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The Impact of COVID-19 on the Japanese Countryside

While confirmed cases of COVID-19 remain well below 100 across Yamagata, the economic impact of this crisis threatens to deal an economic shock that this struggling region is ill prepared for. Despite having a heavily aged population and very limited capacity within its major hospitals, the countryside region of Yamagata Prefecture has managed to keep its cases under control thanks to contact tracing and other social distancing measures. However, the vulnerability of its local economy is not within its control. The greatest economic hardship that Yamagata faces is its fragile hotel and ryokan industry. Most of the accommodations here are family owned and many were struggling to get by each year due to declining Japanese tourists numbers brought on by Japan's declining population. Unlike major corporations, these families do not have the buffer to weather out a prolonged hiatus and already have been devastated by losing revenue from the Golden Week holidays. Each week that this crisis drags on pushes these struggling venues closer and closer to the brink. It is also an unfortunate fact that countryside municipalities are not flush with cash like major cities and are very limited in their ability to support these businesses. Many of these venues date back many decades or even centuries and a loss of these hotels and inns would be an insurmountable loss to the culture and character of this region. Gone would be the charming Japanese style inns and hotels maintaining the historic allure of a bygone era. All that would be left would be soulless business hotels located close to the train stations offering robot like service. What Can be Done The lodging industry will come out of this crisis battered, fragile, and in desperate need of immediate support that the government alone cannot provide. These small venues will need an immediate influx of tourists to support them and get them back on their feet. We would like to spread a message to visitors considering visiting Japan once this crisis is over to make a special effort to venture out to countryside regions and stay in family-owned hotels like local hotels, ryokans, and even temple lodging. Not only will you be treated to wonderful hospitality, delicious food, and the benefit of being able to stay in beautiful remote locations; you will actively be saving these local economies at the same time. What We will Do We would be happy to help visitors find local lodging accommodations and would even be happy to help bridge the language barrier between the venues. If you have other questions or need other assistance to make your trip possible then please also feel free to contact us. We would be happy to do this for you for free. It is the least we can do to give back to the region which has supported us so much over our two years of operation and given such wonderful experiences to our tour groups. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you need help! Contact Us Written by Derek Yamashita Derek is a co-founder of The Hidden Japan and moved to Yamagata from Los Angeles after graduating from UCSB. He is a passionate photographer, cyclist, and tour guide who loves to share his love for the rural side of Japan with guests.

Night and Morning Activities Across Yamagata

In addition to Yamagata’s plethora of breathtaking natural beauty and spiritual wonders, it is also worth noting that this region has a very strong nightlife scene and early morning activities to enjoy in between your adventures here.

In this article we have gathered a list of experiences and activities available across Yamagata Prefecture in Yamagata City, Tendo City, and the Shonai Region to help you make the most out of your journey to this beautiful region. Sake Tasting in Tsuruoka City Choose from a specially curated selection of the Shonai Region's finest sake at the Ayatsuru Bar in the Foodever Visitors Center in Tsuruoka City. This specialty bar exclusively serves sake by the local brewers of this region and the bar master constantly updates his curated selection that includes limited edition sake that cannot be enjoyed anywhere else. The sake tasting here includes 3 small dishes made by the bar tender to pair with your drinks.

See more details here. Bar Hopping in Yamagata City After a day out exploring the beautiful mountain temple complex of Yamadera or skiing on the slopes of Mt. Zao, how about a night eating and drinking across downtown Yamagata's famous local izakaya and bars?

The streets around Yamagata Station are filled with venues featuring delicious regional specialities from across the prefecture including sake and special cocktails made from this region's famous fruits. You can explore these bars freely or opt for a fully guided course with a local guide. Fugu Culinary Demonstration See entire tora fugu (tiger pufferfish) prepared by Chef Takeshi Suda, one of the most famous fugu chefs in all of Japan. See how this extremely poisonous fish has its tetrotoxins carefully removed by the chef right in front of you. Following this Chef Suda will plate its pure white meat in the beautiful arrangement of an elegant crane adorned with gold leaf. Tora fugu is the highest grade of fugu in Japan and over 70% of all of this fugu is caught right here in Yamagata. Try this regional delicacy right at its source by making a reservation here. Yamagata Wagyu Beef Another must try delicacy while you are here in Yamagata is this region's buttery smooth wagyu beef served up across this prefecture. However, don't worry about having to break the bank to enjoy this top-grade beef, Super Market Yoshida offers wagyu at low market prices.

