Zao – Yamagata, Miyagi

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Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, this expansive wilderness is one of the last remaining untouched beech forest in Japan. Shirakami Sanchi, stretching from Aomori to Akita Prefecture, _boasts myriad hiking trails leading to breathtaking, panoramic views, along with waterfalls. Escape the heat from the city during the spring and summer seasons when the area turns green.

Access: 55-min by bus from JR Hirosaki Station.

Hanagasa Matsuri

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Hanagasa Matsuri Yamagata City, Yamagata prefecture
Aug. 5 – 7
Highlight: different types of dances using straw flower hats

The iconic nature of the parade is the use of traditional agricultural workers hats decorated with red paper flowers that represent the beautiful safflower. The parade features all ages, with many young children dressed in traditional yukata. At the end of the festival, everyone is invited to celebrate and join in the last float, dancing the traditional hanagasa dance.

Yamagata castle (Kajo Park)

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Kajo Park covers the site of the former Yamagata Castle and has a beautiful variety of sakura. Take a walk around the castle moat enclosed in sakura, and watch how the trees brush the surface, painting the water with swirls of pink petals. At night, the illuminated park castes a magical light on the flowers.

Yamagata castle (Kajo Park)

Hours: 5:30am – 10pm
Admission: Free
Address: Kajomachi 1-1, Yamagata-shi, Yamagata
Access: 10-min walk from JR Yamagata Station
URL: http://yamagatakanko.com.e.db.hp.transer.com/spotdetail/?data_id=395

Look for sweets made by locals with plenty of love

Expect a vibrant spring and summer after the long and formidable winter!
Be amazed by Tohoku’s sweets and fruits.

Babahera

The sight of ice cream being sold under colorful parasols on the streets may be reminiscent of tropical countries and seaside resorts, but here in Akita prefecture, the sight of little old ladies selling ice cream on a regular roadside is commonplace.
This ice cream is called Babahera, a specialty of Akita. “Baba” refers to an elderly lady, while “hera” is the spatula that they use to shape the pink (strawberry flavor) and yellow (banana flavor) ice cream into a flower with practiced ease.

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Cherry Parfait

A variety of Yamagata’s delicious cherries top this luxurious parfait. Dig deep to discover the different unique ingredients that make up this multi-layered treat and compare the various cherries. The only time to enjoy this piece of art is during the cherry season, which usually starts in June.

Nature and worship “A journey of rebirth”


In The Realm of the Gods at Dewa Sanzan

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In many cultures, mountains often have religious significance and are regarded as abodes of the gods. Tohoku has three holy mountains, known collectively as Dewa Sanzan, that is regarded as one of the most sacred sites in the country. Its landscape is defined by the stunning natural beauty of mystical mountains, volcanic lakes, hot springs and farmlands. This is where the soul of Japan lies in its traditional and religious culture, and where ancient mountain worship is still very much practiced. Against this background, we embarked on an epic journey to trace the footsteps of pilgrims who are followers of Shugendo.

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The Three Mountain Blessings

Shugendo is an ethnic religion influenced by Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism and spiritual faith. Its main purpose is to strengthen the connection between people and nature, reaching enlightenment in this way. Practitioners preach the teaching that “nature is a manifestation of the gods and we should live alongside it with respect.” Mountains and forests have paramount importance in Shugendo. The Dewa Sanzan mountains of Mt Haguro (419m), Mt Gassan (1984m) and Mt Yudono (1504m) are the centres of pilgrimage in the region. The followers, known as Shugenjas or Yamabushi (mountain monks), have been following the rites of worship for the last 1,400 years. Followers embark on long pilgrimages and practice austere feats of physical endurance of natural elements as an ascetic rite of passage to gain spiritual power. We had the privilege of experiencing the immersive ceremony of Shugendo first hand by visiting the three sacred mountains that represents the present, death and rebirth at Mt Haguro, Mt Gassan and Mt Yudono respectively.

Praying in the Official Shinto Style at Mt. Haguro
We arrived at Mt. Haguro as dusk was setting in and, after a short visit to Ideha Museum nearby to get an insight of Shugendo and Dewa Sanzan, we entered the sacred site through the torii, a wooden gateway that is found in all sacred sites in Japan. A long flight of stone steps, known as the Ishi-Dan, led down to an enchanting forest with towering cedar trees along the ancient pilgrim route. The 1.7km trail built in 1648 has 2,446 steps leading to the Sanjin Gosaiden shrine at the summit. There are 33 carvings etched on the steps and it is believed that if you can find all 33, your wishes will come true. As we were pressed for time, we could only follow the sacred path as far as the 600-year-old Goju-no-to, the five-storied pagoda, a recorded national treasure. In the gloom of the forest, the ornate pagoda exuded an air of mysticism that lent to the belief that a deity of the forest lives in it.
The Ishi-Dan, Mt. Haguro
The Ishi-Dan, Mt. Haguro

When we arrived at Sanjin Gosaiden, the main shrine at the summit, we were met by a Yamabushi dressed in his traditional religious garb. He sounded a horagai, a religious conch trumpet, as a welcome and to ward off bad spirits. We were led to the inner sanctum of the shrine. There, a monk dressed in a splendid ceremonial robe with motifs of cranes performed a special ceremony accompanied by a beating taiko drum, followed by space clearing of malevolent energy around us by wafting a pole with white paper strips attached to the end and ringing bells to cleanse the air. He then chanted some mantras in a trance-like voice, which reverberated around the room, sending powerful vibrations into the ambience. We felt blessed and awed as we bowed twice, clapped our hands twice and bowed once again, completing the ritual where we were “spiritually born.”

