Yamagata, or Mountain Terrain, is the capital of the prefecture of the same name (and the Sister City of Boulder, Colorado). It's a community of a quarter-million souls who enjoy one of the most visually stunning locations in Japan. Everywhere you look there are arrayed lovely mountains, a play of light and shadow shifting across their sculpted flanks and lofty summits. Connoisseurs of soba and mountain vegetables will be delighted, as will fans of sweet, perfectly marbled beef. Yamagata Prefecture is the only prefecture to be 100% thermal—having at least one onsen, or hot spring, in each of its 44 municipalities. Mt. Zao was once a popular ski resort, but it has become less fashionable as skiers have shifted to more-favored slopes in Hokkaido.
During the Hanagasa Festival (August 5–7), some 10,000 dancers from the region dance through the streets in traditional costume and hanagasa, hats so named for the safflowers (locally called benibana) decorating them. It's based on an old ritual to promote fertility and ensure a rich harvest. Floats are interspersed among the dancers, and stalls provide food and refreshments.