Yamagata days

In our lives there are days to remember. Our days in Yamagata will live long in our memories.

"The hospitality from our friends at Yamagata Prefecture Government was in the Japanese style, extraordinary and generous of time and spirit"

So it was, after what seemed like a very long flight from London via Hong Kong to Nagoya’s Chubu Airport, that Andrea and I and friend Mari sat at a second and much smaller airport in Nagoya called Komaki, awaiting our flight to Yamagata. It is early October and the sun still shines on Honshu as the autumn begins to set its agenda for nature. In Japan this is the beginning of dramatic changes to the colours nature paints on this land.

In the dramatic Japanese skies the clouds are voluminous and deep and paint their picture of white, grey and black against the blue noon sky. Our small jet flies between the darkening clouds as we head northeast to Yamagata. The clouds, deep and dark now, the still powerful rays of the sun shining through gaps in the cloud filled sky illuminate the hillsides below. Our plane shudders down through the clouds, it rained here yesterday, and everyone is hoping that the next few days bring fine weather. Then the patchwork fields of Yamagata and we are on the runway once more.

We are in Yamagata as guest of the Prefecture Government. Why the weather is so important in the next few days is because of an unusual event, the first time it has been done, an open air concert by the Yamagata Symphony Orchestra among ancient cedar trees in a clear area in front of Sanjin Gosaiden at Dewa Sanzan Shrine at the top of Mount Haguro. There is a sense of nervousness about the possibility of more rain and if the weather will hold.

We are glad to see our hotel beds, jet lag still with us.

Early the next morning our small group, our friends from the Yamagata Prefecture Government and their small group of guests start another journey to visit cultural sites In Yamagata Prefecture.

Yamagata is a food growing region and agriculture is important here, valuable rice species are nurtured and a raft of different fruit and vegetables are grown here. That means food is important and the art of food making and the making of Sake, there are seven Sake breweries in Tsuruoka City, are central to the culture of Yamagata Prefecture. So central in fact that Tsuruoka City was the very first city in Japan to be added to the UNESCO Creative Cities Network for Gastronomy.

Here it is possible to swim in the Sea of Japan in the morning and ski on snow covered mountains in the afternoon.

We start our journey in a spiritual Shinto heartland as we visit Mount Haguro, the most accessible and one of three mountains, Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono, that represent death and rebirth for the pilgrims of Dewa Sanzan Sankan Sando (practicing hardship on the three mountains).

We walk on moss covered and ancient steps through the Cedar forests planted by monks three centuries and more ago.

The imposing trees keeping safe their long memories of pilgrims, who walked these pathways in tree shadow over the centuries past. This is Shugendo, mountain worship and a pathway to spiritual powers, whose mountain priests perceive that the physical endurance mountain worship requires is their path to enlightenment. We have no doubt that the physical beauty of temple and forest, of ancient pathway and mountain top will assist them on their spiritual journey.

Here a Yamabushi priest, in ancient white robe, leads us to the Hagurosan Goju-to (the five story pagoda), set deep in Cedar forest. It is from Jijisugi, the 1000 year old cedar, that we get our first and spine tingling glimpse of Hagurosan Goju-to, also ancient in its landscape and the oldest pagoda in Tohoku and a masterpiece of Japanese culture and craftsmanship.

Unlike many of the pilgrims we see walking past us, we avoid climbing the 2446 Cedar lined steps to the summit of Mount Haguro, probably wise given our jet lagged condition, and jump back into our vehicle for the next part of our journey, the nearby Koganedou temple.

This temple also of ancient origins and dating from 1193. Here it is a very special time with precious religious images rarely on display, now open to the public gaze. We are honoured by what we see.

Next stop, Mount Haguro Sanrojo Saikan (the priests' retreat) and in our imaginings something very special is going to happen. And so to lunch, a Shojin Ryori meal, of great distinction and flavour at the priest’s quarters at the top of our cedar lined steps on Mount Haguro. Shojin Ryori with its links to Buddhist and Shinto practice developed because of the strict prohibition to eating meat, which for the priests, meant developing a flavoursome and sustaining cuisine.

Before we enter the priest’s quarters we do feel slightly guilty watching the numerous pilgrims who have arrived at the temple via the 2446 steps instead of air-conditioned comfort of our vehicle as we drove up the mountain. Guilt however was soon set aside as we watched our table in awe at the meal’s most perfect presentation.

“There are various dishes here”, master chef Mr Ito tells us about what he describes as his moon rabbit menu.

“This is a vegetable cuisine and we have various dishes shaped in the crescent of the moon, reflecting the second mountain, Gassan, the mountain of the moon. Traditionally this meal had six dishes but here we have added two more so this is a slightly bigger circle of dishes than the traditional meal. This meal is totally vegetarian and in the Buddhist style. All the stock we use is vegetarian and does not use any fish or shellfish and so on and chemicals and synthetic flavours are also never used. All the ingredients are found from the sea, such as seaweed, or vegetables and fruits gathered from the mountains. This meal is suitable for strict vegans.

