Yamagata: A land of panoramic landscapes, delicious cuisine, onsen and friendly smiles

By Chehui Peh

Just a short two-hour trip away from Tokyo is Yamagata, the land of panoramic, lush green landscapes, unforgettably delicious local cuisine, onsen and friendly smiles. There, you can find endless things to do in the day ranging from active hiking to appreciation of Yamagata’s food produce, and yet be able to spend the evenings slowly immersed in an onsen listening to the trickling of water and the sighs of the wind gently grazing your face. The best part, is probably that produce and scenery changes seasonally, and there is never a lack of new things to discover.

Our trip starts with an exciting ride in the shinkansen (bullet train) heading toward Yamagata. The views of tall buildings and residences give way to mountains, agriculture fields, and a sea of green, blue and gold. We alight at Yonezawa first, heading to Toko-no-Sakugura Japanese Sake Brewery to learn about the art of sake brewing from a brewery that has been around since 1597. Sake is basically just water and rice, but Toko’s sake has a certain addictive quality with their simple and clean flavors and their crisp sweetness. If the possibility of getting drunk wasn’t that high, I would’ve been tempted to drink an entire bottle before 11 a.m.

A trip to Yonezawa, however, cannot be complete without tasting their famous beef. With mountains surrounding the town keeping the weather cold and snowy in winter contrasted with a hot and humid summer, natural weather conditions have led to Yonezawa beef being evenly marbled, perfecting the beef into a juicy, tender masterpiece when cooked. Try the steak-don at Abcycs, a restaurant located in the middle of the small town, where a pretty-in-pink seared steak is placed stop of Yamagata-grown rice that seem to sparkle in the sunlight. After lunch, head out to the small stalls right outside the building and try the "menchi-katsu" if you dare, a fried ball of perfection stuffed with potatoes and beef.

After stuffing our faces, we travel down to Risshakuji-Temple, or Yamadera as it is known affectionately, literally the mountain temple. Built into and on rock ledges on a mountain, this Buddhist temple belongs to the Tendai sect, and served as a pilgrimage point for monks in the past looking to attain Nirvana. Yamadera still remains a spiritual spot today. From the foot of the temple to the peak, one will have to climb 1,015 steps, enough to digest any combination of protein and carbohydrates eaten before this. The view is, to say the least, breathtaking. As you reach the upper sections of the temple, the trees become sparse, and instead you are surrounded by beautiful rock ledges weathered over the years. The panoramic town view below greets you, with looming mountains at the back and tiny homes in the middle. If not for a spiritual pilgrimage for enlightenment, the view from Yamadera would be sufficient reason to make the climb.

We rest our tired feet and bodies that night at Koyo inn, at Kaminoyama Onsen. Koyo’s service is impeccable, dinner is exquisite, and the onsen so comfortable I kept asking myself why I haven’t moved to an onsen town yet. Koyo’s onsen has little personal wooden tubs for one if you are uncomfortable with enjoying the large public bath with others. Personally I prefer the outdoor baths for I enjoy the contrast of a cool breeze on my skin while soaked in a hot bath and listening to the calm trickle of water (no it will most likely not make you feel like going to the loo). I ended up going to bed early, refreshed and finally understanding what the phrase "relaxed to the bone" means, dozing off with happy thoughts of the steamed Yonezawa beef served at dinner, and other exciting things to come tomorrow.

The morning starts with a buffet breakfast by Koyo, before boarding a free shuttle bus service, the Green Eco service, and taking an hour’s bus ride up to Zao Okama, a crater lake formed by a volcanic explosion 800 years ago. What’s awesome about the free shuttle bus is that it gives you about 40 minutes to an hour to view the Crater Lake, and if you choose to not hike that day you can catch the shuttle service down to Liza restaurant (also a ski resort in winter) and grab a pizza lunch there. For more active travellers, you could also take the opportunity to hike an active volcano, and take the later shuttle service down the mountain. I was given a valuable piece of advice by a local obaachan in the onsen; due to the high altitude, weather changes are quick and sudden, and if it seems like a glimpse of the lake is near to impossible amid heavy fog, wait it out for the strong winds might work in your favor and the lake will soon be cheekily peeking out at you in a moment or two. This proved to be true later for us too. To get there, the adventure begins with taking a lift up to the crater, a seatbelt-less ride that will slightly scare those afraid of heights (including me). The crater lake really is worth all the fear with its shining emerald waters glittering in the middle of the rocks, not to mention the possibility of being able to see five colors reflected on the rocks by the waters due to the sunlight, giving the lake its nickname "goshikiko" (lake of five colors). The heavy fog and mist atop also made me want to check every so often if there was a closet nearby that I could open and find myself stepping into Narnia. It never appeared, but just imagining it was exciting enough.

Our last stop in Kaminoyama is Takahashi Fruits Land, the land where those that love fruits will see their dreams come true. Late summer sees robust harvests of grapes, and there are around four main varieties of grapes grown. There are differing levels of sweetness to each, and the softness varies as well. Upon entering the tent, we were hit by the strong sweet scent of grapes, and that’s when the saliva started watering. You could pick the grapes yourself, and the short labor makes the freshly picked grapes even more delicious. Each season will pave the way for the harvesting of different fruits, so you could visit all year round to taste the delicious fruits that Yamagata can offer. Fun fact, 64% of Western pears in Japan are actually grown in Yamagata. If you’re a fan of those pears, summer is the perfect season to drop by. We got to make our own fruit parfaits at Takahashi’s Café, in a cosy little hut right next to their fruits shop. Reservations have to be made beforehand, and it is highly recommended if you want to build your own unique parfait covered entirely with seasonal fruits (peach, pear and grapes for summer) and topped with a mix of grape and milk ice cream (the fruits flavor for the ice cream is also dependent on season).

I board the shinkansen post-fruit-feast feeling extremely well fed and so satisfied it seems like I’ve gained about two kilos in the past few days, one thanks to the beef and one because of Yamagata’s fruits that are too delicious to pass up. I comfort myself thinking about the "sufficient" exercise done climbing the stairs up Yamadera, and skipping around excitedly atop of Okama crater. As I watch the familiar golden fields of Yamagata flashing by me on the train, I bid goodbye to this beautiful prefecture that I am seriously thinking of going down to every season just to see the seasonal changes to the landscape, and of course to taste the changes too. Yamagata, you’re beautiful, and you’ve gained a new fan.

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Sake is basically just water and rice,

No, koji is involved. If you didn't have koji, you would not have the means to convert starch to sugar, then ferment that sugar into alcohol. Then you have Nihon-shu.

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IMHO, Yamagata is second only to Kumamoto in the same four catagories !

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It's an amasing place. I was and my wife were there. We are from Australia and always dreamed to visit Japan, we just booked tickets and decided to go to Yamagata. We really enjoyed the trip and next year we want to visit this beautiful country one more time :)

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