At this supermarket, you can not only buy wagyu at market prices, but also grill it up at a special grilling area right in the market! We are constantly creating new tours and experiences with the locals across Yamagata. You can see an up to date list on our website here.

From Sake with Love

By Anna Drozdowska Head of Brand/ Tourism Consultant/ Culinary Travel / Luxury Hotels/ Sustainable Travel 'Have you ever seen a rice kindergarten?' Sake master Gen-san puts a smile on his face and leads me to a small greenhouse in the middle of the Shonai fields in Yamagata province, Japan. I must be careful because even a small cut in the tunnel floor foil will leak water and destroy the entire crop. 'See, they're ready to be planted' he says, lifting one of the baby rice containers up so I can see their white roots. In a few days, farmers will start flooding the fields with water, and then the entire Shonai plain will shine like a mirror. In the distance, I can see the snowy peak of Mount Gassan, which for centuries has marked the time of planting rice. 'Here, people have always lived according to the rhythm of nature' says Gen and looks at the mountain. When the weather is beautiful, it reflects on the geometric water surface, creating a fantastic patchwork of blue, green, and white. Gen’s passion is not just growing rice - he is a practicing Buddhist monk, a ski instructor, and a motorbike runner. However, for a few months of the year, he devotes himself exclusively to sake. In the old days, sake masters would leave home for the rice harvest in October and stay in the breweries until spring, working all winter to produce a beverage that has been present in Japan for nearly 2,000 years. 'Technology is helping us now, but it's still like raising a child - you feed it, look after it, put your heart into it, watch it grow and then let it go out into the world' says Gen and leads me to the place, where I will learn the intricate secrets of sake production. The 200-year old Mitobe Sake Brewery building casts long shadows in the afternoon sun when we greet Mr. Tomonobu Mitobe, the fourth-generation owner of the Yamagata Masamune brand, and together we walk into the impeccably clean interior smelling of wood. 'The secret lies in the use of select varieties of rice and in the mineral-rich water that gives our sake a crisp, sharp finish, like the famous Japanese Masamune sword'begins Mitobe. In rice grains, starch is surrounded by proteins and fats that badly affect the taste and aroma of sake. That's why the grains have to be polished: the more we polish the rice, the more concentrated starch we get and the better the sake. In our highest-class varieties called Junmai Daiginjo, grains lose as much as 70-75% of their original weight!' However, for starch to convert into alcohol, it must first be "broken down" into simple sugars. At this point the magical ingredient comes into play - unique mold species Aspergillus Oryzae called koji. Polished rice is soaked in water, steamed and spread on wooden trays in a moisture- and a temperature-controlled room called kojimuro. Here rice is sprinkled with koji, which creates almost 50 different enzymes enabling starch to transform into simple sugars. After a few days, koji-rice looks like covered in sugar icing, and it’s time for sake masters to transport it into big tanks, add sake yeast and start fermenting process that will last for the next few weeks. Later on, sake gets filtered and pasteurized. 'Our brewery uses a traditional pressing machine called Fune that has been in use since the Edo period. The bags filled with unfiltered sake are hung up in the machine and pressed softly from the top. The liquid sake is separated from the rice lees very delicately, mainly by gravity. This way of filtering is exceptionally gentle, resulting in a pure and concentrated end product with full taste and aroma' explains the owner. When you order sake in Japan, you might embarrass the waiter because the word sake means simply "alcohol." The correct local name is Nihonshu, which translates to "Japanese alcohol." Sake is served in small ceramic or glass bowls called ochoko. They are stunning, and everyone in Japan has a whole ochoko collection of different shapes and colors. During the dinner, I test various kinds of sake, specially selected for each dish. Every time I’m served new sake, I get a different ochoko. There is no single rule regarding the temperature of serving sake - some taste best cold, even on ice (especially the unfiltered types, like my favorite milky Nigorizake, or unpasteurized Namazake). Others release taste and aroma best when heated to a temperature of about 45-50 degrees Celsius. 'Try this' says Mitobe, who is also accompanying me during the evening. 'What do you think?' I drink Malola sake in small sips and enjoy the taste - it is unique, different from the others, extremely mild. I can feel velvety peach tones and a touch of apple. To create it, Mitobe used malolactic fermentation, instead of yeast. 'I've always been rebellious and wanted to do things my own way' he smiles. 'I also want to highlight the role of the rice type in sake, just as wine is defined by the grape variety. My goal is the stronger bond of local producers with the region. In earlier times, sake rice used to be sourced only from Hyogo prefecture, because sake was supposed to taste everywhere the same. Nowadays, the young generation of producers is breaking these rules. They grow local varieties of rice, introduce their own methods inspired by wine production, modify the fermentation process or experiment with the aging of alcohol in cedar barrels. And it works well, although they say that the sake-master, who created the first sparkling champagne-like sake, tried more than 500 times before achieving a satisfactory result! In a situation where the domestic market is shrinking year by year, it is a chance for sake to become fashionable again among young Japanese people. Contrary to Japan, the popularity of this beverage in world markets is growing. Sake pairing can already be found in many Michelin star or 50 Best restaurants, not to mention sake micro-breweries popping up in the USA or Canada. 'Have you ever seen green rice terraces?' Mitobe suddenly asks. 'It is a breathtaking scenery. With every sip of sake, close your eyes and imagine rice plants rustling in the wind and the water flickering in the sunlight. This should give you a feeling of calmness and inner peace. It certainly does for Japanese people, for whom appreciation for rice is encoded in their DNA.' I close my eyes, I feel people’s passion, love, and respect for the earth. And for a moment I feel like being a part of their world. Written by Anna Drozdowska You may see her other articles on her Linkedin profile below. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-drozdowska/

