[From April Issue 2012]
Yamagata Prefecture is in the southwestern part of the Tohoku region. Consisting of five municipalities including Sakata City and Tsuruoka City, the Shonai district, located on the side of the prefecture closest to the Japan Sea is rich in nature, being surrounded by mountains, rivers and the sea. Its rice paddies extend far into the distance making it famous as one of Japan’s largest rice production areas. Shonai is now popular as a location for films; movies like “Okuribito” (Departures) – which won an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film – and a number of period dramas, have been shot there, thereby putting the area in the spotlight.
Sakata City has long thrived as a port town. The first place to visit in Sakata City is Sankyo Warehouse. Built in 1893 for storing rice, it’s over 100 years old and still serves as an agricultural warehouse. Sankyo Warehouse also houses a souvenir shop and the Shonai Rice Historical Museum, which enables visitors to learn about the history and culture of the area. Bordering the rear of the warehouse is a line of zelkova trees, which display beautiful young leaves in spring and red leaves in autumn.
Housing about 70,000 works of DOMON Ken, a world-famous photographer from Sakata City, the Ken Domon Museum of Photography was Japan’s first museum devoted to photography. The building, the garden, and the sculptures were each made by first-rate artists and the whole museum is a work of art in itself. In June and July visitors can enjoy the 94 kinds of colorful hydrangea blooms – 15,300 bushes –planted around the museum.
Tsuruoka City, about 35 minutes by train from Sakata City, is the hometown of FUJISAWA Shuhei, one of Japan’s most famous novelists. Tsuruoka flourished in the Edo period as a castle town in the Shonai domain, and numerous historic spots still remain. Many of Fujisawa’s novels are about samurai and are set in the author’s hometown. In recent years, his novels have been adapted into movies and TV dramas, drawing Fujisawa fans from outside the prefecture to Tsuruoka.
About a 20-minute walk from Tsuruoka Station is the Tsuruoka City Fujisawa Shuhei Memorial Museum. Built in 2010, the museum is situated in Tsuruoka Park, which also houses the Taihokan Museum – a Western-style building erected in 1915. Close to the park stands Chidokan, formerly a school of the Shonai clan designed to cultivate men of talent. These are popular spots where it’s possible to experience firsthand the universe portrayed in Fujisawa’s works, while at the same time learning about the history of Shonai.
Shonai is rich in seasonal foods. A famous dish for spring is mousou-jiru (bamboo shoot soup), a local specialty of Shonai. Mousou is the local word in Shonai for bamboo shoots. In summer, fruits such as cherries, melons – grown in the sand dunes of Shonai – and grapes, as well seafood, such as rock oysters, are harvested. Fruit farms where tourists can pick and eat Shonai fruit to their heart’s content are also popular.
Another well-known specialty of Shonai is dadacha-mame soybeans. Dadacha means father in the local dialect. These beans are said to be the most delicious edamame (green soybeans) in Japan; they are especially popular as a snack to go with beer. There are a number of souvenirs available that contain dadacha-mame, such as rice crackers and Japanese sweets.
In autumn imoni (taro stew), a local dish of Yamagata, is eaten. Within the same prefecture, there are two types of imoni: a miso-flavored one containing pork and a soy sauce-flavored one containing beef. In Shonai, the miso-flavored type is common. During the harsh winter of Shonai, dongara-jiru is essential: this is a soup containing cod. Every January, the Dongara Festival is held.
As one of the most popular tourist spots in Shonai, Mount Haguro is a must. Two statues of deities flank the Zuishinmon gate leading to a long flight of 2,446 stone steps which extends about 1.7 kilometers. Lining both sides of the stone steps are 350 to 500-year-old Japanese cedars; this avenue of trees has been awarded three stars by the Michelin Green Guide Japon. Furthermore a five story pagoda stands among the cedar trees. This pagoda has been designated as a National Treasure and gives the place a spiritual atmosphere.
A little trip from Mount Haguro will take you to Shonai Eigamura (movie village), which contains film sets that are open to the public. A vast area of 88 hectares (20 times as large as Tokyo Dome) houses outdoor sets. Attractions include puppet plays, kimono rental, or the opportunity to try your hand at sword fighting. The village is open from mid April through to late November and is closed in the winter months.
A 30-minute bus ride from Tsuruoka Station is Kamo Aquarium. It houses 35 kinds of jellyfish, the most in the world. Attracting over 200,000 visitors each year, the aquarium also holds such events as sea lion shows. Another special feature of the aquarium is its restaurant that serves dishes containing jellyfish, such as jellyfish ramen and jellyfish ice-cream, which are considered unusual not only in the rest of the world, but also in Japan.
If you are looking for somewhere to stay in Shonai, a hot spring resort is recommended. Yamagata Prefecture is literally a hot spring paradise in which every town, city, and village has a hot spring. Shonai has Yunohama, Atsumi, Yutagawa and Yura Hot Springs. Yunohama Hot Spring near Kamo Aquarium is also a very popular beach resort, which in summer gets crowded with people enjoying a swim in the sea. Enabling you to enjoy beautiful scenery, every hotel and inn commands a view of the evening sun over the Japan Sea.
Shonai Airport, located between the centers of Sakata and Tsuruoka Cities, is about 60 minutes from Haneda Airport in Tokyo. To get to the downtown area from the airport, it’s convenient to take the limousine bus. If you’re using JR trains, it takes roughly two hours to get to JR Niigata Station by Joetsu Shinkansen, there you change to the Uetsu Main Line, arriving at Tsuruoka Station or Sakata Station in about two more hours. By highway bus from Tokyo Station it takes approximately eight hours.
Text: YAMASHINA Saori