Winter Minshuku at Yamagata


By Yan Qiao Chew


Having traveled to Yamagata several times in recent months, I can confidently say that I’m (almost) a local! On this third visit to the prefecture, I felt as though I was going home. In winter, snow covers the expanse of land in Yamagata and I was feeling super excited — I had never really seen such heavy snow before and this time was definitely an eye-opener.
Stretching across the horizon, the vast, smooth white canvas was beautiful, a sight I wanted to share with everyone. This trip, we would be staying at Irori Minshuku, a place I experienced during my first trip to Yamagata which you can read about here.



It was refreshing for me to go back and see that things had changed since the last time I was there. While traveling to the minshuku, we were greeted by layers and layers of thick snow walls; it felt as though we were inside a white-colored maze. Our driver even missed a turn to our accommodations because the snow was about 3 meters high and we could not see anything aside from the sky or tips of trees. Nevertheless, we arrived safely.

FOUR best winter-stay experiences and SIX must-try activities

The snow removal machine


It is incredible how one piece of equipment can help to ease the lives of residents in northern Japan during winter season. The machine helps to create paths by collecting snow and tossing it up and to the side. The high piles of snow on both sides form the so-called “snow walls”. The square boxes that you see in the photo were carefully carved out using a spade by the owner’s son.

2) The awesome meals at Irori Minshuku


The dinner and breakfast at Irori definitely pack a punch, making me crave more every single time. The dish layout is spectacular at every meal, with small portions of an overwhelming food variety. The vibrant colors and different textures helped whet our appetites, and needless to say, the food was mind-blowingly good.


3) Kotatsu


Love feeling warm in the winter? Then you cannot miss out on Japan’s most deadly winter “weapon”, the kotatsu! This magical item will immobilize you and not let you out of its grasp. The kotatsu is a low, wooden table frame covered by a futon, or heavy blanket, upon which a table top sits. Below is a heat source often built into the table itself. Once you enter it on a cold winter’s day, the heat will prevent you from leaving, and the soft blanket will carry you away to a cozy heaven where you can sleep the day away. The ultimate combination is snacking on mikan (みかん, Japanese Mandarin) and sipping on hot green tea, which will have you going “Ahhh~”.

4) Illumination



After dinner, we were treated to gorgeous night illuminations. Normally, the owner would surprise guests by revealing the illuminations behind the curtains. However, because we had already experienced it once, we joined the owner in making the wall of candles together. Guests can either enjoy the sheer beauty of the illumination wall, a work of art made through the combined efforts of man and nature, or join in the fun of creating it! After which, you can say kanpai to a job well done and go to bed feeling accomplished.
This wonderful experience only happens at IRORI Minshuku, and the true beauty of the illuminations will only be revealed after all the lights in the house are switched off.

Other activities to occupy your time while having a home stay

A) You can participate in the Kasedori Festival that takes place annually on 11 Feb in front of Kaminoyama Castle in Yamagata. In recent years they have opened up to foreign participants and welcome people from all over the world.



B) Winter barbecue is another exciting thing to try. While locals may scoff and think that grilling meat surrounded by snow is crazy, the piping hot food helps to warm cold bodies up. What’s more, the sizzling meat is juicy and delicious, so why not?



C) For Singaporeans who are stuck with hot and humid weather all year round, we definitely do not mind the cold as much! Hop on a snow banana ride or make some rounds on a snowmobile.



D) Visit Mt.Zao (蔵王山)for snowboarding or simply enjoy the majestic and spectacular views from the mountain top. You will discover great sights and sounds all seasons.




E) Visit Ginzan Onsen Street (銀山温泉)for its famous, photogenic streets. Piles of snow add on to its enchanting scenery, and you can truly feel the nostalgia as you stroll around. Drop by a cafe for an afternoon cuppa while admiring the view outside the window.



F) The climb up to Yamadera (山寺) will be challenging but you will be able to burn lots of calories! You will be rewarded for the effort with an epic panorama of the surrounding landscape.



Be sure to have the proper footwear and check the weather forecast before making your way there.

To find out what it’s like to stay at a Minshuku in Yamagata in different seasons, make sure to check our Summer and Autumn article.

KAWAII KABUKI: A new Hello Kitty performance

kawaii kabuki

In the PUROLAND theme park dedicated to Hello Kitty and other Sanrio characters there is no end to the cute things, and there has been a recent addition. On March 10th 2018 the Kawaii Kabuki show debuted in the Marchen theatre inside PUROLAND. Both “kawaii” and “kabuki” are buzzwords for Japanese speakers, but for those who don’t speak the language these can be simply translated as “cute traditional Japanese theater”. It is a unique collaboration between a Kabuki troupe and the Sanrio characters, resulting in a cute and modern Kabuki show. The story draws inspiration from the old Japanese story of Momotaro or “Peach Boy”, while still retaining the cuteness and dance routines of the Hello Kitty performances.