Sanjin Gosaiden, Mt. Haguro
Sanjin Gosaiden, Mt. Haguro
Shukubo, Mt. Haguro
Shukubo, Mt. Haguro
We stayed the night at a shukubo, a traditional temple lodge owned by a Yamabushi and his wife, who welcomed us graciously by kneeling Japanese style where they sat on the floor with their legs folded behind them. The delightful lodge was immaculately clean and the minimalist décor was the personified tranquility that we badly needed after a long journey. I would highly recommend staying in a shukubo to attain a Zen state of mind. Early next morning, our landlord performed a Shinto ritual prayer to bless us and wished us a safe journey to Mt Gassan and Mt. Yudono.

Stepping to Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono

We headed to Mt. Gassan in howling wind and rain to visit a shrine. The pilgrimage trail was officially closed for the season, but we braved the elements by treading precariously on the path of a slippery, wooden walkway laid across a marshland of dwarf bamboo and grassland.
After twenty minutes’ walk, we reached a small shrine presided by a giant stone rabbit, the guardian of the mountain.

Mt. Yudono
Mt. Yudono
This mountain symbolized the path to death and it was apt that the short journey we took in the inclement weather seemed to convey that message. In the summer, pilgrims could hike to the summit, where the main shrine lies; from there, they could also hike to Mt. Yudono, the last mountain on the holy trail.
Our visit to Mt. Yudono was an epic experience where we were sworn to secrecy by the priest about the ceremony of “rebirth” that we underwent to symbolize being spiritually reborn to start a new journey in life. It is a taboo to divulge the secret of the ritual, but suffice to say that the experience is something I will always remember.

Dewa Sanzan is a pilgrimage, but mere mortals with spiritual interest will find the journey enlightening and soul stirring. Reflecting on my own awesome experience of the religious encounter, I now appreciate why mountains belong to the realms of the gods.

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Access: 40-min by bus from JR Tsuruoka Station, get off at Zuishinmon.
55-min by bus to the summit.
URL:http://www.dewasanzan.jp/publics/index/47/

Gassan

Hours: Closed late September until June
Access: 1h30-min by Shonan-
Kotsu bus from JR Tsuruoka Station to Gassan Hachigome.
URL:ttp://www.dewasanzan.jp/publics/index/48/

Yudonosan

Hours: Closed late September until June Admission: 500 yen
Access: 1h30-min by Shonan-Kotsu bus from JR Tsuruoka Station to
Yudonosan.
URL:http://www.dewasanzan.jp/publics/index/49/

Ultimate Map of Fall Foliage Destinations in Japan : Yamagata Prefecture

Yamagata Prefecture 30~ 35


30Sankyo Warehouse (山居倉庫) in Sakata

First colors: End of October
Color Peak: Beginning of November
Recommended Spots: Around the warehouse
Access: 10min ride with the free sightseeing bicycles from JR Sakata Station (JR Rikuu West Line, JR Uetsu Main Line); 8min ride with the Runrun Bus – Sakita Station University line to Sankyo Soko Mae
Address: 1-1-20 Sankyo-machi, Sakata-shi, 998-0838 Yamagata
Ranking: ★★★★☆
www.jnto.go.jp


31Chokai Forest (眺海の森) in Sakata

First colors: Middle of October
Color Peak: Beginning of November
Recommended Spots: Chokai Forest accommodation “Chokai no Mori Sansan”, temple on the top of the mountain “Mine no Yakushi”
Access: 25min taxi ride from JR Sagoshi Station (JR Rikuu West Line, JR Uetsu Main Line) or JR Amarume Station (JR Rikuu West Line, JR Uetsu Main Line)
Address: Ohira Tsuchibuchi, Sakata-shi, 999-6839 Yamagata
Ranking: ★★★★☆
yamagatakanko.com

Ultimate Map of Fall Foliage Destinations in Japan : Yamagata Prefecture


32Mogami Gorge (最上峡) in Mogami – Tozawa

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First colors: Middle of October
Color Peak: End of October until the beginning of November
Recommended Spots: Around Shiraito Falls
Access: 10min taxi ride from Furukuchi Station (JR Rikuu West Line)
Address: Furukuchi, Tozawa-mura, Mogami-gun, 999-6401 Yamagata
Ranking: ★★★★☆
yamagatakanko.com


33Ravine of Bonji river & around Mount Yudono (梵字川渓谷・湯殿山周辺) in Tsuruoka

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First colors: Ravine of Bonji river – Middle of October; around Mountain Yudono – End of September
Color Peak: Beginning of October until the end of October
Access: 45min bus ride from JR Tsuruoka Station until Gassan Asahi Hakubutsu-mura
Address: Bonji River Ravine, Etchuyama Nabira, Tsuruoka-shi, 997-0403 Yamagata; Mt. Yudono, Rokuju Riyama Tamugimata, Tsuruoka-shi, 997-0532 Yamagata
Ranking: ★★★☆☆
yamagatakanko.com

Ultimate Map of Fall Foliage Destinations in Japan : Yamagata Prefecture


34Yama-dera (山寺) in Yamagata

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First colors: Middle of October
Color Peak: Beginning of November
Access: 5min walk from Yamadera Station (JR Senzan Line)
Address: 4495-15 Yamadera, Yamagata-shi, 999-3301 Yamagata
Ranking: ★★★★☆
wattention.com


35Tengendai (天元台) in Yonezawa

A photo posted by natsunori (@summer8forest) on

A photo posted by natsunori (@summer8forest) on

First colors: End of September
Color Peak: Middle of October
Recommended Spots: View out of the car of the Tengendai Ropeway in the morning.
Access: 40min bus ride from JR Yonezawa Station (JR Yamagata Shinkansen, JR Ou Main Line, JR Yonesaka Line) until Shirabu-Onsen; 5min ride from Ropeway-Yumoto Station until Kogen Station
Address: Tengendai Kogen, Sumomoyama 12118-6, Yonezawa-shi, 992-1461 Yamagata
Ranking: ★★★★☆
www.jnto.go.jp

Yamagata Adventure (5) – Safflower dyeing experience

One of the popular spots in Yamagata are Safflower (jp.: Benibana) fields. From these bright orange flowers, you can extract the red coloring pigment carthamin, as well as the yellow pigment called carthamidin. You can create colors like light pink, cherry red, brown red and brown yellow with these pigments. Benibana used to be valued only for its colorful dyes, but since the petals’ numerous health benefits become known to the world, people started adding the flowers to several dishes.

