There are many hidden gems tucked away all over Japan. Sometimes they come in the form of old temples, shrines, and even manhole covers, for some people. Ramshackle sheds, barns, old rundown train station with thick shrubs grown in and around them are what do it for me. Miles of unused rail lines deteriorating and rusting, yet somehow, with all of these left over remnants of a time long gone, what remains lends a sweet beauty to the landscape of this part of Ubayu. This is what I love about Tohoku, especially Yamagata Prefecture.
The Tsubasa snakes its way through the Fukushima / Yamagata Valley, just along the border near route 13 and 232. It moves slowly, and I'm sure the views are wonderful from inside as well as it was from the outside.
I'm sure we could all appreciate taking picture of trains, and not just from them. As the train passed I could see passengers drinking beer and snacking away on something, and pointing here and there. I took these pictures after I came down from Ubayu Onsen; a gruelling 9 km 17% incline narrow road with a 660cc two wheel drive car, which I do not recommend. If I had the entire day to myself I would hike around this entire area taking pictures of only old buildings and trains. And I just might do that someday, but on this trip I had an appointment with destiny and I had no time to waste. Destiny being delicious Yonezawa Beef, great sake, and onsen.
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I finished up around noonish and headed towards Yonezawa. A favorite ramen shop along the way had been closed down, which me and a gf used to visit. Yonezawa Ramen was the name it. It has gone and is now a part of the landscape rusting away peacefully. I regret not taking a picture of it, now that I think of it.
My journeys in and through Yamagata began long ago, like on my recent trip, via the great Nan-yo expressway. That long stretch of two lane highway with gorgeous views of rice fields and mountain ranges.
What's nice about the Nan-yo is the long stretch of area it covers, especially during sunset when the rice fields turn red and orange from the sunlit skies. From start to finish the Nan-yo is about 8 kilometres long and quite enjoyable if you are into scenery... The air was full of the smell of cow manure and hay, but it was a welcoming experience because you know you've left the city behind. I love hearing the sounds of cicadas and crickets and all sorts of bugs in the air. You know then that it's really summertime here in Yamagata.
The air is still clean though, and smog free. I can catch faint aromas of grilled meat. You see, the signature food item in this part of Japan is the legendary fatty beef, which is known in many parts of the world as some of the finest and most widely recognised next to Kobe Beef - nature's candy. I pressed down on the accelerator a little more in nervous anticipation to eat at a famous lunch spot I had discovered.
By the time I reached Yonezawa City, I had worked up an enormous appetite from my epic 5 hour race from Tokyo to Yamagata. Seriously, I do not recommend such escapades, but to drive around at 60 k/per hour gets boring. I was simply following the flow of traffic at around 120.
What it means for me to travel this far out has a lot to do with how the real Japan is, and what it evokes in my mind. Ordinary Japanese folks live here, and the temples and shrines that they adorn are just as good as any other. They do not have to travel to Kyoto and Nara just to feel the verve of their own country. They feel it everyday. Right here. In the very backbone of the nation.
Before the great March 11th earthquake and Tsunami disaster most of the world knew very little to nothing about this region of Japan. Not even some Tokyoites had sufficient understanding of this area, as many assumed that these regions were either underdeveloped or plain boring. The fact still remains that Tohoku has always been the pulse of the nation, the bread basket if you will, the center of agriculture and fisheries. The premium rice growing region and motherlode of premium sake production.
喰処 上花輪 ( Kamihanawa)
So I finally arrive at my destination for lunch at a very well known place called Kamihanawa, and it's here that I had my first meal for the day; delicious beef yakiniku ramen.
In all fairness, there are dozens of fantastic ramen shops that offer up their own signature Yamagata dish. And there are perhaps dozens of local favourites by people who know better than me, and who've grown up here since birth, and who'll probably sware up and down that this ramen shop serves the most authentic ramen, and so on. I'm not recommending this shop because of that, nor because it was in some travel magazine, or because someone raised their right hand and told me so. I was attracted to this place because of the quaint atmosphere and the set menus that was on offer. It was also easily accessible from route 2, the main route through the middle of the city.
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In my 13 inch in diameter ramen bowl, there were slabs of fatty tender Yonezawa Beef both at the bottom of the bowl, and along the top. It was one of the finest bowls of ramen I have ever eaten.
The green veggies were nice, too. Next to that on the right is a spicy red additive to give the ramen more spiciness, which I don't think you really need. And then dessert is tangerine. If you have high blood pressure take it easy on ramen that's high in fat, like this. In one bowl you can taste the entire history of this region. Eating Yonezawa Beef is a lot like eating a fat sponge, but in a good way. After finishing up I headed for check-in.
My original plan was to attend the August 14th fireworks event downtown. I had toted my large tripod and brought with me all of my camera lenses and equipment for this special with over 20,000 fireworks on show. Since the weather was sultry and hovering in the high 30s I decided to check in to my hotel, freshen up then head back out for the fireworks. Wrong!
The hotel staff at the Tsukioka Hotel were warm and friendly to me upon check-in. I was shown to my room where there were two beds waiting for me, a large flat screen, an office chair and a great wifi signal. Towels and two clean yukata were on my bed. There was a hot pot of tea brimming; next to that was a pitcher of ice cold water and some desserts next to that. For me, after a long trip, I like to sit down, wind down, and drink some really hot tea with some snacks. Take several deep breaths. I get changed into my robes and head down for a niee dip for 30 minutes then head back up to the room. Once in the broom I pop open a bottle of Kirin Lager, chug it down - all of it! Turn on the T.V. and sigh. Then I typically crash for about two hours; wake up with an appetite and have dinner. There was no way I was going to crawl back into my clothes and head out for fireworks. Who cares!?
Tsukioka's own private select Junmai sake with Yonezawa Beef. Sea Bream, Hainuki, miso soup and tofu in vinegar was just heaven on a plate. The last piece of beef was worshipped! As if I wanted to frame it and take it home with me.
And then the bath. The nice thing about Tsukioka's bath is the nature surrounding it. The open air bath water is hot and therapeutic. It's important not to get confused about this hotel and the one I stayed at in Niigata Prefecture The onsen pics were snapped with my iPhone, hence the distortions.
Sitting here in the cool of the evening while the water was soothing my joints the sounds of nature were soothing my mind. The natural steam the hot spa releases is alleviates all stress and fatigue. Down below is the video portion; watch how white steam comes up in the video. This is my onsen theater segment.