A Very Short Trip to Yamagata

If someone offered you a free tour in exchange of writing reports and feedback, would you go on that tour without thinking? I know I would, and yes I did! On June 11-12, 2016, as part of Tohoku Tourism Ambassador club I participated in a monitor tour organized by Tohoku Ambassadors Office. The tour covered ten destinations within three locations in Yamagata prefecture: Sakata, Tsuruoka, and Sagae.

Eleven of us, the club members and Sendai Broadcasting staffs, gathered around in Sendai station east exit bus pool at about 8:30 in the morning on Saturday, June 11. Just after everyone arrived at the meeting place, the tour leader Suzuki-san signaled for departure and  off we went on the bus for Sakata, a small town on the coast of Sea of Japan.

The journey took around two hours and a half, and by the time we reach there it was almost noon. We stopped by a soba restaurant called ‘Dewa’ to have lunch. The famous menu here is soba or udon served with assorted tempura (batter deep-fried vegetables or seafood) and it was good.

Once we finished lunch, the first destination was Sankyo Warehouses (山居倉庫) in the heart of Sakata. Sankyo Warehouses are the remnants of rice storage warehouses built in Meiji era (around 1893) during the time Sakata prospered as rice shipping port in the region. After the golden period of grain-growing boom ended, these warehouses were later converted into Shonai Rice History Museum. Aside from the museum, the area was also used as setting for the famous drama Oshin — but more on that later.

The place was interesting, rich with history about Sakata. There were plenty of interesting spots, such as the zelkova-lined warehouse path. I thought to myself that in either autumn or winter this would provide much better view compared to summer as the leaves color and snow would enrich the view. I also enjoyed the walk from the warehouse to the wooden bridge crossing Niida River, which provided me with plenty of photo opportunities. We also visited the remains of the former town government. We were the only visitors there even though it was weekend with clear, sunny day, a sign that people are generally are not too keen to visit the place.

Not so far from the remains site lies Abumiya Residence. Abumiya residence was once a house belonged to a prominent merchant in Sakata, Sozaemon Abumiya. His shipping business prospered in early 17th century, at then he constructed the house in a traditional method featuring a cedar-bark roof with stones. It is now converted to a museum, where visitors can explore the sheer size of the residence and experience how it feels to be a wealthy merchant during Edo period.

But the residence is more famous for being the setting of popular Japanese drama Oshin, which was aired in Japan in the 1980s and broadcasted into 68 other countries. Indonesia was not the exception, as I could recall watching the drama dubbed into Indonesian language when I was a child. Oshin tells the story of a girl called Shin Tanokura (nicknamed Oshin), who struggles in her life after being sent to work to another family because of her own family’s poor financial condition. That being said even if visitors do not know anything about the drama they still could enjoy exploring the enormous residence.

The next place we visited was the my most favorite place during the trip — Sakata Maiko teahouse ‘Soumarou‘ (相馬楼). It is a must-see place in my opinion, where the practice of maiko training is preserved after citizens of Sakata worried about the tradition dying out in the 1930s. Since then Soumarou lives on, offering unique insider view of a maiko‘s life. This is the place where you can order Soumarou‘s special ‘Maiko Bento’ and enjoy your lunch while being entertained by maiko performing traditional dance.

Even though I’ve been to Kyoto several times before, I couldn’t get a glimpse of maiko or geisha at all. Soumarou offered me front seat view to maiko performance, which was great. With camera in my hand, I simply couldn’t take my eyes off the performers. And the opportunity to take pictures with maiko in the end was just simply awesome. I managed to get some of my best photos in this place. Kudos Soumarou!

After leaving the tea house, we traveled to another town in itinerary, Tsuruoka. The town is mostly famous for the aquarium, Kamo Aquarium, which boasts the largest collection of jellyfish among aquariums in the whole world offering the incredible view of various shapes and colors of jellyfish. Once in the verge of bankruptcy in 1997, the aquarium managed to slip away from the doom and slowly gained more visitors. It was all thanks to the jellyfish exhibition at that time that sparked renewed interest in the aquarium, which in turn prompted the motivation to build a larger collection of jellyfish, leading to the current state where jellyfish is the main attraction.

By paying the entry ticket ¥1ooo for adult and ¥500 for children you are set to enter the aquarium. With fancy slogan ‘Welcome to the World of Dreams – Jellyfish Dream!’ used in Kamo aquarium website, you know that it better be good or else — and it did! Once I entered the ‘kuranetarium‘, house of jellyfish displays, I was very much amazed by the abundance of jellyfish and their unique shapes and colors. I did not expect to see so many kinds of jellyfish, from those small in size not bigger than your little finger to the humongous ones like Pacific sea nettle jellyfish (Chrysaora fuscescens).

Looking at the jellyfish just swaying here and there behind the glass gave me this slightly weird sensation. I felt like in peace. I felt like doing nothing at all. Just stand there and watch the details of their movements, see through their almost transparent bodies. Given ample time, I’d probably would have had spent hours just chilling in the jellyfish display. Sadly we came just a little late, as the aquarium would be closing at 17:00.

Jellyfish are so identical with Kamo Aquarium that you can even eat them — as ramen or ice cream, or buy jellyfish-themed souvenirs like jellyfish necktie. I did not try the jellyfish ice cream though. Besides jellyfish as the center of attention, Kamo Aquarium offers seal show and other sea creatures on display.