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Our first coloring experiment was to dye a scarf in ikat style. We received a white scarf and were introduced to create a pattern using rubber bands and wooden sticks. Areas with tight knots and folds are meant to stay white after putting the scarf into the dye.

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The result turned out very well.

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The second task was creating a safflower picture while rubbing the petals over a vignette which was attached on a piece of silk.

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You need quite a lot of force to create the deep yellow-orange color.  After doing the same procedure for about 20min we separated the vignette from the piece of silk and put the silk into an alkaline solution to separate the yellow color from the red color.

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The yellow color fades away and the red color remains. The end product was put into a picture frame and is now a nice decoration. The petals can be used for dishes like pickled radish or sweet desserts.

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Information

Shinrin Joho-kan “Morina Tendo”

Hours: 9am – 6pm (Closed on January first)
Tel: 023-651-2002
Access: A 35-min walk or 10-min car ride from Tendo Station (JR Yamagata Shinkansen)
Address: 2-3-41 Kuwanomachi, Tendo-shi, 994-0022 Yamagata-ken
URL: http://www.city.tendo.yamagata.jp/busiindust/nourin/mori-na_tendo.html

Ninja ID: nene16


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Tabea Greuner
Living and working in Japan since 2015. Always excited about discovering new places. Passion for photography, nature-lover & Japanese fashion expert. MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Yamagata Adventure (4) – Nakano Sake Shop

Right beside the Dewazakura Sake Brewery is the Nakano Sake Shop, which sells all the popular beverages produced in the brewery.

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Dewazakura Sake Brewery was founded in 1892 and due to its long tradition, experience and excellent quality, the company received gold and bronze awards in the sake category during the “International Wine Challenge” in 2008.

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We had the chance to taste the gold prize-winning sake called Ichiro, and we immediately came to the conclusion why this one has to be the best-seller of the brewery. It has a fresh flavor of grapefruit, lime and cantaloupe and was very delicious.

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The Champion Sake comes in a 720ml bottle and costs 3,024 yen.

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Since Yamagata is famous for its fruit growing culture, the brewery also produces wines based on local fruits like cherries and pears. They also produce special beverage with the twelve zodiac signs. This year being the year of the monkey, the package has a monkey illustration. After finishing the bottle, they recommend to keep the bottle, put glass pearls into it and fill the bottle with water to create a shiny and sparkling interior decoration item.

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Besides selling their own products, there are other related products on sale.

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The highlight of the shop is the full-scale-model of a liquor store from the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The original poster that is hung on the wall adds the finishing touch.

Information

Nakano Sake Shop
Hours: 9:30am – 5pm (Closed on Monday)
Tel: 0120-59-3010
Access: A 15-min walk from Tendo Station (JR Yamagata Shinkansen)
Address: Hitoichimachi 1-4-12, Tendo-shi, 994-0044 Yamagata
URL: http://www.dewazakura.co.jp/index.htm

Ninja ID: nene16


WATTENTION WRITER PROFILE

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Tabea Greuner
Living and working in Japan since 2015. Always excited about discovering new places. Passion for photography, nature-lover & Japanese fashion expert. MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Heart Warming, Soul Lifting: Imoni and Konnyaku, Yamagata Prefecture

Imoni

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Imo, or tubers in Japanese, are traditionally a staple food in Tohoku. It is dense in nutrients and an ideal source of carbohydrates. The root vegetable is often cooked with meat and served in a thick soup for visitors, family and friends. In autumn, locals often gather near a river and enjoy imoni together, a tradition called imonikai.

Konnyaku

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Konnyaku has been known as a “miracle food” in Japan since about 1,200 years ago. The jelly-like substance is said to have many significant benefits, such as detoxification and beauty enhancement, and is loved by all generations. In Yamagata, people like to have their konnyaku in a round shape and skewered on a bamboo stick. The savory snack is an essential part of festive activities in Yamagata.

Photos provided by Miyagi Prefecture Tourism Division

Visit the Glorious Past: Merchant Houses in Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture

Sakata, with its ideal geographic location, flourished as a trade center and major port from which goods were shipped from Tohoku to Kyoto and Tokyo in the Edo Period (1603-1867).

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Traces of the port’s glorious past are still clear in the present: in Sankyo Soko, a storehouse for rice built in 1893; a villa of the wealthy Honma family; and Soumaro, one of the most prominent Japanese restaurants in Sakata during the Edo Period.

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Beside its well preserved architecture, you can also enjoy a dance performance by Maiko (Geisha apprentices).

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Soumaro
Hours: 10am – 5pm
Access: 20-min walk from Sakata Station (Uetsu Honsen Line & Rikuu Saisen Line)

Yamagata Adventure (3) – Summer Sweets Hunting

Tendo-City is not only famous for its delicious cherries and Shogi (Japanese chess) production, but also it’s a heaven for sweets lovers as well! After visiting the Oh! Show! Café located on the grounds of OHSYO FRUITS FARM, we visited two more places which serve delicious desserts to die for!

