Yamagata Travelogue

Your 5D4N in Central Yamagata

Follow me as I bring you around Yamagata and experience the magic of the area with my five senses. [TOUCH] Enjoy the cold, invigorating winter and participate in fun activities to get in touch with your active self. [SIGHT] See picturesque landscapes that could bring tears to your eyes and witness the daily lives of locals. [TASTE] Sample local delights and a spread of cuisine designed to keep you in a happy food coma for a week. [SMELL] Inhale deeply and luxuriate in the intangible fragrance of the land and the aroma of tasty food. [SOUND] Last but not least, listen out for the calm, soothing sounds of nature and traditional instruments to relax your worn out soul.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Yamagata, let me kick off with a short introduction to the prefecture. Yamagata, along with Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, Akita, Aomori and occasionally Niigata, is part of the Tohoku region located north of mainland Japan. Some of you may have heard of the famous Zao snow monsters or Ginzan Onsen for its million-dollar view, but this prefecture has so much more to offer. Surrounded by mountains and known for its temperate climate, the fertile soil nourished by fresh water from the mountains produces delicious fruits such as cherries, pears and grapes, as well as rice and Yonezawa beef.

With that said, I would like to introduce you to places that I have thoroughly enjoyed visiting and are must-goes for my fellow Singaporeans!

DAY 1

Singapore<Plane 6~7hrs>>> Haneda Airport <Keikyu-Kuko Line/Kehintohoku Line 26mins>>> Tokyo Station <Shinkansen est.2hrs>>> Sendai Station <JR Tohoku Line 25mins>>>Sendai Airport Station [meet up with everyone]

Let’s start!Got hungry while heading towards Tokyo Station for my Shinkansen ride to Sendai Station, so I decided to grab an ekibento aka ekiben (駅弁、train lunchbox) and eat it on the train. I purchased my tamago (egg) sandwich from a store on the platform area that sells an array of different ekiben. Getting onto the Shinkansen, I sunk my teeth into the soft bread and reached the thick chunk of egg filling in the centre. The rich flavour of the eggs is something that hard to find anywhere outside of Japan. The flavourful breakfast I had was enhanced by the gorgeous, changing scenery outside my window as the train continued on its journey..

Day 1 Course

Ruins of Sendai Castle>>>Takahata Winery>>>Tansen Hotel

①Traveled from Sendai Airport by bus and started exploring the city with a visit to the Ruins of Sendai Castle/Aoba Castle (仙台城/青葉城) and Statue of Date Masamune on a horse (伊達政宗騎馬像)

As the attractions are on a hilltop, you will be able to get a breathtaking, panoramic view of Sendai City. And if you look closely, you will be able to see a huge statue of Guan Yi looking over the city at the left corner.

We then had lunch at the Japanese restaurant Sendai (日本料理 仙臺), which was just around the corner. Selling a wide variety of food from udon to beef rice sets,

I got to tuck into grilled Sendai beef tongue, a local speciality and soul food of the area that you absolutely need to try.

After lunch, we proceeded to Yamagata. On our way there, we could already see the snow slowly piling up. Our tour guide shared that this year had lower-than-average snowfall. Having visited around the same time last year, I too felt that there was less snow in comparison, but that didn’t spoil the fun of the trip in the least bit.

②Takahata Winery

We were brought to Takahata Winery at Takahata Town in the southern part of Yamagata. Snow had already covered the entire area, creating a beautiful white canvas, making it seem very surreal. Welcoming its 3Oth anniversary next year together with the 2020 Olympics, they are one of the oldest wineries around Yamagata producing one of the finest Japanese wines with Delaware grapes that are grown locally. There are guided tours of the factory that show you around the place and offer insights on how wines are being produced.

They also have a shopping corner where you can buy their flagship series and other wines. Customers from all over the world visit specially to get hold of Japan-produced wines. Be sure to sample the different wines to find the one that suits you but remember, don’t get drunk!

