Sakata, a once-prosperous harbor town

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Sankyo Warehouses are seen in the shade of zelkova trees in Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture.

By Shingo Masuda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterIn the Edo period (1603-1867), the town of Sakata, now in Yamagata Prefecture, flourished as a shipping hub on the Sea of Japan and Mogamigawa river. Rice was transported by ships from Sakata to Kamigata, now the Kansai region, while culture and goods were introduced to Sakata from the big cities of the day.

Visitors exploring the center of the town will encounter traces of its past all around.

Some of the houses of long-established families remain. Old Abumiya, for example, is a shipping agent’s residence that was mentioned in ukiyo zoshi prose by Ihara Saikaku, a haiku poet and writer of popular fiction in the period.

There is also a mansion of the old Honma family, wealthy merchants who were involved in the tree-planting business as well.

Visitors can tour the inside of both houses, which were built in the Edo period. I could sense the vibrancy of the merchant houses just by looking at the open-structured counting room and pillars that have blackened over the years.

Sakata continued to flourish in and after the Meiji era (1868-1912).

The Sankyo Warehouses — a complex of 12 rice warehouses built in 1893 — stand in neat rows close to the river’s mouth. There I saw rice being loaded on a truck after it was carried out from one of the historic warehouses.

“Of the warehouses, nine are still being used as a rice storehouse. They’re what you could call a surviving witness of Sakata, which developed as a collection and distribution center of rice,” said Eiichi Okuyama, head of the Sakata tourism association.

The remaining three warehouses are used as the Shonai rice historical museum and a space for selling regional products and food, among other purposes.

Zelkova trees at the back of the warehouses shade the buildings so that rice can be kept at a moderate temperature. The trees also serve as a windbreak, but it’s nice to feel the wind coming through the trees on a hot day.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Katsuura Port is seen from the hill on Tobishima island.

Sakata Port contributed to the prosperity of the rice-producing area, with a maximum of about 3,000 ships and river boats said to have entered the port annually in the Edo period. Hiyoriyama Park is located on a hill where sailors went to check the weather before embarking. A half-scale model of a merchant’s ship is exhibited in a pond at the park.

Sakata’s other good port is on Tobishima island, about 40 kilometers northwest of Sakata Port. Tobishima is the only inhabited island in the prefecture.

Kitamaebune cargo ships, which played a key role in trade across the Sea of Japan in those days, used to shelter in the island’s port in bad weather.

A regular ferry shuttles between Sakata and Tobishima ports one to three times a day. I took a day trip to the island.

Though there were few waves at Sakata Port, things turned rough soon after the ship entered the Sea of Japan. During the 60-minute or so ride, the ship rolled around so much that I lost my balance when walking. When we entered Katsuura Port, the waters were calm. It was clear that both are good ports.

As there was just one round-trip service on the day I visited the island, I could only stay for a little under three hours. I rented a bicycle and quickly traveled around scenic sites. In the southwestern part of the island, which has a circumference of about 10 kilometers, there was an array of strange rocks formed from hardened lava.

A large flock of black-tailed gulls were squawking in the sky over the steep rocks battered by wild waves, creating a spectacular show of the sea and sky. I imagined sailors who journeyed through troubled waters in old times.

I moved to the northeastern part from the southern part of the island where the port is located, then headed for the Hanatozaki observatory surrounded by trees.

It was a weekday before the summer holiday season, so I met very few island residents or tourists. I felt foolish pedaling the bike furiously on the island, where time seemed to trickle by slowly.

I had heard that Mt. Chokai can be seen across the water on a fine day, but it was covered with clouds during my visit.

Next time, I’d like to stay longer, putting myself in the mind of a sailor waiting for a good wind to sail. I boarded a ship back to Sakata with these thoughts in mind.

Free bike rentals

Sightseeing spots in Sakata are scattered within a radius of several kilometers. A car is not necessary, but it takes a rather long time if visitors travel on foot. The city lends out bicycles free of charge at Sakata Station and a fish market next to the ferry terminal to Tobishima island. On the island, bikes can be rented near Katsuura Port. Reservations are not available.


It is about a one-hour flight from Haneda Airport to Shonai Airport, and about 40 minutes by bus to Sakata Station. It takes about two hours from Tokyo Station to Niigata Station by Shinkansen. Take a limited train from Niigata Station, which will arrive at Sakata Station in about two hours.

For inquiries, call (0234) 24-2233 at the Sakata tourism association.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit

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