1. Akatsuka Ice Production – Ice Café ‘Kosui’

Akatsuka Ice Production was founded in 1908. They began producing ice products by using natural spring water from the Amayobari Mountain near Tendo-City.

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During the past 120 years, they have became one of the leading ice manufacturing companies by expanding their products which include ice cubes in all sizes and forms, as well as ice balls!

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Kosui started as a street stall and opened its own café in 2016 so that customers can enjoy the freshly made ice sweets even on rainy days. Kosui is popular for its ‘Kakigori,’ a dessert made of shaved ice which is popular in summer. Syrup and condensed milk are used as a topping to add flavor and sweetness to the shaved ice mountain.

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Since all the ingredients are provided by nearby farms and suppliers, the list of flavors changes by season. The selection which is available right now is shown on the wall, but according to the Café´s pamphlet there are many more varieties throughout the year.

There are two options for ordering a Kakigori dessert. The normal one is made out of shaved ice and the sweet topping. The special one comes with soft serve cream hidden inside the mountain of shaved ice!

My recommendation would be the special Kakigori, since the shaved ice won’t melt so fast due to the soft serve cream inside.

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The process of creating a Kakigori dessert. The topping consists of Strawberry sauce and purée, as well as sweet condensed milk.

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Closeups of the Sweet Strawberry Milk, Cherry Milk, Kiwi Yogurt and Brown Sugar Syrup Azuki Bean Milk Kakigori dessert.

Information

Akatsuka Seihyo – Ice Café Kosui
Hours:
May- September: 10:30am – 4:30pm (Monday to Friday), 10am – 5pm (Sat, Sun and Holidays), Closed on Tuesdays
October – April: 11am – 4pm (Monday to Friday), 10:30am – 4:30pm (Sat, Sun and Holidays), Closed on Tuesdays
Tel: 023-653-2446 (9am – 5pm)
Price: 200 yen to 600 yen
Access: A 15-min walk from Tendo Station (JR Yamagata Shinkansen)
Address: Kabushikigaisha Akatsuka Seihyo, Higashi-Honcho 3-6-40, Tendo-shi, 994-0026 Yamagata
URL: http://www.akatuka-ice.com/enjoy_ice/


2. Fruttier Fruit Bar

Fruttier is famous for its fresh fruits and its fruit desserts. The name “Fruttier” is a shortened version of the phrase “Fruits Communicator.”

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The most popular dessert is called Pontiti, a fruit punch like dessert in which a variety of freshly cut fruits are mixed together creating a perfect harmony. No colorings, flavors, preservatives are added, you can enjoy the freshest and purest flavor! The cute Pontiti characters welcome the visitors behind the counter of the Fruit Bar.

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Besides all the yummy parfaits, home-made juices and fruit shakes, you can also buy actual fresh fruits and the Pontiti fruit dessert (Mango 4,320 yen, Melon 4,320 yen, Fruit Pontiti 324 yen).

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We ordered the Cherry Parfait, with chocolate flavored whipped cream and the Fruit Mix Parfait with Kiwi Purée topping.

Information

Fruttier Fruit Bar
Hours: 10am – 6pm (Closed on Monday)
Tel: 0120-45-6651
Price: 308 yen – 928 yen
Access: A 10-min walk from Tendo Station (JR Yamagata Shinkansen)
Address: Fruttier Fruit Bar, Mikkamachi 1-4-2, Tendo-shi, 990-0036 Yamagata
URL: http://fruttier.com/fruitbar/

Ninja ID: nene16


WATTENTION WRITER PROFILE

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Tabea Greuner
Living and working in Japan since 2015. Always excited about discovering new places. Passion for photography, nature-lover & Japanese fashion expert. MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Yamagata Adventure (2) – Cherry Picking Challenge & Cherry Parfait Heaven

Yamagata is famous for its tasty cherries and pears. Every tourist who visits Yamagata during early summer season should attend the Cherry-Picking events offered by the local orchards.

We visited OHSYO FRUITS FARM in Tendo-City in the morning, famous for its carefully grown fruit and its café which offers delicious sweets made with fresh fruit in Season.

Unbenannt-7The logo of the company received the “Excellent Design・Brand Design – Award” during the Yamagata Excellent Design Competition in 2015. The overall shape of the logo resembles a playing piece of a Shogi-Game, which is the Japanese version of chess. Tendo-City is not only famous for its cherries, but also famous for its production of Shogi pieces. The “O” marks the shape of a cherry, as well as the “O” of 王将 (ohsyo) which stands for the chess piece “King”.
Furthermore, the owner specifically used a perfect red circle to symbolize the Japanese flag in the hope of becoming the best cherry grower in Japan. The green leaf on top of the logo represents high spirits and work ethic of the company in day to day operation.

We entered the cherry orchard and were surprised to see an ocean full of sparkling red cherries! It is amazing how many cherries can grow on one single tree!

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The cherries grew like a bunch of big grapes as big as a hand!

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The representative director, Mr. Yahagi, explained how to pick the cherries in the correct way, without damaging the branches.

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We tried our best to pick them very carefully. During the cherry-picking event you can eat as much cherries as you like!

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Every fruit looked absolutely flawless without any holes or other damages. The orchards are all covered by nets to protect the trees from birds and other harmful environmental effects.

After filling our picking baskets, we went back to the farms café called “Oh! Show! Café.”

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The design of the furniture is based on the color of the cherries. Even the stools look like cherries. All the furniture is made by a famous local wood furniture manufacturer located in Tendo-City, called Tendo-Mokko. They are famous for formed plywood designs, which are simple and elegant yet very durable.

