterfalls and shrines are elaborately adorned with fall foliage as well. Here is an itinerary for a walking tour of the valley to view fall foliage.
Origin of Bonji-gawa Valley’s Name
It is said that, one day, Kukai (Kobo-Daishi, literally “the Grand Master Who Propagated the Buddhist Teaching”) came across a butterbur leaf that was written with Sanskrit scripts (bonji) and floating in a brook, and chased the leaf along the brook, and as chance would have it, he got to Yodono-san Shrine where Vairocana was enshrined, and later attained enlightenment there, thence the valley was named “Bonji-gawa Valley”.
A Tour of Bonji-gawa Valley
First, we take a bus in Yamagata Prefecture’s Tsuruoka for Gassan Rest Area (or Gassan Roadside Station, Michi-no-Eki Gassan), from which we embark on our tour of Bonji-gawa Valley.
Whether we drive cars or not, we are always on Rokujuri-goe Kaido (or 60-ri Goe Kaido), so we will not get lost.
Rokujuri-goe Kaido (literally 60-ri Road) is a 1200-year old ancient road connecting the coastal areas and the inland areas of Yamagata. Modern-day Yamagata Prefecture and Akita Prefecture were collective called Dewa Province in ancient times, so the road is also called Dewa Ancient Road. Besides numerous landscapes, Rokujuri-goe Kaido has many private houses called multi-layered houses (taso minka). Hence the road is designated as a Scenic Byway in Japan by Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.
1.Gassan Rest Area
At Tsuruoka Station on the Tsuruoka Tamugimata Line, we get on a bus for Tamugimata Station, and get off at Gassan Rest Area about 40 minutes later. In the rest area, there are many specialty stores and restaurants, where we may buy specialties or have a rest.
After a short walk, we get to Fureai (meaning “rapport”) Bridge. It surprises us that the neighborhood of a rest area offers such a beautiful view of fall foliage and it is an ideal location for take photos as a memento.
3.Gassan Asahi Hakubutsu Village
We move on to Gassan Asahi Hakubutsu Village (Gassan Asahi Hakubutsu Village) that is also in the vicinity of Gassan Rest Area. Besides a parks and a small observatory, the village has many services, among which the Gassan Wild Vine Institute (Yama-budo Kenkyujo) offers Gassan wine and free samples.
The Cultural Innovation Center is a must-see. It is a small museum exhibiting local history and culture, and also the Tourism Bureau, from which we can receive such free brochures as simple maps.
Divination with Butterbur Leaves for Happiness (Kofuku no Fuki Majinai)
“Fuki” means butterbur leaf and “majinai” means divination. Under Nabria Yukitsuri Bridge, our next destination, there is a huge heart-shaped rock; we may write our wishes on butterbur leaves and throw them down from the bridge; it is said that our dream will come true if the leaves fall right on the rock.
Paper slips resembling butterbur leaves can be bought from the Cultural Innovation Center, and let’s write down our wishes.
※ One slip of paper in the shape of a butterbur leaf is priced at 50 yen.
4.Nabira Yukitsuri Bridge
We leave the Cultural Innovation Center and walk for a short distance along Rokujuri-goe Kaido, we see Nabira Yukitsuri Bridge. The words “Divination with Butterbur Leaves for Happiness” are on the billboard of the bridge, from which we can throw down the paper slips bearing wishes to try our luck.
5.Rice Flour Falls
We move on to Rice Flour Falls (Kome-no-kono Taki), a very famous waterfall in Bonji-gawa Valley, which pours off the hill and flows into the Bonji River. The waterfall is not wide, but has a drop of about 40 m, and looks like rice flour.
Bonji-gawa Valley is clearly visible from the bridge.
Besides, there is a restaurant called Rice Flour Falls Drive-in, where we can refresh ourselves with some food.
6.Gassan Dam and Asahi Gassan Lake
Gassan Dam, a 123 m high gravity dam, commands a view of beautiful Asahi Gassan Lake, which is a man-made lake formed by construction of the dam. A dam observatory is established at the lakeside, where we can appreciate the beauty of fall foliage.
When we walk deeper into the mountain along the lakeside, we see another famous spot Akakura Aokura.
“Kura”, which means warehouse, is used by many places nearby. “Aka” and “ao” mean red and blue respectively, and are used to describe the color of cliffs, so here is called Akakura Aokura.
7.Former Endo’s Residence
Then we get to Former Endo’s Residence. This is not a fall foliage viewing spot, yet there are quite a few ancient private houses called multi-layered houses nearby. Although not so famous as Shirakawa-go’s gassho-zukuri, they also have distinctive features.
Nanatsu Falls (Nanatsu-taki), one of Japan’s Top 100 Waterfalls, is about 90 m high, with a drop of 50 m in the upper part and a drop of 40 m in the lower part. It is also a famous spot for viewing fresh green vegetation and fall foliage.
One feature of Nanatsu Falls is that it splits into several streams without the flow reduced. The streams of its lower part converge and flow into Bonji-gawa Valley, and are an important source of the Bonji River.
Each of the said spots is only about 1 km away from its nearest spot. If you wish to continue to visit other places or you drive a car, you may visit Yudono-san Shrine, a picturesque spot for viewing fall foliage that is about 5 km away.
Yudono-san Shrine, about 5 km away from Nanatsu Falls, is a shrine guarding Mount Yudono at an altitude of about 1500 m. Now we are heading for Misawa Bridge, a good spot for taking photos of fall foliage. The color of the bridge is vermilion, same to that of the gateway (torii), which renders Mount Yudono blanketed with fall foliage rather majestic and sacred.
After viewing fall foliage and taking photos on Misawa Bridge, we go to pay homage to Yudono-san Shrine, which can have our family blessed with peace.
Basic information on Yudono-san Shrine
- 7 Rokujuri-yama, Tamugimata, Tsuruoka
- Parking lot
- 150 parking places (free)
- Winter (early November to late April)
- Opening hours
Video on the Fall Foliage during Walk near Bonji-gawa Valley
Video on the Fall Foliage near Gassan Lake and Gassan Dam
Video on the Fall Foliage near Rice Flour Falls
Video on the Fall Foliage near Nanatsu Falls
Basic information on Bonji-gawa Valley
- Best time to view fall foliage
- Mid-October to early November
- 3-1, Nabira, Etchu-yama, Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture
- Official website (in Japanese)