Handmade Soba in Tsuruoka City

In early February, 14 students from an Italian culinary and science university visited Tsuruoka City to study and experience the unesco recognized culinary culture of this region. Among their many experiences was a special soba workshop in a small village on the outskirts of this agricultural city. This workshop gave these students a first hand experience into a traditional culinary art with its own regional variety here in Tsuruoka City. Students worked alongside local chefs with Koshizawa Buckwheat, a special heirloom crop that is unique to this region and was developed through centuries of selective breeding. Koshizawa Buckwheat has an especially rich taste with a very distinct texture that is much more present than traditional strains of buckwheat. This workshop also worked with 100% buckwheat as opposed to the mixture of other flours used in soba that you may find in supermarkets or commercial restaurants to lower production costs. Starting from base buckwheat powder, the students learned how to mix the precise and delicate ratio of flour and water in large bowls. This is a critical step that requires precision and quick execution as this mixture can either quickly dry out and become brittle or become too soft to form noodles. After mixing the flour into dough, they then prepared to flatten their dough into extremely thin sheets for cutting. This involved rolling out the dough dozens of times while also massaging and rotating the dough to prevent it from forming cracks along its edges as it dried out. After rolling out and folding their dough, they then learned how to cut their noodles by hand from some of the highly experienced chefs present at the workshop. One method that many students found of particular interest was how the cutting board was moved not by hand, but by the force of your knife as it cut through the dough. With each cut, the knife is moved at a precise angle to move the board over just enough for the next cut. This method allows chefs to cut these noodles at a fast and very uniform rate by hand. This method proved a challenge for many students, but all had managed to become familiarized with the cutting techniques and produced finely cut soba. By the end of the workshop, this is what the students were able to produce. The chefs were very pleased and one had even remarked that these could even be served in a restaurant here in Japan! Of course no food workshop can be complete without actually enjoying the food itself. After cooking the soba noodles in boiling water, they tasted what 100% buckwheat noodles tastes like for the first time in their lives. Many of these students found a new found love for soba and all left with a deep understanding of one of Japan's most famous and delicious cuisines.

Wappani Campfire Cooking on Awashima Island

On the tiny island of Awashima off the coast of Niigata Prefecture is a delicious campfire cuisine that is made entirely from the natural resources of the island. This form of cooking known as wappani is a stew that consists of local fish mixed with miso and freshly sliced onions cooked in a cedar bowl called wappa. This dish is made with two stages of cooking which includes open-fire grilling and boiling with heated rocks placed directly into the bowls. This stew is made entirely with resources found naturally on the island. This starts off with gathering some of the abundant driftwood found naturally across this island. You may arrange this wood into a campfire at approved campsite locations found across the island. The fish as well can be caught from the beaches here and there are no strict rules for the type of fish that can be used in wappani. In fact, the flavor of this dish varies greatly depending on the type of fish used! The fish is skewered on bamboo sticks and placed over the driftwood campfire where it is thoroughly grilled. This campfire also serves to boil a pot of water and also super heat some of the heat-resistant basalt rocks that can be found all over the island. Once the fish is cooked, it is placed in the wappa bowls with miso paste. Boiling water is then poured into this bowl and creates a rich miso broth. For the next step, stones from the campfire are quickly dipped in water and then placed directly into the bowls. This causes the water to boil violently and helps bring the flavors of the soup together and keeps the broth nice and hot. Fresh onions grown on the island are then added to the dish and it is ready to be eaten as soon as it cools down! Awashima Island can be reached via a ferry that departs from Murakami City in Niigata Prefecture. Here is the Japanese site for ticket information. http://awaline.co.jp/index.html You may contact the Awashima Tourist Association for more information on how to enjoy wappani during you visit (website in Japanese) https://awa-isle.jp/