Kawaii Kabuki performers and their creators
The characters with the show creators and a representative of Sanrio Co., Ltd.

A quick guide to Kabuki

Kabuki is a classical dramatic performance with its origins in the Edo period (1603 – 1868). It remains one of the most popular traditional styles of Japanese drama today and features characters wearing old-style costumes, such as elaborate kimono or samurai armors and a wide variety of props representing different things. Special wigs are used to signify that a character is a demon, for example. The language spoken in a Kabuki play is an old form of Japanese, so even native speakers require an audio guide relaying a translation in modern Japanese. Kabuki is symbolized by the traditional black, red and green stripes, as seen in the curtains of the Kabuki theaters, while white, black and red colors are used in the distinctive make-up worn by the actors. The performance involves dance, with specific slow-motion dramatic movements accompanied by musical instruments such as the shakuhachi flute, or the samisen, a traditional string instrument.


The story of Momotaro (Peach Boy) x Hello Kitty

Momotaro is an old Japanese folk story of a boy born from a giant peach that was found by a childless couple who became his parents. He becomes a brave warrior who sets off on a quest to “Onigashima”, or the Demon Island where he fights powerful demons or “oni” in Japanese. In the Kawaii Kabuki performance, Kitty assumes the role of Momotaro. She also goes all the way to the Demon Island, but there is a twist in the way she conquers the demons. Without much spoilers, let’s say that she used the guiding principle of her character – ‘be good friends with everyone’.

momotaro hello kitty 2
momotaro hello kitty 1

What is Kawaii Kabuki?

The Kawaii Kabuki show is a blend of the old and the new and a mix of dance and dialogue. The characters are donned on traditional costumes and the armors made with the utmost attention to detail. A single hiragana letter can be seen on the armor plates of some of the characters, representing the first sound of their name. For example “し”(pronounced “shi”) stands for Cinnamonroll (pronounced as Shinamon Roru in Japanese). The kimonos also bear symbols representing the character’s name or things they like, for example Kitty wears a kimono with apples or Badtz Maru has X and O on his kimono, which reads “batsu” and “maru” in Japanese, just like his name. Along with the detailed aesthetics, the dance routines are also elaborate and perfectly synchronized. The story is easy to follow, even for people who don’t speak Japanese, especially if they are already familiar with the story of Momotaro.

stage performance 1

demon island

This Kawaii Kabuki performance is just one of many that Puroland offers. You can also enjoy various restaurants and cafes inside, each of them with special cutely presented food and drinks, and a dreamy interior design. You can even meet and have your picture taken with Kitty. Puroland also sells the biggest variety of Sanrio characters-themed goods in their gift shops. A day in Puroland is a day in another world, so visit it anytime you need a big dose of cuteness!

Puroland sweets

For more information on the Kawaii Kabuki show please see Sanrio Puroland official website
For more cuteness, check out Puroland’s Instagram account, Twitter account, Facebook profile and Youtube channel.


Sanrio Puroland

Hours: Weekdays: 10:00-17:00, holidays: 10:00-18:00
Address: 1-31 Ochiai, Tama-shi
Phone: 042-339-1111

Scroll down for more photos from the Kawaii Kabuki performance.

hello kitty stage

badtz maru
The Badtz Maru character plays the villain
hello kitty stage performance 1
A demon appears!
hello kitty stage performance 2
Kitty taking the lead
kitty in onigashima
A heartfelt twist in the story
kabuki daniel
Kitty’s boyfriend, Daniel, in a Kabuki costume and with Kabuki make up


Zoria April
Zoria is a writer, of the rare poet variety and a passionate photographer. If you see somebody around Tokyo taking photos of concrete walls, it must be her. She loves to dress fashionably and go drink as many cups of coffee as humanly possible, preferably in cafes with a view.MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Ninja ID: zoria

White Day in Japan – the second Valentine’s Day

white day

Valentine’s Day in Japan is uniquely one-sided with women giving chocolates to men. However, men are not off the hook, because exactly a month later, on the 14th of March, Japan celebrates White Day and this time women receive gifts.

What is White day?

