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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.

Bonji-gawa Valley in the season for viewing fall foliage
Bonji-gawa Valley in the season for viewing 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.

Itinerary

Route Map for the Walk around 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

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.

Rokujyuuri-koe Kaido
Rokujyuuri-koe Kaido

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.

Gassan Rest Area
Gassan Rest Area

2.Fureai Bridge

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.

Fureai Bridge
Fureai Bridge

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.

Cultural Innovation Center
Cultural Innovation Center

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.

Nabria Yukitsuri Bridge: Divination with Butterbur Leaves for Happiness
Nabria Yukitsuri Bridge: Divination with Butterbur Leaves for Happiness

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.

Rice Floor Falls
Rice Floor Falls

Bonji-gawa Valley is clearly visible from the bridge.

Bonji-gawa Valley
Bonji-gawa Valley

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.

Gassan Dam and Asahi Gassan Lake
Gassan Dam and Asahi Gassan Lake

Akakura Aokura

When we walk deeper into the mountain along the lakeside, we see another famous spot Akakura Aokura.

Fall colors beside the lake
Fall colors beside the lake

“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.

Akakura Aokura
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.

Former Endo’s Residence
Former Endo’s Residence

8.Nanatsu Falls

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.

Upper part of Nanatsu Falls
Upper part of Nanatsu Falls

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.

Lower part of Nanatsu Falls
Lower part of Nanatsu Falls

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.

9.Yudono-san Shrine

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.

Misawa Bridge near Yudono-san Shrine
Misawa Bridge near Yudono-san Shrine

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.

Big gateway of Yudono-san Shrine
Big gateway of Yudono-san Shrine

Basic information on Yudono-san Shrine

OPEN
Address
7 Rokujuri-yama, Tamugimata, Tsuruoka[MAP]
Phone
0235-54-6133
0235-54-6133
Parking lot
150 parking places (free)
Closed
Winter (early November to late April)
Opening hours
8:30-16:00
8:30-16:00

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

OPEN
Best time to view fall foliage
Mid-October to early November
Address
3-1, Nabira, Etchu-yama, Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture[MAP]
Phone
0235-53-2111
0235-53-2111
WEB
Official website (in Japanese)