Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Exploring Yamagata

The great thing about living abroad is getting the chance to really saturate a particular area of a country. Upon returning home, I will have a rare insider’s perspective on this far-flung, remote little corner of Japan called Akita, one which most people will never even get the chance to visit.

There are lots of other beautiful areas of Tohoku which are just a daytrip or short weekend trip away from me, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to revisit some of my favourite places, having been here for more than one year. Back in the fall, Gavin and I decided to do a weekend trek around Yamagata, the prefecture just south of Akita, full of gorgeous natural and historical sites. I’ve been to Yamagata at this point many times, but was happy to go back. I think I even enjoyed some things more the second time around.

We started out one Saturday morning with a pleasant drive down the coast to Sakata, which is apparently a beach resort city, though its beauty wasn't exactly striking on that grey November morning. At one point we jumped out of the car to see the crashing waves, only to stand there shivering as the wind whipped against our faces.

Beautiful, beautiful Sakata. Fun fact: the name Sakata means "alcohol fields"
Fashioning a snowman out of sand
We continued on in search of a famous five-tiered pagoda that Gavin had read about in a Lonely Planet guide, but when we reached the supposed destination, all we could see was a mediocre temple and a garden pagoda not much taller than he was. I couldn't help but laugh at his frustration that we must be at the wrong spot, while I insisted that, surely, this was the pagoda that Lonely Planet had spoken so highly of.

Eventually we sorted ourselves out and found the real pagoda - and it was quite a sight. We wandered through the temple grounds, listening to the breeze rustling the cedars and monks chanting nearby.

Cruising through the mountains, we were greeted by our first sighting of what has now become an excessive, everyday reality: snow. Watching the flakes fall outside as we drove those winding backcountry rads gave me a bit of a thrill. The anticipation of change, of winter, of snowboarding, of curling up inside with blankets and cups of tea and good books...just some of the many things I like about the season, despite my dislike of the cold.

We stayed in a small guesthouse in Yamagata city, which was the first experience I've had indoors in Japan from November to April where I actually felt warm. Cozy, even! Usually the kerosene heaters typical of most Japanese homes, schools and inns only warm a small portion of a room or building, leaving me with cold feet and hands, and forcing me to put on an extra sweater anytime I leave the room to wander down a hallway. But not this place. This place was genuinely comfortable, a comfort which extended to the decor and warm hospitality. It felt like we were staying in someone's home, and we were encouraged to help ourselves to most of the contents of the fridge, as well as play with the resident cats.

Cats! There were so many. Gavin's love of felines quickly became apparent...

The owners were friendly, and we chatted for awhile in both English and Japanese before we headed off to grab dinner and explore the city. Yamagata city isn't huge, so there wasn't much to see, but it has a pleasant downtown area with a variety of ethnic foods and interesting shops. The next day we found a fantastic coffee shop that had been recommended to me by a friend. Housed in a train car and filled with knick knacks from the owner's world travels, the shop sat overlooking the river, with a great view of the changing leaves. Here we were also able to chat with the owner, whose English was superb, while we sipped our espresso and chai tea and tried out his collection of international musical instruments.

Finally, we visited what had been one of my favourite places in Yamagata on a previous daytrip - Yamadera. A Buddhist temple built into the rocks of a cliff, the view is as impressive and beautiful as the peaceful forst pathway that meanders to the top. Having ben here during the summer, when the cicadas buzz and the shady path is a welcome relief from the heat, it was great to get to see it in the fall as well. The sunlight streaming in through the trees created a magical, Ghibli-esque atmosphere, and we lucked out with a perfect sunny day.

Scenery shot - photo bombed
"What is my life?"

Some corny jokes, good road trip tunes (Boney M Christmas album!!), general silliness, and several cat impressions later, and we were rolling back into Akita. We were welcomed by the sudden sight of Mount Chokai's snowy peak, glowing white in the darkness ahead. Such a beautiful mountain. I'm glad I still have some time to soak up my surroundings here, as there are lots of places I'd still like to visit, and others I hope to return to again.

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