A response to Valentine’s Day and a chance to even out things between men and women, White Day was established in 1978 and it falls exactly a month later, on March 14th. This is the chance for men to reciprocate the Valentine gifts and it is believed that true gentlemen double or triple the worth or amount of the gift they previously received. The name originates from one of the first marketing campaigns for this holiday when a Fukuoka company marketed marshmallows as the perfect gifts for White Day. The day was even called Marshmallow Day at first, before being changed to the broader White Day.

white day gifts

Following that, white chocolate became a favorite, although nowadays men seem to give all kinds of chocolates. The general notion is that white as a color is also the color of sugar and therefore everything sweet. If not the sweets, at least the packaging is expected to be white and very cute. Some men are even getting closer to the Western tradition of Valentine gift-giving with opting to gift not only sweets, but also lingerie, jewelry, flowers and so on. You might be wondering why they don’t go for the ever popular romantic Valentine date as a gift, but that date, for the Japanese, almost always happens on Christmas Eve.

white day macarons

Who can be your White Day sweetheart?

Another aspect of Valentine’s Day that differs from the West is the type of chocolate given, or more specifically the person that receives it. There are three types of chocolate gifts on Valentine’s Day and White Day often follows the same pattern. “Honmei choko” or “true feelings chocolate” is a gift-giving that is the most similar to the Valentine’s Day as celebrated abroad. This chocolate is either luxurious or home-made and is reserved for your true love/partner only.

a couple exchanging gifts

Then there is “giri choco” or “obligation chocolate” that is given to various men in a woman’s life – mostly co-workers, but also male friends and family members. The last one and most recent is “tomo choco” or “friendship chocolate” that is exchanged between friends, usually women. White Day mostly reciprocates the “true feelings chocolate” and sometimes also reciprocates the “obligation chocolate” in the office. It is very common for “obligation chocolate” to be a big box bought by everyone and shared among the co-workers. Many Japanese people nowadays are trying to either not observe the “obligation chocolate” custom or downplay it, because they say it is just too much pressure.

different chocolates

Today, White Day has spread to other countries as well and it is celebrated in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. South Korea also celebrates Black Day, a month after White Day, on the 14th of April and it is for single people that didn’t receive any gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day. On Black Day they usually meet to comfort each other and have fun, usually wearing black and eating noodles in black sauce.

black and white chocolates

Fun fact: by coincidence, March 14th is also the anniversary of International Marriage Day in Japan. Marriage between a Japanese national and a non-Japanese person was first officially permitted by act of law on March 14, 1873.

Read all about how Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Japan in our article here.


Zoria April
Zoria is a writer, of the rare poet variety and a passionate photographer. If you see somebody around Tokyo taking photos of concrete walls, it must be her. She loves to dress fashionably and go drink as many cups of coffee as humanly possible, preferably in cafes with a view.MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Ninja ID: zoria

Cherry blossom season in Japan: the love of the ephemeral

cherry blossoms and sake 1
Short-lived, fragile, pale pink cherry blossoms have become a symbol of Japan as the Japanese are madly in love with this season and everything it represents. It is precisely because the gentle cherry blossoms easily and quickly wither and fall that they are loved so much. It is a notion called mono no aware or ‘bittersweet awareness of the impermanence of things’. This mindset is the belief that this impermanence needs to be cherished and not mourned. A similar thought expressed in English and often quoted is “Don’t cry because it’s over, be happy because it happened” – first found in the writings of German poet Ludwig Jacobowski and widely spread later by Dr. Seuss.

cherry blossoms along the river

The sheer quantity of cherry trees planted in Japan testifies to this love. When the cherries blossom people stop looking down and look constantly up; salary-men normally in a hurry, now stop in the middle of the road to take a picture. The cherry blossoms also fade away beautifully – first with blossoms slowly raining through the air, or as one famous anime feature film beautifully put it “the cherry blossoms fall with a speed of 5 cm per second.” The last stage of perishing of sakura ends with pinkish carpets on the streets and water surfaces covered with pink blankets, all rivers flowing pink and taking the petals away.

cherry blossom river

Cherry blossom glossary

If you are in Japan for the cherry blossom season, you will hear a lot of unknown words that have already permeated the English language spoken by expats. Here are the essential ones.

sakura 桜 - the Japanese word for cherry blossoms
hanami 花見 – literally meaning “flowers” + “looking/viewing”, nowadays it is understood as “viewing cherry blossoms while sitting under the trees”
ume 梅 – a species of tree related to both plums and apricots that blooms in early spring
yozakura 夜桜 – night illumination of cherry blossoms
somei yoshino 染井吉野 – the most popular cherry tree species in Japan
sakuramochi 桜餅 – a Japanese sweet made of sweet pink-colored rice cake (mochi) with red bean paste (anko) inside, and wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom (sakura) leaf
hanami dango 花見団子 – sweet rice flour dumplings, always a group of three on a skewer, one pink, one white and one green dumpling

cherry blossoms 4

Hanami history: How long have the Japanese been in love with cherry blossoms?

