YONEZAWA, Yamagata Pref. — When he received a phone call saying that a fire was blazing through the hotel where his grandfather was once a carpenter, local shop owner Masahiro Ohta rushed to help.
|Nishiya (above) is the last of three thatched-roof inns that once stood side by side at Shirabu Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture. Cherries, served pickled below, are a major prefectural export.|
Working through his tears, Ohta and others used pumps to spray onsen waters on two thatched-roof inns that, together with a third thatched-roof inn, once purveyed a sense of majestic calmness that brought visitors from all over Japan.
By morning, only a single pillar was left standing of the two buildings at Shirabu Onsen, in Yamagata Prefecture’s most southern city, Yonezawa.
“As I stirred the ashes of the fire, I made up my mind to reconstruct the inns, although I knew many challenges would lie ahead,” said Ohta.
Now, six months after the blaze, Ohta heads a local committee of business people that organizes promotional events, one of which was an evening concert that was held on the ruined grounds of the inns, to bring back tourists.
The executive director at the still-standing Nishiya, Yukio Endo, said guests have started to come back after two rough months in April and May, but “The image of three such thatched-roof buildings lined up together was a strong sales point that has been lost.”
Higashiya, the easternmost of the inns, began construction of a new inn Sept. 21, but without the thatched roof: A local regulation now prohibits roofs made of flammable materials. (Indeed, the three inns were burned to the ground in a blaze 230 years ago.)
Nakaya, the middle inn, has a separate inn further down the road and has no plans to replace the main structure.
Despite the fire, Nishiya boasts an onsen that is well worth visiting.
Funneled in through wooden gutters from a height of about 3 meters, the natural 60 C water is mixed with cooler Otaru River water to create a unique massaging waterfall just beside a sitting bath.
The luxurious interior also features the original old wooden beams and wisteria-reed flooring throughout the hallways, on which one is not supposed to tread with slippers.
Yonezawa is a 21/2-hour hop from Tokyo on the “Onsen Shinkansen,” so called because the prefecture has 143 onsens, of which Yonezawa has 12. From there, one must take a bus up to Shirabu, nestled in the hills, for about half an hour.
But more than just the hot springs, the area’s natural beauty, unique history, delicious food and friendly folks make a trip to the area a pleasant break.
On a recent trip to Shirabu, harvested rice stalks along the road were piled cross-hatched on poles, waiting for the rain to stop to dry in the sun. Others, as yet unharvested, drooped heavily with their ripe bounty.
Rain fell and mist hung low over the mountains, erasing the chance of seeing the white monkeys that are well known in the area. But the fresh air and bubbling brooks along the road were refreshing signs that this wasn’t crowded Tokyo anymore.
A meal at the Uesugi Kinenkan (Uesugi Memorial Hall) in Yonezawa was infused with the flavor and history of the place. The tofu contained diced ukogi leaves, from an edible shrub that Yozan Uesugi, the frugal 10th lord of the Uesugi clan, encouraged the cultivation of in the once impoverished region.
Carp senbei reflected another Yozan-led development, the inland raising of edible carp (whose bodies are black), which he encouraged as a source of protein.
Rounding out the 4,500 yen meal was sukiyaki with red miso paste, using Yonezawa beef, whose special taste is said to have been made famous by an English teacher in the 1870s, and an apple jelly dessert using local produce.
At Nakaya’s detached inn, one could even get a taste of whale gizzard, but its lack of flavor and rubbery texture hardly seemed to warrant an international trade dispute.
The city’s history is conveyed amply by numerous seasonal events, including its famous Snow Lantern Festival and the spring Uesugi Festival, in which revelers can appreciate cherry blossoms (Yamagata Prefecture produces 71 percent of all Japanese cherries) and a dramatic re-enactment of the 1561 battle of Kawanakajima.
But all eyes are focused on next September’s 250th birthday bash honoring their favorite adopted Uesugi lord, Yozan. The city is marshaling a 400 million yen budget that includes erecting a massive museum and cultural center, and expects 80,000 visitors during the 23 days of the Yozan Festival, from Sept. 29 to Oct. 21. Other events marking the year start in February.
For English speakers without great Japanese ability, a local bilingual guide group called YFoot has been formed, and has planned a day of activities Nov. 11, for those who want to participate in painting regional wood-carvings, making soba and touring Uesugi Shrine.
Explanatory signs on many of the museums are not translated into English, but YFoot has plans to take on the project and a resident American on the JET program said it was his goal to improve and update the area’s pamphlets and guides in English.
Ohta, the Shirabu Onsen area shopowner, said it was the three, side-by-side thatched-roof inns whose “atmosphere captured people’s hearts. That’s why they came.”
But fires come and go. With the local residents’ love of the place and festive spirit, it’s clear visitors will always be charmed by little Yonezawa.