So much to soak up in Yamagata

by Luke Wainwright

YAMAGATA — OK, let me put my cards on the table. Yamagata-ken, just like any sensible prefecture in Japan, loves tourists. But you get the feeling that Yamagata Prefecture Tourist Division tries a little harder to promote its treasures. They even occasionally invite journalists up for a spin around the countryside.

Ahhh, Yamagata. Land of stunning natural scenery, abundant produce, vibrant culture, friendly people . . .

Nice work if you can get it, right? But I wasn’t very keen about the guided press-junket thing, and especially not on the morning of my trip to Yamagata. For some reason, I had developed a mysterious upper back pain, making it difficult to breathe deeply. Maybe this is some kind of karmic compensation, I thought. Someone must have decided, “He may go, but not without suffering.”

The good news was that I was headed for not only the land that inspired some of the poet Basho’s greatest haiku (albeit 300 years ago), but also a hot-spring paradise. Ahhh.

After a three-hour shinkansen ride, officials from the Yamagata Tourist Bureau meet me at the Yamagata City Station with a welcome sign. They’re genuinely enthusiastic and present me with a meticulously organized press kit. A full itinerary lies ahead, and there’s not a minute to be wasted.

Before I know it, we’re whizzing past suburban pachinko parlors, bargain barns and family restaurants, in transit to sightseeing spot No. 1. Twenty minutes later, the scenery changes as we pull into the town of Tendo. I begin to see pentagonal shogi pieces practically everywhere . . . on signs, rooftops, postal boxes. I have arrived in the Mecca of shogi.

Shogi is called “the Japanese chess,” and Tendo’s connection to shogi dates back to the Edo Period. Today, Tendo produces more than 90 percent of the shogi pieces made in Japan. At Eishu-do, a shogi workshop, you can see how they’re made, get one custom-made or even pick up a deluxe set for 630,000 yen.

The director, Eiji Aita, patiently explains the production process, then guides me through his personal collection of shogi artifacts. He points to a tattered book of strategy. It looks imposing, but Aita says, with a grin, the author would probably be a low-ranked player if he were alive today. The game has evolved.

On to destination No. 2, the Hiroshige Museum, where seasonal exhibitions display the works of Japan’s esteemed woodblock master. When I was there, the selected works showcased scenes of water in summer. Other months, they offer hands-on demonstration workshops.

Having received my allotted bite of culture, I’m escorted to the Taki-no-Yu Onsen. It’s old school, in that it mixes modern touches with tradition. Most rooms overlook a classic garden of manicured trees and small ponds. It’s a big operation with small human touches. Over dinner, the elegant kami-san tells me how most of the food comes from the ryokan’s own field and every effort is made to recycle.

Two flasks of Yamagata’s finest nihonshu help numb the back pain, but the soothing waters of the onsen work the best. And the main bath is in the shape of — what else? — a shogi piece.

The next day, bright and early, I am whisked to Ginzan Onsen, a true gem among hot-spring towns. Forget everything you associate with onsen resorts — Ginzan has hung on to its Taisho heydays.

A youngish inn owner gives me a quick tour, leading me up picturesque paths above the town. He reminisces about an idyllic childhood — swimming at the foot of a waterfall every summer day and fearing the ghosts from the nearby Nobesawa silver mine. Founded in 1460, the mine closed down hundreds of years ago, but you can still explore a preserved shaft. Occasionally the tranquillity in Ginzan is broken by the sound of construction. But not to worry; no new developments here. They’re burying the power lines, and before long it will return to its pristine state.

Ahhh, if only I could stay here and relive the romantic Taisho days, take a stroll under the gas lights in the evening, and watch the locals do a traditional hanagasa dance on one of the bridges, as they do every Saturday night till October.

But we have places to go, of course. The next one, Yamadera, is a real breathtaker — in terms of scenery and difficulty. Literally meaning “mountain temple,” Yamadera is one of the most sacred sites in Tohoku. Basho knew that when he came here in 1689 and wrote: Shizukasa ya/iwa ni shimi-iru/semi no koe (Silence!/penetrating rock/the chirp of cicada).

You’ll find the cicada, and maybe silence, and dozens of temples, nestled among the cedars of this mountain. The pious trek up 1,100 steps to reach the main temple, Konpon-chudo, built entirely in the 14th century. Among its numerous cultural assets and sacred sites are the Eternal Fires of Buddha, flames that have been burning for over a millennium.

Unfortunately, I never reach Konpon-chudo or see the eternal fires, though. I call it a day at step No. 702 or so, and have a Pocari Sweat under the massive cedar trees. My 11-year-old son scampers up the length of path and returns five minutes later to report that it wasn’t “that tough.” Ouch.