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We ordered the recommended cherry parfait (700 yen) which is decorated with seven different kinds of cherries.

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The parfait was made of cornflakes, cherry soft cream, red bean puree, whipped cream and of course, cherries! The flavor of the fruit parfait changes every season, featuring peach flavor in August, grape flavor in September and apple flavor in October.

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Beside the fruit parfait, you can also order soft cream which comes in a cup or cone and in different sizes.

In front of the café you have a chance to buy fresh cherries starting from 800 yen for about 250 gram. Depending on the type of cherry, the price goes up to 6,500 yen for 1kg. They come in boxes, so you can directly send them to your friends or family by post, as a nice early summer gift.

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Information

OHSYO FRUITS FARM – Yamagata Sakuranbo Farm
Hours: 9am – 5pm
Price: The cheapest plan without any reservation is called “After 3pm – Cherry Picking” and costs 1,200 yen per person. After 3pm you are allowed to pick and eat as much cherries as you like within 30min.
Date: June 10th – July 18th
Access: Tokyo Station – > Yamagata Shinkansen until Tendo Station (2:35 hrs) -> 15min car ride Tokyo Haneda Airport -> Yamagata Airport (55 min) -> 10min car ride
Address: 1303 Kawarago, Tendo-shi, 994-0103 Yamagata
Tel: 0120-15-0440
URL: http://www.ohsyo.co.jp/index.htm

Oh! Show! Café
Hours: 9am – 3pm (June – August open every day; September – October closed on Wednesday)
Price: 300 yen to 700 yen
URL: http://www.ohsyo.co.jp/kanko/softcream.htm

Ninja ID: nene16


WATTENTION WRITER PROFILE

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Tabea Greuner
Living and working in Japan since 2015. Always excited about discovering new places. Passion for photography, nature-lover & Japanese fashion expert. MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Yamagata Adventure (1) – Soba-Making class on the high plateau

Yamagata prefecture, one of the six prefectures in the Tohoku region (the northern part of Japan), offers many exciting experiences you don’t want to miss! This series of articles features all the fun and magical places in and around Tendo City!

Located on the top of a high plateau near Tendo City’s ski resort, the Tendo Cultural Exchange Center offers Soba-Making classes. Soba are noodles made out of buckwheat flour and have a brown-greyish color.

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This area is located on the same altitude as the top of Tokyo’s Sky Tree, reaching 634m

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The Soba master already prepared our workplace and explained the soba making process in detail during the workshop. Even if you are not a master in Japanese, the instructions are easy to understand. It took us about 20 minutes to create Soba from scratch into long and thin noodles.

Unebannt-4The most difficult part was the cutting. The special knife, called Menkiri Bocho (Noodle cutting knife) was a lot heavier than I expected. Adjusting the knife and cutting the dough into thin noodles were very hard. I realized cutting the noodles evenly into long strips is an art form that takes some practice! For creating these long rectangular noodles, the dough had to be flattened and then folded several times before cutting.

 

After cutting the noodles, the Soba Master put them into a wooden tray…

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…and brought them to the kitchen to prepare our lunch.

There are two ways to serve Soba dishes. In summer, the Soba is typically served cold. The noodles are usually prepared on a separate bamboo tray called Zaru. The cold dipping sauce, which is made with dashi (soup stock made from fish and kelp), soy sauce and mirin (sweet rice wine for cooking) is served in a cup. In winter, the Soba is served as a hot noodle soup. Compared to the dip sauce in summer, the soup broth has a mild and comforting flavor.

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It only takes 2 minutes to cook the Soba noodles

The Soba noodles cook rather quickly. Once they are cooked, they are rinsed under cold water, then put into an ice bucket to be kept cold.

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The amount of noodles we made (500 grams of buckwheat flour) provides for four dishes.

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You can customize the cold dip sauce with freshly cut green onions and wasabi.

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The hot water that was used for boiling the noodles was put into a pot and brought to the table. This water is slightly white and thick, and supposedly very healthy. After you are finished with your meal, you can add the water to your dip sauce and enjoy it as a warm soup.

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Information

Tendo Kogen Ski Area・Tendo Kogen Family Land
Date: From May until October
Price: 2,500 yen (Making 500g of Soba which provides for four servings)
Additional 500 yen (Soba Master will prepare the noodle at the restaurant area)
*Reservation is necessary
Tel: 023-657-3628
Address: Tamugino 1321, Tendo-shi, 994-0104 Yamagata
Access: A 35-min ride by car from JR Tendo Station
URL: http://tendokogen.or.jp/soba2016/

Ninja ID: nene16


WATTENTION WRITER PROFILE

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Tabea Greuner
Living and working in Japan since 2015. Always excited about discovering new places. Passion for photography, nature-lover & Japanese fashion expert. MORE ARTICLES BY THIS WRITERABOUT WATTENTION NINJA

Yamadera, the mountain temple

Yama-dera (山寺) literally means “Mountain Temple” and is located in Yamagata City, Yamagata prefecture. It sits at the top of at the foot of the steep hill Hōshū-yama and is deemed an important historic site in Japan.

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The official name of the temple is Risshaku-Ji and it’s more than a thousand years old. It’s an important outpost for Tendai Buddhism and a branch of the Enyraku-Ji temple at the top of Mt. Hie in Kyoto. The fire that has been brought over from Mt. Hie to Yamadera hundreds of years ago is still burning in the temple today.

Temple of a 1,000 stairs

To reach the top of the temple complex you have to climb a total of 1,015 stairs. It might sound very tiring but the climb itself is beautiful with amazing nature surrounding you.