There are plenty of snacks and omiyage(お土産, souvenir ) that pair well with wine available too. I also got to see Keiou Sakura (啓翁桜),a species that only blooms during winter within the factory.

Learning about the wines and tasting them while admiring the sakura at the same time was a really rewarding experience.

③Akayu Onsen Tansen Hotel 赤湯温泉 丹泉ホテル

https://www.tansen.co.jp/
The Tansen Hotel, one of the 14 ryokans, has a classy lobby with a 90s vibe that gives off a cosy atmosphere. Hearing that they had completed the upgrade of a portion of the ryokan since February 2018, I was really excited to stay in it. Exploring the hotel itself, I noticed that there were a lot of ikebana/kado (活け花・花道, Japanese flower arrangement) around the building and took my time to do some flower appreciation. Later, I found out that these were arranged by their okami-san (女将さん).

I was put up in a 14.5m2 (8畳) Japanese-style room fully equipped with toilet, bathroom and a balcony to enjoy the scenery outside. Awesome!

Dinner was incredible, delicate and almost too beautiful to eat! Using Yamagata beef and locally produced vegetables, I could taste the freshness in every bite. I believe there were more than 15 dishes for the course. Although it looks like a small portion for each dish, it gradually added up and I felt as though my stomach was bursting from all the goodness I had inhaled.

Breakfast too was amazing, especially when they served one of their famous mochi that came with either Nagaimo (grated yam), Natto (fermented beans) or Anko (red beans).

Day 2 Course

Toko Sake Factory酒造資料館 東光の酒蔵>>> Lunch Michi no Eki Yonezawa道の駅米沢 >>> Flower Nagai Lineフラワー長井線 >>> Strawberry picking at Dream Noen Plantationどりいむ農園  >>> Kendama experience at spike けん玉広場spike >>> Stay and dinner Tas Park Hotelタスパークホテル


We started the second day by visiting a sake factory; tasting sake in the morning was not something that I was expecting, but it was definitely an eye-opener!

①Toko Sake Factory Museum 酒造資料館 東光の酒蔵

https://www.sake-toko.co.jp/en/

Once entering the main building, you are able to feel the history of the old structure as the interior was built with wood centuries ago, creating an elegant atmosphere that takes one back to the golden era of the brewery. Led by the owner/CEO herself, Ms. Atsuko Kojima gave us a guided tour throughout the museum, sharing their long history with us.

Ms Kojima informed us that the main building of the brewery was built using a traditional construction method whereby no nails are attached and that it cannot be rebuilt with modern techniques. Even the Crown Prince and Princess had paid a visit to this place! As the biggest sake museum in Tohoku, Toko Sake Factory Museum has a wide collection of tsubo (壺, baskets that stores sake) from tiny ones to big ones as tall as 3 metres in height.

Currently, the sake retail shop is adjacent to the museum, so after going around the factory, you are able to enjoy tasting of rare Toko sake and shop for some Toko products. As I went visiting in the winter, the shop prepared warm amazake (甘酒, sweet sake) to warm your body up from the cold weather outside. I myself had to buy one of their top three highly acclaimed sake, Toko Junmaidaiginjo Yuki Megami (東光 純米大吟醸 雪女神) after tasting it. The texture was super smooth as it rolled down my throat and gave off an elegant yet delicate taste, and had a clear and pleasant aftertaste which I loved. The sake tour was truly a grand experience that satisfied by curiosity about how sake was made and stored.

②Michi no Eki Yonezawa道の駅米沢

https://michinoeki-yonezawa.jp/

Afterwards, we stopped over at Michi no Eki Yonezawa for lunch. For many who don’t know what a Michi no Eki is, it literally means a Road Station or a Service Area (SA) along the expressway in between prefectures. This is a useful term to remember if you are intending to do a road trip in Japan. These places are similar pit stops Singaporeans make for a short break or meal when driving up to Kuala Lumpur via the 2nd Link. Michi no Eki functions as a place for people travelling by land vehicles to rest, eat, have toilet breaks and check out local food and gift products.