It would seem that admiring cherry blossoms in Japan has been going on since forever, but almost every cultural practice in the world has an origin. The Heian period in Japan (from 794 to 1185) heralded a lot of cultural changes and one of them was the events organized to admire the cherry blossoms. During the Nara Period (710-794) the ume, or Japanese plum, had been the preferred spring blossom. Both the tree species and the custom of admiring plum spring blossoms had originated from China. The notion of Mono no aware, or ‘bittersweet awareness of the impermanence of things’, also originated in the Heian period and it is one of the reasons why the fragile cherry blossoms are so beloved.

cherry blossoms

In the Heian Period, members of the aristocracy started organizing hanami parties under the cherry trees. It was very common to read poetry under them, lamenting but also cherishing their delicate blossoms. People would also drink sake and eat food. Some customs from those original parties are observed to this day, while some have faded away. A major change has to do with the participants themselves. In the Heian Period the cherry viewing parties were exclusively for the Imperial Court, but later on, commoners started joining the practice, reaching its peak during the Edo Period (1603 and 1868 ).

cherry blossom in the past
Postcards from the early 20th century, from The New York Public Library

Cherry blossoms and hanami today

Today, not everyone reads and writes poetry under the cherry blossoms, but everyone looks forward to having a picnic under the pink flower-clouds. Hanami events are very lively, with people bringing food and drinks, playing games and instruments, singing and having fun. There are also food stalls offering delicious, take-away food on the spot. Bigger parks sometimes have a stage with musical events, with some performers going around the park in groups to entertain people. The most common color seen during hanami parties, besides the pink of the blossoms, is the blue of the tarp sheets that people sit on. The parks and gardens have specific spots designated for picnics, so make sure to locate them before settling somewhere. It is very common to eat bento lunch boxes containing sushi, sakuramochi (sweet pink-colored rice cake (mochi) with red bean paste (anko) inside, and wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom (sakura) leaf), hanami dango (sweet rice flour dumplings) and many other sakura flavored foods and drinks. Read more about it in our hanami treats article.

cherry blossom picnic food

When night falls, a lot of parks and gardens illuminate their cherry trees and this custom is called yozakura. The landscape is particularly beautiful around lakes, ponds and rivers as the cherry blossoms are reflected in the water. Another way to enjoy the cherry blossoms is taking a boat ride down the many rivers that are lined with cherry trees. Some of the popular places for a river cruise are Sumida river and Meguro river in Tokyo, Ogawa river in Osaka and Matsukawa river in Toyama, among many others. For a more personal cherry blossom viewing on water, people rent small rowing boats and enjoy the cherry blossoms around ponds and lakes. The most iconic locations in Tokyo where you can do this are Chidori-ga-fuchi the Imperial Palace and the Inokashira Park pond in Kichijoji Western Tokyo.

chidori ga fuchi pond day and night
Chidori-ga-fuchi in the Imperial Palace

night time illumination of cherry trees

The meaning of sakura in Japanese society

As early as February many food and drink products get a cherry blossom-themed makeover in Japan. In anticipation of the cherry blossoms, hunting for the new seasonal special has become a bit of a pastime for many in Japan. Coffee shops start offering cherry blossom flavored drinks and sweets, while famous brands launch cherry blossom flavored versions of their products or at least, create a new cherry blossom packaging.

cherry blossom flavored foods and drinks

Spring and cherry blossom season signify new beginnings in Japan. All the school graduations usually take place during March with the new year beginning in April, thus very often the school entrance ceremonies take place when the cherry trees are in full bloom. New beginnings in spring are not for students only, companies hire the majority of their new employees during this season too. For people living in Japan, the sight of cherry blossoms invariably brings up memories of starting a new school, a new job, moving into a new apartment. These memories filled with sunlight, pink blossoms, and cheerful picnics are a bottomless source of the feeling of mono no aware – just as the cherry blossoms come and go, years come and go, children grow up, life milestones occur, and for those transient moments of happiness, no matter how short, we should be happy.

cherry blossoms and a student

cherry blossoms 3

To make sure you don’t miss this year’s cherry blossom season, go over to our article with 2018’s predictions for the blooming and full bloom date accross major cities in Japan.


Zoria April
Zoria is a writer, of the rare poet variety and a passionate photographer. If you see somebody around Tokyo taking photos of concrete walls, it must be her. She loves to dress fashionably and go drink as many cups of coffee as humanly possible, preferably in cafes with a view.MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Ninja ID: zoria

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