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Matsuo Basho, the haiku master was enchanted by the natural beauty of the temple environment. This poem was composed by Basho in 1689 when he visited Yama-dera.

“Calm and serene. (静けさや)

The sound of a cicada. (岩に染み入る)

 Penetrates the rock.”  (蝉の声)

After the long climb you are rewarded with a beautiful view over the valley.

The main hall of the temple sells fortunes and overlooks the valley as well. However, the view is obscured by other temples on the complex and surrounding trees.

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After a visit to Yamadera you can go to the Basho Yamadera Memorial Hall which is on a hill just across Yamadera. The area has beautiful sakura in spring and offers a nice view on the Yamadera complex. Next to the museum is a restaurant where you can enjoy tea and sweets, and maybe while looking at Yamadera you will be inspired to write a poem of your own.

Benibana – Japanese Safflower

The Benibana is grown in Yamagata prefecture in Japan and this little flower can do more than you would think. The inhabitants used the flower’s potential to turn Yamagata prefecture into an important place for luxury goods. Back in the old days the flower was mainly used as dye but now they also turn it into food products. Geisha from Kyoto would paint their lips with Benibana and rich nobles wore kimono dyed with the flower.

With the development of synthetic dyes during the Meiji period the demand for Benibana declined and the industry became much smaller. However, the flower still grows in Yamagata prefecture and the traditional process of turning these flowers into beautiful dye is very interesting.

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How to use Benibana

The safflower is an annual (sometimes biennual) plant. They bloom during the summer and are a beautiful shade of yellow and red. After gathering all the flowers, they are locally processed into a pulpy state called Benibana mochi. From this product the treasured dye can be extracted. Benibana actually contains only 1% of red while the other 99% is yellow. To get the red from the Benimochi, you must boil it so that all the yellow parts can be removed. This Benimochi was also easier to transport than a finished product and it gave the buyer more freedom in what color to use.

The Benimochi was transported by land or shipped by river boat down the Mogami River to the port of Sakata near the Japanese sea. From here it was shipped to Kyoto where it was used in Nishijin textile making and the manufacturing of lipstick and cosmetics. The red part of the flower was the most valued color, so it comes to no surprise that with only 1% of it in the flower it was the most expensive. Today, rouge to paint only your lower lip in a flower shape would cost you 500 yen and a full lips cost about 2,000 yen. It was also possible to get a pink color from the Benimochi. In Heian period, a roll cloth of a deeper red dyeing was said to be equal to a residence of noble men. This tells us that clothes dyed with Benibana were priceless in the old days.

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photos from Marugotokan Beni No Kura

The ship you can see clearest on the picture bears the marking of an old Benibana store that still exists today. This shop is called Marugotokan Beni No Kura and now helps to promote the local products of Yamagata all over Japan. When the Marutani Hasegawa family still runned the shop as a Benibana storehouse it was the commercial hub for Yamagata-city.

Benibana & Hanagasa Matsuri

The Benibana Matsuri takes place in June or July, depending on the harvest of the Benibana. The collected flowers are processed during demonstrations and Benibana cuisine is served to visitors. Beautiful floats are paraded through the city of Yamagata. Try your hand at lip cream making or fabric dyeing with Benibana.

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The Yamagata Hanagasa Matsuri attracts more than 1 million spectators over three days in August and is now considered one of the major festivals of the Tohoku area in Japan. Dancers wearing the same outfit per group and holding hanagasa hats adorned with Yamagata Prefecture’s unique safflowers parade through the main street of Yamagata City. A total of 10,000 dancers participate in this dance every year. The parade is led by gorgeously decorated festival floats. The dancers shout ‘Yassho! Makkasho!’, this not only heightens the festival mood but it is also a phrase from a traditional Yamagata folk song.

The dancing has gradually changed over the years. In the past, dancers would mostly perform synchronized dance moves but today dance performances come in a wide variety, like twirling the hanagasa hats and other creative performances.

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Benibana today

The Benibana flowers serves as the symbol of Yamagata and is an important part of the prefecture’s culture. Students graduating from Elementary and Middle School make paper Benibana and wear them during the graduation ceremony. The dye is still used to make beautiful yellow, pink and red and now the locals even make soumen from the young leaves of the flower. Yamagata truly knows how to use the flower to its full potential, just like their ancestors before them.

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Local mascot Beni-chan
Local mascot Beni-chan

Yamagata Benibana Festival

Address: Shimo-Higashiyama 1360, Yamagata (Yamagata Takase Community Center)
Date: Mid July, 2016
Access: A 20-min walk from Takase Station (JR Senzan Line)

Yamagata Sakura Matsuri

During the sakura blooming season, Yamagata shows two sides. During the day you see colorful “pompom”-like tufts of flowers and at night you are transported to a flowery fairy world. Here are some of the best sakura viewing spots in Yamagata.

Daytime Sakura

Yamagata Castle

During the Edo period, Yamagata Castle was the residence of the lord of Yamagata domain. Its formal name is Ka-jō (Ka castle). When the sakura are in bloom the castle area holds a festival with actors and entertainment from the Edo period. You can even spot the official Geisha of Yamagata City. There are approximately 1,500 sakura trees in the park surrounding the castle.

Maiko of Yamagata City
Maiko of Yamagata City

Basho Yamadera Memorial Hall

This hall is built to honor the poet Matsuo Basho. In this area there is a museum about haiku and a restaurant where you can enjoy tea and sweets. The memorial hall is on top of a hill in front of Yamadera, so you can watch the sakura on the hill while enjoying the sakura in the park.

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Yamagata City Hall

From the top floor you have a beautiful view over all of Yamagata city. Including the sakura.

