Travel Thru’ The Lens: Yamagata (Part 2 of 3)

There are so many times when you watched Japan hour on television and you realised that there is so much to see in Japan rather than just the typical Osaka, Kyoto, Sapporo and of course, Tokyo. Japan is not small but when it comes to Singaporeans it seems that the only places worth going are these main cities.

Of course, part of the reason is cost and judging by the number of travel fairs, Singaporeans want cheap and so called ‘value for money’. The other reason is that there isn’t much time (and money) to really explore. When is the last long trip you had? These days when you take more than 5 days leave it is as though the whole company will collapse because you are not around.

For the next few years, I am looking at photography trips with the unique experience even for countries you have been before so this year I am looking at Japan.

So here I am in Yamagata – to provide localised experience for the tourists and this time there’s this unique 2-in-1 itinerary in the mountains of Yamagata called the Dewa Sanzan – Gassan (death), Haguro (birth) and Yudono (rebirth).

Pole Pole Farm Resort

Sitting mid-height of Gassan is the Pole Pole Farm Resort. Run by Okuyama family, the farm runs adventure, sports and cultural program in the Tohoku mountain region. They have certified mountain guides so mountain trekking is their forte. Even the Okuyama patriarch himself is a ski instructor!

My first impression of Pole Pole was actually not the place but an animal. A Tanuki or Raccoon dog, greeted us when we reached the farm ground. The Tanuki is supposed to be an evil being (read the Kachi Kachi story) but has become a cultural symbol that brings prosperity and business success. Surely a good omen! Too bad we can’t capture it as it runs away as our van approaches.

The farm has cottages for accommodation and the largest can accommodate to the maximum of 11 persons. We stayed at the largest cottage that has its own small kitchenette so we did enjoy our home away from home with the local fruits bought from the supa (as in supermarket). I adored the tatami mat area and had my best periods of sleep here at Pole Pole.

It has 8 smaller cottages throughout the property and cottages 7 and 8 can be combined to be the 11 beds cottage I have mentioned. The main cottage or lodge houses the restaurant where we have our breakfast.

The food at Pole Pole is absolutely an attraction in itself. It may look simple but in simplicity comes great complexity. I totally adored its home made buns and the Chef, he himself a certified mountaineer guide, cooks up a storm when we are there. I still miss those buns! I have never missed breakfast as much since.

Places we visited: The Local Park for Hanami

We supposed to go to Tokurako or Tokura Lake to take in the Sakura view but the trees are not covered with Cherry Blossoms. The good thing about having a local such as Nobi san to bring us around is the local knowledge. We did manage to get to a very very small community park but what was in front of us was really magical. Yup no tourists, just locals enjoying their Ohanami at their local park. This is as authentic as you can be (and a great relief to be rid of throngs of tourists).

Places we visited: Ginzan Onsen Village

Ginzan or Silver Mountain Hotspring was made famous because of two things: O-shin and Spirited Away. For those who are old enough, O-shin was the drama that ushered in the J-wave as much as how Winter Sonata has done for the Korean Pop culture into Singapore. The younger generation will definitely know about Spirited Away, produced by Studio Ghibli that features a very unique ghost house which is modelled after one of the Ryokan at Ginzan.

It is certainly a small town with character, much like how I felt when I see small Swiss villages around Zermatt mountain. It is so quintessential Japanese it is like you felt you are transported back in time (other than two ryokans that has gone through some sort of modern architecture design that quite honestly bordering on spoiling the ambience of the place).

This place is called Silver Mountain because it is the site of an old silver mine. Just next to a public toilet is a small little opening that leads into a small cave and you can see water running through the mine. There’s an even bigger mine you can visit up the hill just behind the village.

I have actually seen Ginzan through the Japan Hour program on channel 12 before it moved to Channelnewsasia and it was a snow clad Ginzan that I remembered. It is no doubt still a nice place to spend an afternoon in and perhaps have a nice bath even. There is even a 22-meter tall waterfall that completes the village in the most picturesque way ever. Too bad there isn’t a viewpoint where we can take in both the waterfall and the village but you can imagine how gorgeous the place is.