In its origins, this kind of meal was made by the warrior priest undertaking rigorous training in the mountains. We have recently been part of a food expo in Milan where we demonstrated our cuisines and part of our rendition for Milan is presented for you today. Clockwise, at the top of the presentation there are young bamboo shoots, seaweed and mushrooms, tomato and mountain vegetable in marinated vinegar, then walnut tofu. Traditionally sesame sauce has been important and we have now added the walnut tofu to the sesame tofu, next there is a kind of rhubarb like plant collected from the mountains with sesame and soybean paste, next is a mock tofu, we use a local kind of soybean that has a very exquisite taste and very green colour when compared to other types of soybeans. Then vinegar soy sauce marinated and chrysanthemum petals and this is very much a local and seasonal speciality in autumn. So the next dish is natural mountain mushroom. The last dish is made from the shiso plant. As I said before all the ingredients have been gathered in the mountains locally or from the sea.

So this is the typical moon rabbit menu. The passing down of this knowledge is very significant and the meal will give you all the energy you need in the mountains.

This room you are in is from the Edo period and is the most dignified room in the building to receive the VIPs, all floors in the eating rooms are matted but this room is slightly raised so guests sit at a higher level for higher-ranking officials”.

Master chef Ito

The building we had just eaten in, after passing through a far older entrance way was mostly constructed during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) during the period of separation of Buddhism and Shintoism.

Having eaten this exquisite and highly sophisticated meal, probably the only way to describe it given the knowledge of ingredients and preparation it has taken to create it, we prepare to join the Yamagata Symphony Orchestra for their very first outdoor performance. We are left with a feeling that in our modern western lives we can’t give back to the food the physical and spiritual discipline it deserves. We can only wish we could.

The concert setting is of course beautiful with the great and ancient Cedars and the great thatched temple main building Sanjin Gosaiden as a backdrop. There is still some tension regarding what the clouds will bring us but as the moment to begin the concert approaches the weather improves. The sunlight light diffused by the great Cedars now soft and welcoming to the talented musicians before us. The Governor of Yamagata Prefecture, Mieko Yoshimura, kindly welcomes us to Yamagata.

The Governor of Yamagata Prefecture, Mieko Yoshimura

After opening speeches, the orchestra is introduced by the priests blowing their conch shells. The atmosphere among the great Cedars builds.

Daisuke Nagamine conducts the Yamagata Symphony Orchestra

The orchestra plays, the weather holds and the audience is enthralled by it all. The Cedars do their work by making the sounds of orchestra just perfect, a natural concert hall of great distinction.

After the concert and saying our goodbyes we drive down the mountain again and on to stay in a traditional Japanese inn, these are always places we love staying in, Kuhei ryokan in Yutagawa. The inn features a natural hot spring or onsen from which the waters in memory have run for more than a thousand years and have never stopped. Our host tells us that the inn has been in the family for 300 years.

Our accommodation here is two stories, with its matted and polished wooden floors. The bedroom and bathroom with its continually running hot spring bath are on the upper story.

The air and temperature in the rooms are just perfect. We were however not to guess what was to come, another meal, very different from our lunch, but equally masterful. This time the meal was accompanied with a selection of local and award winning sakes.

The hospitality from our friends at Yamagata Prefecture Government was in the Japanese style, extraordinary and generous of time and spirit. There was a clear enthusiasm here for Yamagata, its culture and histories and contemporary life. They were a joy to be with. A gift to us from our friends of Gotenmari, stitched from multi-coloured threads, a long tradition developed as a craft by the females in samurai families, to tie our friendship.

This journey was not yet over. The next morning another beautiful meal, this time breakfast, and then on to something slightly unusual, the Kamo Aquarium on the coast at Tsuruoka and its collection of more than fifty species of jellyfish. Japan is full of very interesting and very specialised museums, we are currently and as I write this next door to the Insect Museum at Gifu, all are worth visiting.

The Kamo jellyfish collection is quite extraordinary and a display of the diversity of nature. Typically some species of jellyfish are on the up because of the acidification of the oceans caused by the effects of greenhouse gases and it is interesting for us to see the great diversity of these species in shape and scale. We could spend hours here.

Now back to culture again and a visit to the Chido Museum and we are honoured by the Deputy Director, Tadayori Sakai san's, personal tour of the museum and its precious objects, many of them among the cultural treasures of Japan.

We visit Tadayori Sakai san’s family collection of Samurai swords and armour, these are objects of great cultural significance in Japan and have been handed down through the district's ruling family over many centuries. We make the point to Tadayori san that it is quite extraordinary, with all the upheavals of history, that this vastly important collection could be handed down and cared for by 19 generations of the family, and in such perfect condition.

Chido Museum's Sakai Garden

After a quick lunch, and sadly it is time to leave Yamagata and new made friends. So back on the Shinkansen to Tokyo. This was a journey that will live long in our memories.