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Nighttime Sakura

When the sun goes down over Yamagata city there are still plenty of sakura to enjoy.

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Mamigasaki River

At night the sakura lane next to the river is lit up and festival stands start selling their food. Be sure to bring something extra to cover up, because it can get quite cold watching the sakura at night. And if you need to re-energize, visit the festival stands to order some konnyaku or dondon yaki ‘ (rolled op okonomiyaki on a stick), the soul food of Yamagata.

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Yamagata castle

We are at Yamagata castle again to enjoy the sakura, but this time the atmosphere is completely different. The lights peeking through the thick coverage of sakura look like little fairies flying in between the flowers. The reflection of the castle wall in the sakure petal covered water  makes you stop and admire the amazing colors.

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If you head deeper into the park you can see the same cherry blossoms from before, or are they? At night, the area is truly different.

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Bloom Period: Mid to Late April

How to get to Yamagata from Tokyo:

Train: 2h 30min to Yamagata Station with the Yamagata Tsubasa Shinkansen

Express bus: 5h 30min from Tokyo Station

Car: 4h 20min Urawa Main Line ⇒ Yamagata zao I.C

From Osaka :
Train: 5h from Shin-Osaka via Tokyo (JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line) to Yamagata Station by JR Yamagata Shinkansen Line.

A visit to Yamagata

Yamagata is a prefecture in Tohoku, the northern region of Japan. Famous for its nature, hot springs, fruits, flowers and spiritual places Yamagata is sure to make you fall in love with its charm.

During the Edo Period (1603–1867) Yamagata city was a powerhouse due to its status as a castle town and producer of luxury goods such as Beni (red safflower dye used to make cosmetics and fabric).

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Yamagata city and countryside

Paradise for foodies

Yamagata has cherry and apple trees everywhere. During the harvest season you can even participate in fruit picking activities. The fruits are yours to keep of course. The rice from Yamagata, Tsuyahime, has been voted as one of the best in all of Japan. And don’t forget Dondon Yaki (rolled up okonomiyaki on a stick) and Konnyaku (plant-based jelly boiled in a soy sauce broth), Yamagata’s soul food! And if that can’t still your appetite, you can always participate in the Imoni festival where they make Yamagata’s famous Imoni (potato stew) in a 6 diameter pot.

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Relax and enjoy

If you love Onsen, Yamagata has plenty to discover. Deep in the mountains you can find Onsen towns such as Ginzan and Kaminoyama Onsen. Or if you look to cool down instead of warming up, go skiing in the mountains while watching the famous Yamagata Snow Monsters.

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The spirit(uality) and festivity of Yamagata

Yamadera is a more than thousand year old temple at the top of a mountain. This temple was founded as a branch temple of Enryaku-ji on top of Mt. Hie near Kyoto. The flame that has been brought over from Mt. Hie still burns in Yamadera. Find out more about Yamadera here

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And if you are on a pilgrimage of self-discovery, don’t forget to visit Yamagata’s three sacred mountains: Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono.

On the first weekend of August there is a huge festival called “Hanagasa Matsuri” where hundreds of dancers perform on the street with paper flower-decorated straw hats. This festival is closely linked to the Benibana matsuri and the famous Benibana flower.

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Sakura

The Sakura in Yamagata are beautiful during spring and there are special light ups when they are in full bloom. Yamagata castle holds a special Sakura festival with re-enactments from the Edo period and the Mamigasaki River has beautiful lit up Sakura at night.

From Tokyo :
[Rail] 2h 30min (quickest) to Yamagata Station by JR Yamagata Shinkansen Line.
From Osaka :
[Rail] 5h from Shin-Osaka via Tokyo (JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line) to Yamagata Station by JR Yamagata Shinkansen Line.

Join the Kase-dori Festival and bring in a prosperous year

If you happen to visit Yamagata prefecture during February, don’t miss the Kase-dori Festival held in Kaminoyama City.

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Participants wearing straw coats dancing around the neighborhood.

Yamagata, one of the northern prefectures of Japan, is known for its snow laden climate and great ski resorts such as the Zao Onsen Ski Resort. The average temperature during February hovers somewhere around zero degrees (32℉), so I think you would agree that going outside without a decent coat or warm clothes is probably a bad idea, right?

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Half-naked young men waiting to become Kase-dori.

Well, the people who are participating in the Kase-dori Festival would beg to differ. Because, the main participants of this 350-year-old festival are wearing nothing but a simple straw coat called a Kendai and a loincloth underneath.

They are dressed as Kase-dori, a bird-looking creature that carries the spirit of God. The bird symbolizes a few different things: fire prevention, good harvest, and good fortune.

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The festival begins at Kaminoyama Castle where a group of Kase-dori dance around a bonfire. Then, they start making their ways into the neighborhood. Spectators bring a bucket of water and sprinkle (or dump) it on the Kase-dori to pray for fire prevention and a prosperous year. The outside temperature is slightly above freezing, getting a shower of ice cold water would be, well, excruciatingly cold I imagine…

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Spectators drenching the Kase-dori with water.

And don’t forget, if you see a strand of straw falling off from a Kendai, tie it in your hair (if you have a dark hair) or give it to a nearby girl who has a dark hair. Because the legend says that those who tie the straw from the Kase-dori in their hair will have a lifetime of lush and radiant hair.

At the castle and throughout Kaminoyama City, there are numerous stalls selling regional food and Kase-dori related goods. The locals, both kids and adults participate in the festival.

Dancing with the Kase-dori, trying out the local flavors, or dumping a bucket of water on a mythical creature, taking part in a regional festival like this one, is a great way to experience the local culture.