I was jaded after exiting the aquarium. Luckily it was about the time to head to our hotel, Mankouen Hotel (満光園), located not too far from Kamo Aquarium in front of Yunohama beach. From outside the hotel looked small but in the inside it was actually pretty spacious. I enjoyed the stay in my room, the futon was comfy, the view from the window during sunset was spectacular and the bathroom was good. We had a local specialty course for dinner which contained crab, fish, shrimp and ‘sazae‘, a species of sea snail, among others.It was a fancy dinner, yet honestly it could not fill my starving stomach that much.

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Being a genuine Japanese inn or ryokan, definitely Hotel Mankouen has 24-hours onsen or hot springs, and it was fantastic. The outdoor bath was small yet comfortable. One funny thing though, that since male and female baths were side by side and the wall between was rather thin, I could hear what was going on in the other side. Interesting experience, to say the least (insert wink here).

In the morning we had mochi for breakfast. There was this mochitsuki (餅つき) or mochi pounding. The hotel staffs wielded wooden mallet and pound the mochi in a large mortar until it became soft. Of course the guests could try as well. The resulting mochi was then eaten with strawberry jam or red bean paste – azuki. So once everybody had their fill of breakfast and all luggage were packed, once again we rode the bus unto the next destination in Tsuruoka, Togashi candle shop.

Togashi sells many kind of Japanese traditional candles. Unlike modern candles, Japanese candles or ‘wa-rousoku‘ are made from vegetable wax and the technique used to make them have not changed since 16th century. After the tour leader spoke to the owner of the shop, we were taken to a candle workshop just across the street.

I’m gonna be honest. This candle painting workshop turned out way better than my initial expectation. I was the only one choosing a stick candle to paint while everyone else chose round candle as canvas. In the beginning I was hesitated on what to draw, but then I settled for a fox. I participated in kokeshi painting workshop before and it was really hard to draw my desired pattern as I kept making mistakes all the time. However this time surprisingly I avoided making big mistakes and in the end I could draw what I wanted on the candle. I was extremely satisfied with the result. I just wish we had spent more time here with bigger candle to paint but alas we were only given a short time.

We spent only an hour there in the workshop before heading on to the next stop, the Shonai clan school Chidoukan.

Chidoukan might be slightly boring if you have no interest in history, because this place is one of the national historic sites in Tsuruoka. The kanji used as the name of the place perfectly describes the function of this school where many students devoted themselves into study to become government officials of the region. In addition, the now decommissioned school turned museum has also many artifacts related to Confucianism, which was the main study during its active times.

Come high noon, we moved on to the next town, Sagae. This town in Yamagata prefecture is famous for its main product, cherry, and that was exactly what we were going for: cherry picking. Entrance Eating fee is ¥1500 per person. You are allowed to eat the cherries to your heart’s content, but there is a catch for this: you cannot bring back the cherries home and instead have to eat them all on the spot within time limit of one hour. We stopped at one of the many cherry plantations in town. I promptly scoured the trees to try munching on these little red goodies.

Cherry picking was pretty fun. Although it was hot, I felt lucky to be able to eat cherries all I want, something that normally I would not do — I’m not a fan of gourmet travel, I’m more for the sights. In the end one hour time limit was more than enough for me to satisfy my cherry craving. I have had my fill. In my opinion the black cherries tasted better, sweeter than their red counterparts.

The last place to visit in the tour was a rather bizarre competition called cherry seed spitting competition. It is one of the most famous attractions in Yamagata, held simultaneously with cherry festival in Sagae. To participate, visitors need to show some identification like drivers license or passport, then you are eligible to join the spitting. We were challenged to spit the seed as far as I could. I have been practicing spitting during the cherry picking and I thought I was doing quite okay, reaching at least 5 meters. But when push come to shove, my training had been useless as I failed to spit more than 3 meters. I got only 2.98 meters in the end and I felt kinda bad.

This competition was super interesting for me. Back in Indonesia we don’t have these kind of competitions. Japan has some of the world’s weirdest festivals and rituals and I think it’s a good selling point to attract more tourists to Japan especially to Tohoku region.

To end the day, we were given ¥1000 for lunch in the food stall area. I had been eyeing a stall that sold beef-sinew stew since we arrived there, so naturally I had to follow my calling. It was sweet, tasted almost like the dishes from my native Java Island and I loved it. Caressed by the gentle wind under the grey cloudy sky, I felt sluggish after eating the stew and two other dishes. So when it was time to go back to Sendai, the moment I laid my head on the seat headrest, I fell straight to sleep and only just woke up when we reach Sendai station.

All in all, this monitor tour experience was just splendid. Aside from the fact that everything was free of charge, to get to visit all those tourist attractions in Yamagata was actually such a  great opportunity considering that if I were to travel by myself perhaps I would not be going to all the places I mentioned above. And it was also a good chance to know more about Tohoku region, a hidden gem that in my opinion deserves  more attention and coverage.

Useful links:

Since most of the information is in Japanese, you would have to translate the pages into English. (Chrome users can just use ‘Translate to English’ feature)

  1. Sankyo Warehouse information (English)
  2. Abumiya Residence (Japanese only)
  3. Soumarou Maiko Tea House (Japanese only)
  4. Kamo Aquarium (Japanese, some English pages)
  5. Hotel Mankouen (Japanese only)
  6. Tsuruoka homepage (in English, yay!)
  7. Sagae Cherry Festival (Japanese only)
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