Foodie hotspots: Shonai coastal regions, Dewa Sanzan, Gassan, Yudono, Yamagata city, Sakata, Tsuruoka, Yonezawa, Tendo, Shinjo, Zao Onsen.
Foodies Look Out For: Imojiru stew; Ita soba buckwheat noodles; Dadacha-mame beans; Tama konnyaku devil’s tongue; Yonezawa wagyu beef; Dongarajiru cod soup; Iwagaki oysters; kandara midwinter cod; aka kabu red turnip; Dewa Sanzan Zen vegetarian cuisine; fruit, especially peaches, grapes, cherries, watermelon; Sakata and Shinjo ramen; karakara senbei rice-crackers; Mitobe Shuzo sake; local wines.
The Basics: The opening of the Tohoku shinkansen has meant that this once hard-to-access prefecture, with its many fruit orchards, hot springs, ski slopes and rugged coastline is now within easy reach of Tokyo. Visit the fabulous, spiritual temple complexes of Dewa Sanzan, or hike the mountain trails of Gassan and Zao, then make sure you check out the area’s rich food culture.
Foodies Go Yamagata:
Yamagata is synonymous with Imo-ni, the hearty stew of potatoes and vegetables, simmered with beef, or other ingredients depending on your own personal tastes. Particularly in the Autumn, friends and families gather for imo-ni-kai parties along the banks of the prefecture’s many rivers. A regular ingredient is tamago konnyaku, the devil’s tongue or konjaku often found in Japanese soups and stews. In Yamagata, however, it is formed into cute, tiny balls.
Another popular soup, this one for Winter, is dongara jiru. Its main ingredient is tara cod, which is chopped roughly into large chunks and served with vegetables. In summer Tsuruoka’s giant Iwagaki rock oysters are another local favorite.
Yamagata rivals Nagano in the soba buckwheat noodle production stakes. The large temperature variation from morning until night suits its growth perfectly – as indeed it does for much fruit and sakamai rice for sake production. One local specialty is itasoba, rice served in a flat, wooden box. Shojiya Honten in Yamagata city is excellent. Further afield, Arakisoba in Murayama city, has the distinction of being included on ‘La Liste’ alongside the likes of Guy Savoy in Paris and Le Bernadin in New York. We suspect it must be the only entrant to have a thatched roof!
Yamagata is also home to one of the nation’s ‘big three’ beef names in Yonezawa-gyu. This black beef is prized alongside Hyogo Prefecture’s Kobe Beef and Mie Prefecture’s Matsuzaka Beef as some of the tastiest, most succulent, - and priciest – wagyu beef around.
The Yamagata Budget Gourmet Karakara senbei, rock hard rice crackers from Yamagata’s Shonai region, have a history dating back 300 years or more, and certainly won’t crack your wallet; niku soba; Yonezawa gyu-hanba-gu, burgers made with Yonezawa beef (especially at Hikousen in Yonezawa city); Yamagata hippari udon; Shonai yakisoba.
The Ramen Professor Recommends: Yamagata claims to have the highest per capita consumption of ramen in the land, though Fukuoka might, I suspect, dispute that. Sakaeya Honten in Yamagata city, in business since 1952, is famed for its hiyashi ramen cold noodles. Unlike reimen, where the noodles have a cold sauce added to them, here the ramen is actually served ‘as usual’ but with a cold soup. Sakata ramen, served in the Northern Shonai area, is a soy-fish stock blend. Most of the noodles are handmade, and many contain wonton. Mangetsu in Sakata, dating back to 1960, is highly rated along with Kacho Fugetsu.
FGL Favorite Tipple: Mitobe Shuzo’s Yamagata Masamune junmaishu sakes are all excellent, as are Uyou Otokoyama, Oki Masamune, Ginrei Gassan, Fuji Shuzo's Asagao, and the famed Dewazakura. Oura winery’s apple cidre, and Asahimachi Winery’s award-winning 2017 rosé are worth sampling.
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