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Kids help out as well, selling Kase-dori charms and goods.

[ Information ]

Address: Motojonai 3-7, Kaminoyama, Yamagata
Access: A 12-min walk from Kaminoyama Onsen Station (JR Yamagata Shinkansen)
Date: February 11, 2017
Hour: 10am to 3:30pm

Ski in Japan: Top 5 Central Japan Resorts

Within just 3 hours of Central Japan, you can find slopes to suit any ski level, not to mention a great selection of spas. Our top four picks take you high, where trees freeze into “ice monsters” and the onsens thaw you out at the highest altitude in the country. For sliding and soaking fun in the heart of Japan, start here.

APPI Snow Resort (Iwate Prefecture)

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English Instructors: Private and group lessons available. Advanced booking needed
Number of courses: 21

With the mind-boggling number of courses available, this is the place to go to ski or snowboard to your heart’s content. Slope levels varying from beginner to advanced, plus meticulously manicured slopes and dry light snow makes this the ultimate skiing and snowboarding haven no matter what your level is.

Address: 117 Appi Kogen, Hachimantai City, Iwate Prefecture
Access: Take the JR Hanawa Line from Morioka Station, there is a free shuttle bus available between JR APPI Kogen Station and the resort buildings.
Web: http://www.appi.co.jp/foreign_country/english/winter/index.html

Manza Onsen Ski Resort (Gunma Prefecture)

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English Instructors: Advanced booking recommended
Number of courses: 9

If ski and spa is your ideal combination, Manza is your most convenient choice. At a 1,800m altitude, enjoy fresh powdered snow and choose from ten relaxing onsens – the highest in Japan – at the Prince Hotel, located right on the slopes.

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Address: Manza Onsen, Tsumagoi-mura, Agatsuma-gun
Access: Take the Seibu Kogen Bus to Manza ski area from Karuizawa Station. Guests of the Manza Prince Hotel or Manza Kogen Hotel can take a free shuttle bus through advanced booking.
Web: http://www.princehotels.com/en/ski/manzaonsen

Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort (Niigata Prefecture)

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English Instructors: Yes
Number of courses: 17

With a decent amount of courses, Gala Yukawa is the ideal ski resort for skiers and snowboarders of any level, and is also conveniently connected to the Shinkansen Station. Have a hot bath at hot spring SPA Gala No Yu afterwards to get the most out of this all-in-one ski facility.

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Address: Yuzawa 1039-2, Yuzawa-machi, Minamiuonuma-gun
Access: Take the Joetsu Shinkansen to GALA Yuzawa Station from Tokyo Station
Web: http://www.galaresort.jp/winter/english

Zao Hot Springs Ski Resort (Yamagata Prefecture)

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English Instructors: Private lessons only (advanced booking needed)
Number of courses: 12

Soak in one of Japan’s most famous onsens after a full day of skiing amongst the awe-inspiring juhyo (ice-frosted trees) here. From December to February, the unique weather conditions create these natural wonders – often called “ice monsters” – particularly beautiful when illuminated at night.

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Address: Zao Onsen 708-1, Yamagata
Access: A 40-min. bus ride to Zao Onsen Bus Terminal from Yamagata Station.
Web: http://www.zao-spa.or.jp/english

Shizukuishi Ski Resort (Iwate Prefecture)

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English Instructors: Advanced booking recommended
Number of courses: 13

Experienced skiers will love the challenging slopes here at Mt. Iwate, home to the FIS ski and snowboard world cup multiple times. If you’re feeling brave, glide down its longest course, which is a good 4.5km long!

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Address: Takakura Onsen, Shizukuishi-machi, Iwate-gun
Access: A 20-min. taxi ride from Shizukuishi Station, or take the free shuttle bus to Prince Hotel Shizukuishi through advanced booking.
Web: http://www.princehotels.com/en/ski/shizukuishi

Onsen Oasis: Zao Dairotenburo

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King of Onsens – The Princess Water hot spring

Some hot springs are so good you never forget them. For me, the Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring in Yamagata prefecture is one of those. A decade has passed since my trip there, but I can still remember thinking to myself excitedly, “So this is what a real onsen is like!” as the sulphuric hot spring smell became stronger and stronger and started to permeate the taxi as we ascended the mountain.

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What I saw upon arrival, was beyond my expectations. While famous throughout the country, Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring has managed to resist modernization into a tourist attraction, and I mean that in the very best possible way.

Unlike other man-made onsens that are designed and dugged, this is a natural onsen around which some basic structures have been built to allow people to enjoy it – so don’t expect any saunas, showers or any drink dispensing machines!

All you will find, is the huge crater-shaped natural stone baths located on the top of a mountain hill surrounded by mountain forests. As you soak in the steaming hot, silky smooth, milky water, you realize that people must have come to enjoy this hot spring in the exact same way for centuries.

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The milky water feels like music to your skin, or rather makes your skin sing! This is not is not just one’s imagination, as the water comes from a natural sulfur spring with strong acidity. The water is so good for softening and whitening the skin that it has become known as “Princess water”.

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The Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring is open from mid-April to the end of November. You will be mesmerized by either fresh verdure or golden foliage depending on the time of the year, but whenever you visit, this hot spring and its surrounding nature are well worth you visit and make for an authentic experience you will not forget!

*Click here for an explanation on how to take a Japanese bath for beginners!

Spot information

Name: Zao Dairotenburo Hot Spring

Price: 470 yen

Hours: 6 am – 7 pm (clost from end November to mid-April)

Location: Zao Onsen 832, Yamagata

URL: http://www.joy.hi-ho.ne.jp/ma0011/T-Yamagata01.htm (Japanese)