Tour journal from Yamagata, Japan.

By Go!Go!Tohoku!! (from : Team) on Jul. 7, 2016

By Go!Go!Tohoku!! (from : Team) on Jul. 7, 2016

In 2016, June 11th and 12th, I was lucky enough to be picked as one of the five members who are going on the first Location Tour1 (LT) in Yamagata, North Japan, which is a tourism promotion video shooting campaign held by the Sendai TV station. So yeah, I got to travel for free and get to be on TV! Yay before it even started!

This time our tour plan covered three cities in Yamagata ken which is next to Miyagi ken where Sendai is located. They are Sakata, Tsuruoka and Sagae. Because my boyfriend lives in Sakata city, and Tsuruoka is right below Sakata, so I have already been to those two cities a few times. But boy, shouldn’t my boyfriend have done a better job of showing me around the two cities! I was still completely blown away by my experiences in those two days.


On 8:30am 11th, Saturday morning, we gathered in the TV station and took off from there by the TV station’s minibus. Except 5 ambassadors from 5 different countries, we had a few station staff and a translator coming along too. Some of us had met before but some faces were still new, so we had about 2.5 hours of fun time getting to know each other and talking about what we are going to do in the car before we reached our first destination---a hand-made soba restaurant named “Dewa”, located in Sakata city.
As a Chinese, noodles and noodle-like foods are no strangers to me. At least they shouldn’t be. But when I first came to Japan and saw the cold shiny Soba lying on a bamboo-made tray aside with a cup of soya sauce-like thingy which you were told to dip the soba noodles in to eat I was mortified. We don’t eat noodles raw(they’re cooked and cold actually but still look pretty raw) back home, and we prefer a lot more pre-seasoned flavor than simple dip-in sauce. Well although before the trip day I was already pretty much accustomed to the novel way of eating noodles, this particular hand-made soba restaurant still has shocked my mind and stomach by taking it to a whole new level. To a level that I felt my inner system was suddenly a lot clearer and healthier by the time I finished the meal. The restaurant started with a very peaceful and tranquil atmosphere, with its interior design and table placing. Before we arrive, the traditional Japanese tempura and their home-made (again) buckwheat tea was already on our tables. As soon as we were seated, the waiters began to bring up stacked trays of noodles. Each of us got a wooden tray of two kinds of noodles: Udon and Soba. They were both a bit icy but it was just right for the hot weather. The right way (as I was told) to eat hand-made udon and soba is to use chopsticks (of course!) nip some noodles and dip them into the porcelain cup filled with the special sauce after or before you put the chopped green onions into the cup. The noodles tasted simply amazing. They were such a refreshing taste, especially when set off by the adequate taste of the sauce. So you can experience many levels of tastes in your mouth eating the noodles this way I guess, not like a strong unified flavor you expect to taste from an instant cup noodles. And they are so easy to chew and smooth that make you feel like you are eating noodles made from an ice cream machine.


After satisfied with our lunch, we soon arrived at our first shoot scene—Sankyo Warehouse. Sankyo warehouse is used to store Tsume—which is Japanese for raw rice. It has a very long history (built in Edo period) and was shot in a famous Japanese TV series as well as the Oscar winner movie Departures. As soon as I saw the surroundings and the hundreds-year-old texture of the buildings I knew why it appeared in several screen works. It was so big for a starter. We walked along the trail of the back of those warehouses as well as the side. It could easily take you half an hour to finish the walking if you are not distracted by taking photos of the beautiful sceneries. I loved the trail built with rocks and shadowed by two lines of big and flourishing Zelkova trees. They weren’t just for beauty purposes as well, the shadow prevents direct sunshine so the rice can store longer in the warehouses.


There’s also a shrine around the corner of the warehouse site. Contrary to big, glorious Chinese shrines, Japanese shrines stand out for its quantity and wide distribution. Also you need to wash your hands and rinse your mouth in a little water booth set up in front of every shrine before you go in and make a wish or thanking.
And the end of the tour, you can either dine in the fine restaurant facing the beautiful trail with the big French window or shop for souvenirs and refreshments in the gift store. They even have limited city-themed Attack on Titan mascots. My boyfriend bought some as an apology for not showing me this awesome place before. It worked.


After the warehouse we drove to this another magnificent building---Somaro to watch the famous Maiko show in Sakata. Maybe you are more familiar with the term Geisha, think of Maiko as the trainee for Geisha, and Somaro is exactly like a modern day’s art training school, but in a much more exquisite way. Somaro was built in the prosperous time of Edo period as an entertainment venue for those well-fortuned people. At that time, rich business men often gathered here at night to enjoy food and drinks served by the beautiful Maikos. Nowadays, you might not be able to drink alcohols inside of Somaro but if you want a bit hint of what luxurious life of old times feel like or just simply soak into the Japanese culture, you can still have a fine lunch and Maiko performances package at noon. Be sure to make a reservation though. Or you can simply walk in around 2 pm like us, watch the performance, and take a selfie with Maikos.


Maikos’ performance was a big surprise for me on this trip, but what happened afterwards was clearly everyone’s favorite. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Kumo aquarium, only because I had been there once so I knew what I could expect and tease my companies at. Kamo aquarium sits right on a bay in Tsuruoka city, so just by arriving at that area you can already treat yourself with beautiful costal view. Kamo aquarium isn’t essentially big as an aquarium, but it doesn’t need to be for what it’s famous for is the small fabulous sea creatures---jelly fish. I shouldn’t spoil to you much here with many pictures. But let me just tell you if you didn’t know much about jelly fish like me, you would have a total blast and feel like you’ve fallen into some underwater dreamland. There’s even a restaurant with all sea view seats for you to dine after the ecstasy you just experienced. It’s just the perfect choice for going alone, with friends or families and most especially for a date. Well I had my first date with my boyfriend there and it was truly the best date ever! Forget all above if you don’t like animals, which means you are a terrible person. Okay maybe you are not a terrible person, but you are weird.