A visit to Akita Prefecture

Last month The Hidden Japan team crossed over the border of Yamagata Prefecture into the southernmost part of Akita Prefecture. Here we visited the Yuzawa Geopark, one of the largest geoparks in the Tohoku Region and one with unique geological features that cannot be found anywhere else in Japan. Our first visit was to Kawarage Jigoku (Kawarage Hell). Here the lush green forests of this geopark give way to a barren white desert where nothing is able to grow. The reasons for this is the large amounts of sulfur gas that is emitted from all over this specific part of the mountain. This gas has bleached the rocks white and made it an inhospitable habitat for most forms of life. This trail is safe to walk, but visitors need to stay on the trails here and not venture to close to these vents. This gas can be harmful if too much is inhaled. During our visit, the trail leading up to one of the peaks was closed due this massive yellow sulfur vent opening up recently. This barren white landscape is extremely unique in Japan and offers a beautiful pure white landscape for hikers to enjoy. I also found the abrupt transition from barren white rocks to lush green forests to be a very interesting sight to see and photograph. Making our way down towards the bottom of this mountain and into the ravine below, we began to see areas where the forest has begun to reclaim part of this land. But the most interesting part of this was that the rivers here were hot! You can feel the heat rising up from the rivers as you crossed the bridges. Making our way further down the ravine, we came upon the entrance to the forest here and walked down to our primary destination for the day. At the bottom of this ravine we came across a truly unique geological feature here in Japan, a hot spring waterfall! The water here sprays out of the rock face at a scaldingly hot temperature. This water would normally be far to hot to enter, but the height of this waterfall gives the water time to cool down enough to be a perfect temperature at the bottom. Here pools of water act as natural rock baths, and you can also stand right under the warm waterfall! There is even a small hut next to this waterfall that guests can use to change into swimming suits. We would recommend this as the hike down here takes about an hour and a half. You will certainly want to come here in proper hiking clothes. After a day out in the Yuzawa Geopark, we returned to Yuzawa City where we attended the National Udon Expo which featured famous udon varieties from across Japan! We greatly enjoyed out visit to Yuzawa City and now have great interest in visiting the Yuzawa Geopark again to see more of what this beautiful region has to offer. We will be putting up articles soon with detailed information.

The Miyagi Oyster Project

Last week The Hidden Japan traveled to Ishinomaki City to start work on an exciting new project to promote the incredibly delicious oysters of Miyagi Prefecture to international markets! This is a joint project with our talented and wonderful partners of Studio Olive, Change the World, and Yamanaka Inc. We began our day bright and early at 5 am where we set off into waters off of Ishinomaki City. Shinji Takada, the president of Yamanaka, was our guide for the day and showed us the incredible amount of expertise and logistics that take place just underneath the waters here. Here in Miyagi, the oysters are grown via a special farming method that was originally developed in this area. Oysters are grown on large scallop shells and hung in 10 meter long lines in the bay. The waters off of Ishinomaki are perfect for breeding these oysters due to two primary factors. The first is that the cold Oyashiro currents and warm Kuroshio currents meet in this city which brings rich nutrition to these waters. The second is that this coastal region is also lined with mountains that jut out into the coast. The rain that runs off of these rocky mountains fills the water here with fortifying minerals. The combination of these two factors make for rich breeding grounds for shellfish and a plethora of other marine life. I actually got special permission to dive in the bay and witness the massive farms and sea life up close! The rich nutrients and minerals here give the waters here a cloudy and deep blue color and the oysters were covered with dozens of other species of sea life. Many of them appeared to be other filter feeders just like the oysters. Visibility was quite low and without the long lines of oysters, I feel that I could have easily gotten lost. Fortunately there are no dangerous sharks in this part of Japan! Back on the boat, the fishermen even let us crack open some of the freshly harvested oysters and try them out in the bay! These were absolutely the most fresh, tender, succulent, and delicious oysters I have ever had. I truly cannot find the words to describe how much I enjoyed them and I find myself overwhelmed by a deep craving for these oysters as I write this. Another very special point about the oysters farmed in Ishinomaki City is that this region has a very low population and is largely free from industrial factories and other sources of pollution. The result of this is the produce grown in these rich and pristine waters can be eaten raw and enjoyed right from the ocean. I will be going into more detail of this project in another post coming this week! Next, I will be talking about the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated this region and nearly wiped out the fishing industry here. But as you can see by this post, Yamanaka and other fisheries are back and stronger than ever and their story of recovery is beautiful and inspiring. For now, please see this NHK World program for their story. https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/vod/thefisheries/3004508/?autoplay

