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  • Silvia Valentini

Sushi, River Cruise and Maiko Dance – My Journey in Yamagata Prefecture

Updated: May 12, 2021

When I am asked what part of Japan I prefer, I say that it is always difficult if not impossible to answer this question; but one thing is certain, one of the places I will always carry in my heart is Yamagata. Yamagata seems so far away, so less fascinating than other places more famous, so unreachable, yet you get there in a little more than an hour by taking a domestic flight from Tokyo and it offers many wonders and the opportunity to immerse yourself in the most authentic Japan.

My journey to Yamagata Prefecture started by taking a domestic flight from Tokyo to Shonai

The Shonai region is located on the western side of Yamagata Prefecture in north eastern Japan. It is located in a unique location, between the Sea of Japan and the mountains to the north, east and south. For centuries, the Mogami River was the only real transport artery connecting Shonai’s natural wealth to the rest of the world. These days, its cultural and commercial centre, Tsuruoka City and Sakata City, are easily accessible and offer some unforgettable experiences.

Over the centuries, the old ships known as the Kitamaebune (literally a ship heading north) brought culture from Kyoto to the Mogami River. Part of Shonai’s charm lies in the preservation of ancient traditions, despite the presence of a certain amount of innovation and introduction of new practices. Taking a walk through the city you will find a particular combination of old houses to structures with contemporary design.

My first destination was the Kamo aquarium, located in Tsuruoka, just 20 minutes drive from Shonai airport. The Kamo Aquarium in Tsuruoka, Japan, houses the world’s largest collection of jellyfish species. The restaurant also offers special dishes and healthy jellyfish, including ramen and ice cream.

One of the most interesting and fun experiences you can do inside the aquarium is the sushi course. You can watch and learn how to break down freshly caught fish into sushi-grade sashimi by one of Yamagata Prefecture's most famous Chefs, Takeshi Suda.

You also have the chance to use fresh locally caught fish and high grade Tsuyahime Rice to make your own sushi and at the end of the course, you will have lunch with the sushi prepared by yourself.

After the experience at the aquarium, I recommend you take a train from Tsuruoka to Furukuchi where you can enjoy a river cruise on the Mogami river. The gorge of Mogami seen from the boat that descends calmly the river to the singing of the driver offers all the year the grandiose spectacle of the nature in the different seasons. In winter the boats are transformed into kotatsu boat, that is, equipped with low tables closed below with a heavy blanket and heated with a source of heat to keep warm the lower part of the body.

Back in Tsuruoka, I suggest to visit the Chido museum. Located in the former residence of the Sakai clan, the city's feudal lords, the museum houses classical calligraphy, woodcraft and ceremonial sake barrels, folk materials and artefacts that tell us the story of Shonai region.

Also, the museum displays the collection of Hina dolls owned by the Sakai family. Apart from their aesthetic value, the Hina dolls of Chido museum represent the history of this important family.

*The Hina are dolls that are given to girls and handed down from generation to generation by the women of the family. They are used as toys only during Hina matsuri, for the rest of the year they are stored in wooden boxes.

Another city that I visited while travelling this amazing prefecture, is Sakata. Little known by tourists, it actually offers much to see. The city has a rich past, due to its location on the coast. Over the centuries its economy has flourished thanks to trade with cities like Kyōto. In memory of that time, in the main park of Sakata, the park of Hiyoriyama, there is a reproduction in scale 1:2 of a boat of the Sengoku period. Even the ancient lighthouse testifies to the profitable sea trade activities of the past. The true symbol of the city of Sakata are the Sankyo sōko warehouses: it is a complex of buildings dating back to 1893 for rice harvesting. These are still used for this purpose today but also host souvenir shops.

Not to be missed is the Homma residence, a large old house dating back to the Edo period and formerly owned by the Homma clan, a wealthy merchant family in the area. The house is magnificently well preserved and unusually features both a samurai residence and an elegant home for merchants. and it is the only in Japan that has two different architectural styles.

One of the best place to experience the rich history and culture of Sakata, is Somaro Tea House, one of the top attractions of the city. Originally home to over 150 Maiko and Geisha and a traditional high-class restaurant named Somaya that operated for over 100 years. The restaureant entertained wealthy merchants and powerful locals from Sakata. The building was entirely renewed in 2000 and renamed Somaro where you can taste traditional Sakata food and watch a dance performance of Sakata Maiko.

The teahouse is also home to a gallery of Hina dolls, several tearooms, striking artwork by famed artist Takehisa Yumeji, and stunning Japanese gardens.

If you want to discover the most authentic Japan and immerse yourself in its history, culture and timeless charm, I invite you to visit the fascinating prefecture of Yamagata.

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