MIchi no Eki Yonezawa recently opened in April 2018, and this brand-new 24hr Road Station is equipped with Tourist and Traffic information corners, a supermarket that sells local produce and souvenirs, a food court, fast food booths, a free rest area, restaurants and a convenience store. Opening hours of shops and services may vary. Here, we managed to try some tasty Roasted Beef Don, Yonezawa Spicy Miso Ramen and another interesting find — Yonezawa beef sukiyaki man (bun/pao).

I believe it is one of those must-try railway train experience when in Yamagata, especially during the winter season, as you are able to see the pure white landscape that extends throughout the horizons. Its interior was classically old school, which I loved and another reason that charmed me was that it was the filming location for a 2004 Japanese film [Swing Girls]. I was pleasantly surprised and happy to learn that I was seated in the exact same train where they filmed the movie!

③Flower Nagai Lineフラワー長井線
http://flower-liner.jp/en/
Next, we got on board the Yamagata Railway Flower Nagai Line (山形鉄道 フラワー長井線) at Akayu Station in Nanyo City of Yamagata. From Akayu Station(first) to Arato Station(last), there are 17 stops in total, a ride that lasts roughly 54 to 65 minutes. Only 4 out of the 17 stations are manned by train staff, and the rest were hard to notice if the train did not stop and open its doors. Another interesting fact is both [6th station]Nishiotsuka Station(Tateya aka station structure and platform) and [12th station]Uzennarita Station (Tateya) were approved as Registered Tangible Cultural Properties of Agency for Cultural Affairs. Usually, the train provides charter services and you can book cabins for meetings and private parties for just ¥60,000(SGD$731.91~). We were lucky and privileged to get one of the cabins entirely for the group.

Strawberry picking at Dream Noen Plantation
山形県白鷹産直市場 どりいむ農園

http://www.doriimu.jp/
The next place we visited was the Dream Noen Plantation for Ichigo gari (いちご狩り, Strawberry picking) and 30 minutes of an all-you-can-eat strawberry marathon. My goodness, I can swear on my belly that the strawberries are unbelievably sweet and delicious. I wish that I had shot a slow-motion video of the moment we bit into the fruits to show how juicy they were! We also learnt that the smaller and redder the strawberries are, the sweeter and juicier it is.

Within the covered tent of the plantation, you can roam around and pick as many strawberries as you like and eat them. What’s interesting is the name of the strawberry, mouikko (もういっこ, just one more). Because they are so delicious, I continued to pick and devour them non-stop before suddenly realising that my 30 minutes was up. Unknowingly, I had been seduced by the strawberries and ate 42 of them in 30 minutes, which meant one every 42 seconds. Holy Moley!

After my sinful afternoon snack, we headed towards its marketplace found right next to the plantation. There, they not only sell their strawberries but other local produce such as vegetables, fruits, dairy products and many more at affordable prices.

⑤Kendama experience at spike けん玉広場spike
Our final destination before heading to the hotel was Kentama Hiroba Spike, a workshop space dedicated to Kentama, a traditional toy that originated from Yamagata. Made up of a round wooden ball attached by string to the wooden body, one has to place the ball perfectly onto all three spots of the handle in order to be called a Kentama player. The objective is to create our own unique Kentama and learn how to play it. We were lucky to be taught by a national champion Kentama instructor, Mr. Akiyama Satoru and fellow staff, Mr, Matsumoto Takeshi. Mr. Akiyama even demonstrated to us different techniques and moves which made my jaw drop. I had a lot of fun making my own Kentama and experienced the joy of playing this traditional toy.

Stay and dinner Tas Park Hotelタスパークホテル

At last, after a full day of activities, I finally arrived at our next hotel, Tas Park Hotel for the night. Located in Nagai City and built right next to Yamagata’s most famous river, Mogami River, I was assigned a room that had a beautiful view of the running waters and mountain landscape, a pretty wonderful sight to wake up to.

Check out Part 2 of my 5D4N in Central Yamagata

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