With the aquarium closed at 5pm, we left for our hotel regretfully (one hour was not enough for my jellyfish-loving buddies clearly). The hotel we stayed in for one night was a Japanese onsen hotel--Mankoen, ‘onsen’ is Japanese for “hot spring”. A onsen hotel means the hotel has its own hot spring and the guests stay there can go to the onsen unlimitedly. You can basically sleep in the hot spring water if you want. When we arrived at the hotel it was close to sunset time. Luckily, the hotel was really close to a beach too, so we just put our bags in our rooms then headed towards the beach to catch the sunset view before dinner time. The beach was so big and so few people, the sunset was strong the breeze was cool everything just turned out great, especially in photos.


However, I reached my personal climax of the trip at the dinner. We merged with the other group in the hotel and took over this big dinner room as our dinner place. It’s a room with four big rectangle tables and each one fits eight people, four and four face to face with a charcoal grill in between, which already had some fished I couldn’t call names of stick in the charcoals. Comes to a special dinner like we were offered you’d probably have to reserve in advance, considering how many dishes and foods they have to prepare it’s totally reasonable. I can’t remember how many exactly different food had I eaten, but I will never forget how delicious the sashimi was. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it was just the best sashimi I’ve ever had in Japan. We also got to eat one big crab one person, you will be offered tools but it still took me more than half an hour to finish the whole crab, and I was intentionally speeding it up. I will just leave the pictures and let you imagine on your own.


I stayed with three girls from the other trip group in one Japanese style room, it has a big French window overlooking the sea and I spent most of the night sitting on the balcony editing pictures and videos. Others that had been to the onsen said it was great and you could look over at the sea, unfortunately I couldn’t go because I was having my period.

I felt pretty tired waking up at 6am the next morning since I slept pretty late, but the breakfast in the hotel totally fuses me with abundant energy. It was a mixed Japanese and Western breakfast. You can cook your own ham and egg in the little burner sitting in front of you. And you can join the daily exhibit of making ‘mochi’, which is Japanese rice cake with the hotel staff. There were also various drinks and fruits you can eat at the self-service counter. I wish I could wake up to a breakfast like that every morning.


After leaving hotel we went to our final shooting scene—Hakusanjima Island. Haku means ‘white’ and ‘san’ means mountain. I don’t why its name has ‘mountain’ in it since mostly the island has surrounds it are big stones sticking out of the water. The sea water there is a little different from the one near the hotel though, it was bluer and greener, green is because the numerous seaweed growing on the shallow surface near the beach. There is a red bridge which leads you to the small island from the mainland.


Then it was time to kiss Tsuruoka goodbye too, before we move on to our next and final stop I want to kindly remind you that Tsuruoka has a fascinating ‘New Alcohol Festival’ in winter time. Basically, there are many brewers around Tsuruoka city, and when it’s winter, they would open their brewers to let customers try out the new Japanese alcohol, Sake and other drinks they plan to go on market for that year. I went there this February. Every participants was holding a small cup in their hands while gassing out white gas and wait the staff to fill their cups up. It started at 2 pm and when it finished at 5 pm, no one was sober again. It’s a nice thing to think about in the cold winter of North Japan, there is this particular train couch that’s filled up with tipsy red-face people.

We drove back to stop on our way at the third city—Sagae. This city is located in the middle of Yamagata prefecture. It is a lot smaller on scale compared to Sakata and Tsuruoka. But since Yamagata is the cherry prefecture (check out Yamagata Bank’s symbol), and Sagae provides hundreds of cherry gardens for you to pick and eat, it could be really hustle and bustle in the cherry season. The weekend we went happened to be their annual cherry Festival too. We did not only enjoy a whole hour of cherishing the fresh flavor from a cherry blossom tree (I only found out they are related that day!), we also participated in a ‘cherry pit spitting’ competition. Now that’s the funny party, it is an annual event belongs to the cherry festival and this year is the 12th year it’s been held. Having attracted 3000 people this year, we were feeling pretty pressured to give out our A game. But it was way too hard a sport then I thought, and my score is only a pathetic 1.66 meters. (The record of the competition is 17.84 meters.) Well, can’t blame me, I was always more of a pit swallower growing up than a tosser. One thing I like about Japanese matsuri(festival) is that there are always so many mouth-watering vendors setting at the venue of the festival celebration. You will likely to get a cheaper price for the same food you normally pay at a restaurant. After the fierce cherry spitting activity, we found our calories in scarce. Naturally, we went to binge eating the delicious Japanese food offered at the various counters. But my favorite of all the food, was the North Japan’s famous—beef tongue. The beef tongue I’ve eaten at restaurants are way thicker and undercooked in the middle, which I don’t like because they are hard to chew. But this one here is perfect thickness for me and the seasoning was so on point.


The beef tongue was pretty much my last and precious memory of this two-day trip to Yamagata. It was a very special trip since I’m going to be on TV for it. No I mean it’s special because the station staff were so nice and professional which made the trip experience even better. As for us five ambassadors, of course a special friendship was formed. And I really hope there’s some other chance we could do it again. Oh, Yagamata? Definitely will return and recommend.


To see the beautiful Sakata Maiko for yourself, check out this tour:


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