Respite from my humiliation and pain comes at Kaminoyama Onsen, where Yamagata’s commitment to tourism is visible. Until September, local inns are holding a yukata matsuri. Female guests are allowed to choose colorful yukata not only to wear during their stay, but also to keep. The president of Tsukioka Hotel shows me around town, as I try to keep up in my awkward geta. He proudly points out the new public ashiyu (foot baths), and Japanese sweet shops where they hand out free bean cakes to visitors in yukata.

That night, I take the onsen’s waters, of course, but also try out a Relaxation Capsule. Fitted with headphones and special glasses with blinking lights, I am assaulted with a combination of scented hot air and vibrations. A a h.

On our last day, we trek to another holy mountain, though there are no temples or steps here. Gassan is a natural wonder, which gets extraordinary snowfalls in winter, making it unreachable. So, come spring, as other resorts are closing, Gassan is just starting to kick off its ski season, which lasts into July. Gassan is also a magnet for trekkers, who come for the plethora of wild flowers.

We meet our trekking guide at the base of Mount Gassan. His skin is leathery and tan, his calves stone bowling pins. He doesn’t smile much, especially because us city folk are behind schedule for today’s trek up Gassan. Outfitted with snow boots and crampon-like equipment, we begin our ascent. We trudge through snow — not powder, but not slush either — to the lift station, passing groups of hardcore skiers and boarders in T-shirts. After a 5-minute ride, the summit is in sight, but my back begins to throb when I ponder the 70-degree incline leading up to it. As snowboarders and skiiers blitz down, we crawl up. It’s not Everest, but for some reason I find myself wanting an oxygen mask. The payoff, 30 minutes later, is a snowless summit, where wildflowers are beginning to bloom, with a majestic vista of the Asahi mountain range. By now, the mountainside will have shed its whiteness for a multicolor coat, and be covered with flower-loving trekkers.

So what did I leave out? Plenty. Terrific sansai (mountain vegetables) soba, eaten with a nearby babbling brook for background music. And mouthfuls of Sato-nishiki, Japan’s finest cherries, plucked straight from the trees of Cherryland, a co-op of cherry-tree groves. Alas, the cherries are all gone now, but why not pick peaches? Blueberries? Grapes? I could go on, but you get the picture. The hype is true — just take your time when you get there. And when you reach that perfect moment, take a deeeep breath and say . . . “Ahhh . . . Yamagata.”

At the front stage of Fujiya

Jeanie Fuji is married to it, so to
speak. “I didn’t have a choice,” she
says with a warm laugh. “It was either
move in here, or forget it.”

“Here,” is the Fujiya inn, in the heart
of Ginzan Onsen.

Fuji laughs a lot, as if she is aware of
the fact that, yes, it might seem odd for
a woman born in California to be overseeing an inn in the wilds of Yamagata.
But it’s the laugh of a gracious host,
talented at putting anyone at ease.

And when you see her greet customers, dressed in a fine kimono, you realize that she’s very serious about her
profession as the kami-san (proprietress) of Fujiya, which has been in
her husband’s family for about 350
years.

She says she started at the “back
stage” of the business 12 years ago,
cleaning out baths and laying out futon.
Under the guidance of her husband and
mother-in-law, she graduated to the
“front stage” of being a kami-san. Now she is the smiling face of the inn.

Business is good at Fujiya, she says.
It has expanded from a purely family
business to a 17-employee operation.
However, she’s modest about taking
credit for it. “We receive a lot of publicity and attention from the media.
That has obviously increased the number of customers.”

She also cites the extension of the shinkansen line to nearby Oishida as contributing to the jump in visitors. More
guests are staying on weeknights — even in the winter — she says, “Most of
our customers in the winter come from
places where they have no snow. These
crazy people are outside playing in the
snow! And I’m like `What are you doing?!’ I’m like under my kotatsu, and
they’re out there. It could be a blizzard!”

A typical day for Fuji starts at 5:30
a.m., and from there, it’s juggling familial and professional duties: taking her
two preschoolers to the bus stop, then
going to the inn to see off departing guests and preparing for the ones arriving later, picking up the kids at 4 p.m.
and making dinner, then returning to the
inn, checking on guests as they eat dinner in their rooms, returning home for
some house-cleaning and slipping into
bed by midnight. “So yeah,” she says,
somewhat out of breath, “it’s a full day.”

So what makes a good kami-san?

“I wish I knew,” she says, covering
her mouth as she laughs. “The okami
has a full hand. Her first priority is obviously the guests, but then she also
has a staff that she has to take care of.
So that balance between the staff and
the guests is important. If the staff
aren’t happy, they aren’t going to provide good service to the customers. So
you just have to oversee the whole operation, and that’s hard to do. To be
everywhere at the same time is hard.
Like I said, I’m still a beginner when it
comes to being a kami-san.”