Removing the Nerves from a Live Fish

From the moment a fish is caught to when it is prepared in a kitchen, keeping the fish fresh is of critical importance. This is especially necessary when it comes to sushi and many Japanese dishes where fish is served raw. In Japan, chefs and fishermen utilize a special preparation technique where they drain the blood of fish in seawater and remove its nerves while it is still alive. In this way, the meat of the fish can kept fresh for significantly longer period of time than if it were prepared normally. Fish prepared this way can be enjoyed raw up to a week later and will still taste like they were fresh from the ocean! This also helps enhance the taste and freshness of the fish when it is eaten immediately as well! Master sushi chef, Takeshi Suda recently demonstrated this technique to an international delegation of chefs from around the world and even taught one of the chefs how to do it themselves. The first step in this process was to cut the spine and main arteries of the fish. It was then placed in seawater for a few minutes to drain most of its blood. The fish was then brought out of the water and had a wire run through its spine to remove the primary nervous system of the fish. Keep in mind that the fish was still alive during these processes! The combination of these two techniques significantly slows the degradation process of the fish and after this the fish was ready to be prepared. Marin Vera, a decorated chef from Italy also tried his hand at this preparation and was able to successfully remove the nerves. He then learned how to prepare sashimi with Takeshi Suda. This fish was then enjoyed as fresh sashimi in a wonderful group dinner in the restaurant at the Kamo Aquarium with the delegation of international culinary professionals and locals of Tsuruoka City. And just as this technique had promised, the fish had incredibly rich flavors and a texture of freshness to it that I had never tasted before! This is just one of the many ingenious food preparation techniques utilized in the Tsurupoka UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. Learn more about this here.


Yamabushi Training on Mt. Yudono

A look into the rituals of the ancient mountain monks of Yamagata. The beautiful and pristine nature of the Tohoku Region is what originally brought me to Yamagata and I have since been on countless hikes, bike rides, and excursions into the mountains and forests that surround my city. Believe it or not, there is far more immersive way to experience the vast and towering mountain ranges of Yamagata. This is through the Yamabushi mountain monk rituals that have taken place on these mountains for over 2,000 years. For this training, I visited the Sanroujo Shrine on Mt. Yudono where I donned shiroshozoku robes. These white robes are the same robes worn by the dead here in Japan. This clothing embodies a core theme of rebirth in Yamabushi training as participants go through metaphorical death and then rebirth through their experiences on the dewasanzan mountains. A set of Shiroshozoku robes worn by Yamabushi monks. After this we hiked along a forested path along the river to a medium sized waterfall located just beneath the main shrine of Yudonosan. Unfortunately the river and waterfalls were swollen on that day and too dangerous to enter. Fortunately there was another waterfall located further up the stream right near the main shrine of Yudonosan as an alternate place to perform the waterfall ritual. Along the hike by the river trial, I accidentally stepped in the river and my foot turned numb in only two seconds. The water here is freshly melted snow off the mountain that is flowing down into the rivers, forests, and ocean below. It was COLD! As we waded into the water I could feel the torrent of cold water rush straight through me and strip me of my body heat. We then began to pray and chant with our Yamabushi guide for about a minute. This intense cold left our bodies numb as we scrambled onto the rocks to warm back up in the sun. The purpose of this ritual is to accept and show our thanks to Mt. Yudono's gift of pure water to us. It is this steady flow of water throughout the year that sustains the vast forests, rivers, lakes, and fields that life relies in this region. This waterfall is one of the original and purest sources of this water from the Dewa Sanzan Mountains. I have long appreciated the beautiful crystal clear rivers during my hikes on these mountains, but to enter this holy river through this ritual was deeply humbling and I feel that I was able to experience and feel the raw power of the mountain itself. There is much more to the Yamabushi training and I certainly will be looking to dive deeper into this incredible way to form a closer connection with the amazing nature of this region. If you would are interested in taking part in the Yamabushi Program, please email me! derek.yamashita@thehiddenjapan.com

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