Places we visited: Sakata Town

If not for the Omakase Sushi, we would not have visited Sakata. Sakata is the location for the provincial capital of ancient Dewa Province. Because the town has its own port, their seafood is definitely the freshest of the lot. Since we are already at the sea port, we stayed for the sunset before going to Chef Suzuki’s Koize Sushi Restaurant and enjoy Omakase Dinner that we seriously would not have it cheap in Singapore especially when it comes to tough to import ingredients such as Sakura Salmon and fatty Tuna. Gosh thinking of it makes me drool once again.

Sakata’s historical remains is not huge but at least it has the Sankyo Shonai Rice Warehouse built in 1893. The Sankyo Warehouse is the location for one of Yamagata Tourism Office’s own promotional posters and surprisingly enough also the subject of a lot of stock photos too thanks to the beautiful Zelkova trees lining beside the warehouses so as to keep the warehouse cool during summer.

Places we visited: Mount Haguro

Haguro-san, together with Gas-san and Yudono-san are collectively known as the Dewa-sanzan and considered as a holy place by the locals. Before we enter Haguro, there is already a huge Torri spanning across the road towards the mountain. Even before hitting the trail entrance, we passed by quite a few shrines and temples too. Goes to show the religious significance of Haguro.

Founded by Prince Hachiko in AD593, he was led to the area with the guidance of eight local girls and a scared bird that has 3 legs. Haguro is one of the few places where both Buddhism and Shintoism are practiced as it becomes home to a religious sect called Shugen Shudan that teaches that Shintoism and Buddhism should become one. The mountains to this day are still revered by the locals and the three shrines on the three mountains are still visited.

The main attraction of the trail has to be the 5-storied pagoda built by Tairano Masakado a Samurai a millennia ago. Equally impressive is the 1400-year-old Japanese Cedar tree just next to it.

Places we visited: Mount Ubagatake / Mount Gassan

When we visited in late April, most people would have assumed that the appearance of Sakura’s marks the end of the cold season. The fortunate part of going to Mount Gassan to enjoy Sakura is that due to the location, Mount Gassan has a lot of snowfalls so much so the Shrine on top of the summit is usually closed during the winter months and won’t open until the middle of the year.

We took a hike literally up Mount Ubagatake or Mount Uba and took the chair lift to enjoy the snow scene. That’s the reason why we call this trip the 2-in-1 season. Yes you get to enjoy skiing AND see Sakura but not freezing cold.

Unique Experience: Tea Ceremony and Kimono

If you have never been to an actual Tea Ceremony WITH traditional japanese garb this is the trip to attend. Near to the end of the trip, we are treated to an elaborate tea ceremony complete with Kimono at a very hospitable local house complete with picturesque outdoor setting perfect for the outdoor portrait shots.

What’s Next: Pole Pole Mountain Resort with Autumn Colours

A season bursting with vivid colours of red, yellow and orange. The perfect blend of earthy tones that will put anyone into the most relaxed mood.

As the year draws to a close, so is the time to harvest the apples and grapes. We all know how delicious the Japanese apples are.

– Very local attractions with very little other tourists. Your experience will be very unique.
– Autumn leaves in the mountain range especially beautiful at Mount Haguro trek up to the temple.
– Mogami River Boat Cruising
– Ginzan Hotspring
– Soba making experience
– Majestic Waterfall view with the autumn colours
– Omakase Sushi (the freshest Sushi you will ever taste)
– Apple picking
– Japanese tea ceremony with authentic Japanese Kimono
– 4 hours basic photography workshop and basic editing. Practical tips will be given at each shooting location. Fireworks require the use of a mirrorless with the minimum focal distance of 18mm (12mm lens on APS-C sensors, 7mm for Olympus/Lumix MicroFourThirds system)

If you need more information do contact

The equipment I used:

  • Asus Zoom S (or Zenfone 3 Zoom); Album
  • Huawei P10 Plus; Album
  • Nikon D500 with Laowa 12mm f2.8 No Distortion Ultra Wide lens mostly; Album

This is part 2 of a 3 part write up on my Japan trip. You can access the other parts

Part 1: Fujikawaguchiko


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