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My Kingdom in the Snow: Yamagata Prefecture

I have been to Yamagata a half a dozen times in the last half decade.   Maybe I was in search of The Promise Land, you know the story  mentioned in the Bible...   No.  Scratch that.  All of Japan is the Promise Land.   Too grandeur a statement, you say?  Ok.  All BS aside there's a reason I keep coming back again and again.  Here.  Here.  Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here  Here. Here. Here
Here   Here.

I would never refuse an invitation from a fellow sake lover, either.   It's my duty to sample as many and as much rice brew as possible before I die, but that is not my only duty though.    For years I have been sampling some of Japan's greatest natural hot spas, which many regard as a preserve of the rich.   Samurai didn't bathe in such mineral hot springs, extravagance is not a samurai quality.  Only lady boys and concubines used to enjoy such respite.   Long gone are such notions in our day and age, though.   Men want to look more supple too,  I suppose.   I guess like with our distant ancestors ( monkeys) who too enjoy natural hot spas, we share the same affinity to mother nature's warm embrace.

The bitter chill of winter is unforgiving in these parts of northern Japan.   We struggled with transit routes trying to get up this way; so many cancelled routes.   We had a bus divert from Yamagata to Fukushima to come pick us up in Koriyama.    We were 40 minutes behind schedule on our planned itinerary.

Our first order of business was to visit the famed Yonetsuru Sake Brewery.   Here we took a 40 minute tour where we had a hands on experience kneading rice and stirring the large sake tanks.

In this picture you see the sakamai version of Dewasansan, one of the signature rice grains of Yamagata with mold spores already on them.   Sakamai is rice specifically harvested and brewed for Japanese rice wine.   You can sample a small teaspoon in your mouth to taste the sweetness and it is not the same as table rice.

Here we get to sample the finished product directly from the tank.  Pure heaven.  How lucky.  Founded in 1704(?) Yonetsuru is one of the oldest sake brewers in this region with world-renowned sake like F-1 Junmai Daiginjo ( Absolutely amazing taste), Jinenryo, just to name another.   The tour lasted for about 40 minutes and  was thorough, one of the best brewery tours I have been to in a long time.  At the end of the tour we all did a blind tasting between five sake.  The winner gets a certificate.

By 11am it was lunch time, so we headed over to the Ebisuya Hotel for some more delicious food and select Yonetsuru sake.    By the end of lunch I was thoroughly sauced - we all were.  N.B. The bus tour afforded us plenty of nap time between destinations on the bus.  From station to brewery I napped; from brewery to lunch area I napped; from lunch area to onsen I napped; and from onsen to another brewery I napped; from the last brewery to dinner I also napped.   Sake, hot spas, and delicious food knocks me out every single time.   It just doesn't get any better than that folks, and if anybody tells you any differently they are a damn lie, and you can tell em' I said so right here on this blog.

After lunch we headed over to Akayu Onsen Gotenmori an onsen I wrote about back in 2008 when I published my book on Japanese onsen.   One of the oldest onsen in Tohoku and a cultural landmark hot spa that has been preserved for centuries.   The stone used to make the outdoor bath was sourced from a sleeping volcano.

I had some deep conversations here with two associate professors.  The first time I was here it was  on a beautiful balmy spring afternoon with cherry blossom petals floating in the water.    Epic!

If you've ever been to a natural hot spring spa before then you may have noticed that some smell like sulfur.   Imagine the smell of raw eggs.  That may be off putting for most people, but for older Japanese it is the smell of heaven.   For young people it is a repugnant order that lingers on the skin long after you've bathed, sometimes for days.  

As with any method of bathing, after drying the skin may experience different levels of dryness.  A good moisturizer comes in handy after bathing.   Soap is important too.   Good mild all natural soap is important for the skin too, especially facial soap.   Body wash soaps, liquid soaps, and deodorant  bar type soaps are not to be used on your face, you need facial soap.    In the picture above is a natural bar soaps made from green tea leaves which this onsen hotel is famous for selling.

Underneath the soap you can see a netting that you can insert the soap into to enhance the lathering.
The smell and feel of thick lathery green tea scented soap on your face is relaxing.   After leaving this onsen feeling relaxed and refreshed we got back on the tour bus and headed to our next stop.
Soumura Sake Brewery.

In this picture you can see a brownish greenish cedar ball hanging up there, sort of like a natural clock for telling whether sake is young and fresh, or fuller and more aged.   With modern technology now it's rather unnecessary to have it, but still all sake breweries  have it as a way to gauge how old the sake is, as well as the season in which it is brewed in.

The smallest brewery I have ever visited that has a make-shift facility for everything.  The Koji room looks like it was built from a cardboard box, like the whole facility was built in a garage.  Very unique atmosphere though.   Looks can be deceiving though.  Sake from these smaller breweries can  be surprisingly delicious and innovative.

 With any sake, good snacks are essential in exploiting the full range of flavor profiles associated the the sake.   In the top picture you can see small dried fish and squid; most are salty and aged.

Soumura has a beautiful female Toji, this too is essential as most sake breweries have alters built in their brew houses.   The Gods enshrined in these alters are all female deities, so in essence all Japanese women who drink sake are Goddesses.    In the magazine is an extremely radiant beauty making sake and next to her picture in the magazine is a sake infused cake which she made presumably.   Next up was dinner at a place called Bekoya Yakiniku.

Beef in Yamagata is world-renowned for its marbled fatty goodness.    And it's not as expensive as that Kobe beef knock-off.

 The beef is so tender and fatty lain across steamy hot rice melts on the tongue.

Shaky hands from pouring so much delicious cold sake.   Pure bliss.  It doesn't get any better than that ladies and gents.

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