Yamagata and northern Tohoku; starting 2020 with snow in the forecast

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January 5th 2020
Published: January 7th 2020
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Crowds rapidly gathered at the Yohashira shrine near Nawate street as midnight and 2020 approached in Matsumoto. The general hubbub made for an exciting atmosphere, many of those folks stepping up to the gong, right beside the stalls selling a lucky daruma.

We’d lazed away a few hours that evening, sorting out our packs after the snow adventures before going the next day, followed by enjoying a buckwheat ramen, Dormy Inns complimentary signature meal for that special evening. The subzero night wouldn’t be complete without a hot soak, and soon I’d be missing the apples bobbing in the onsen that were placed in the tub each morning.

Minus 7C and fine weather made for a beautiful start to 2020. Taking the train with the least changes just after 9am, we went first through part of the Nagano alps to Nagano, stopping long enough to scope out a miniature shrine about 200 metres of noisy roller-bag rolling from the station. Crowds were definitely absent at this tiny point of worship.

Back on the bullet train to Omiya, with a busy crowd on route to Tokyo, we changed again to get on to the Yamagata Shinkansen line, which over a few hours, eliminated hundreds of kilometres, ending in scatty snow showers around Yonezawa. Winter was creeping in, however as we discovered, not like past years.

Mid afternoon, temps in the low single digits, we arrived to Yamagata, setting out for a walk after check in, seeking out the East Otemon gate of Yamagata castle, and a Shinto shrine (Yudonosan) that had hundreds queued up for Oshoogatsu offerings and prayers. Dogs wearing winter jackets and food stall holders selling hot New Years dishes made it a bright atmosphere, even if the temperature and light had plummeted by 4pm.

Determining, with so many options and so little snow, what to do occupied several hours on the long evenings to come. The first full day was arranged as a riverside hike from Omoshiroyama to Yamadera, and day two could be Zao or northeast from Oishida. The reception staff sensed our indecision, and around ten o’clock that first night called us to correct the bus schedules. Nothing was operating to either of our planned spots, one being the popular Ginzan onsen.

Taking the 10.52am train therefore out of Yamagata, we were the only two alighting at what had quickly become a snowy landscape, compared to the previous snow-free stop on this local line (the village of Yamadera). Our footprints seemed the first in the snow, and above the Omoshiroyama station was a closed and slightly neglected looking ski area.

Then one tourist appeared, a man from Saitama prefecture setting his tripod up. Taking our waterfall photos from the bridge, he must have busted through the chained area briefly afterwards (‘do-not-enter’ sign, above the waterfall trail), to where it became visibly precarious. P2 brought me back to try and read the script (after I’d wandered a hundred metres off on a snowy road) and it basically said there’s a death risk. Best we amend the hiking plan then.

The white line on maps.me in this case turned out to be a perfect gentle ascent on a mountain road of 3km, snow thickening to some good trekking depths. Having left the snow shoes at home, we reached Tendo kogen at the upper chair lifts, with not a skier in sight and one lonely figure walking through the field. Japanese pop music piped through the loud speakers, as is usual. I wished I’d brought the snow shoes.

The road swept left, skirting a frozen snowy rice paddy and then peeled down the western edge of a valley to become the dotted line, that nowadays fills us with trepidation as to what’s next. Lo n behold it became an undetectable trail, bamboo in a frozen state stopping us in our tracks, holding up strong and resilient in the frigid climate. Back to the same station it would be, and with one of the best lunch spots atop the hills, looking out at a clear Mount Funagata and Izumi-gatake.

Plans ebbed and flowed for the next day. P2 went out for a shrine fix again, and come mid morning we rejigged things to go to another village up the Sendai line, Oku-nikkawa. This tiny village was again a two tourist stop, and two dogs and one older lady greeting us from their modest home. Snowed out, I had known there’d be a short trail, if not a road rising up behind it. Considering south and north facing aspects for hiking (in a snow starved scenario) had not entered the equation until now. We found both dense snow riverside, steep closed paths down to the canyon, and a tree clad hill opposite, free of snow. The access road soon became slushy so we went back for step two, back to Yamadera.

Fifteen minutes later on the 1pm express service and we arrived to dark skies. Even though it lacked any snow, it felt very near. We chose to go up the 1000 steps of Yamadera as in summer eighteen months prior, and within moments of paying for our entry, it began to snow. Heavy flakes fell for around half an hour, coating the whole site. Views were obscured from the higher viewpoint as snow showers crossed the village, and within an hour it was bathed in dusky sunlight and icing sugar. A great comparison to hiking in the high 20s!

Daylight ending had so far coincided with the free hotel espresso, our afternoon tea, and mulling over dinner options that were copious, and therefore hard to choose. Oshoogatsu hours decided this for us, as even on January 3rd (our last night) having a plan A B and C was needed should outlets be shut.

One always-open and unique discovery we’d made was ‘Toritaka’, a food truck owner who on a dark New Year’s Day, when all looked closed, had his mini Daihatsu truck stationed in a car park near the hotel Marble. The mix of chicken and pork bits on a stick was delicious. After sampling four sticks that first day, we returned the next to support his humble business for a yakitori feast, eaten in the hotel lounge. 2018’s Guranfua restaurant had since disappeared as a family run joint, and so Toritaka was our substitute.

Plan B for dinner worked out before we left Yamagata too, a soba restaurant in an old building near the train station, on the main road south. Deciphering the menu, we ordered steaming bowls, just as a patron lit up his cigarette in what now was steadily becoming a habit eliminated from food outlets. The owner motioned to the smoker as a young family then entered and sat near us, to ‘mind his smoking’. The culture is changing and maybe urged on as Japan leads into the 2020 Olympics year.

The day we left Yamagata had cooled again to subzero, such that fresh snow fell on my morning jog and covered the rice paddies west of town. We took the 9.45am train to Sendai, a metropolis of a station, with not much to captivate us when on a transit. Shinkansen lines pass through here, explaining the breadth and busy nature of it, and within an hour after boarding we’d traveled to Morioka and the inland town for that night, Shizukuishi. Tourism offices in this snow capital stayed open all week it seemed, and helpfully, they called us a taxi for the Prince hotel high up on the slopes, in view of Iwate-san. Clear skies and near zero at 1pm, it was idyllic.

The modest hotel was a fantastic base for snow sports at the door. Turning our backs to the ski-joo beside it, we set off on an afternoon walk through the southern part of the golf course. Considering the open space, orientation, and chance to see woodpeckers, pheasants and a lot of animal footprints, this was first class snow shoeing. A hot thermos and chocolate made all the difference to cooling hands, but by 4pm we rounded off the walk, being sub zero and with a pinkish sunset.

Two good hot onsen soaks, and a delectable local themed buffet dinner helped us sleep like the dead, something that barely happens at home.

The forecast the next morning was completely upside down to the sunshine predicted; heavy snow showers and minus eight at 7am. Acting like we’d never seen snow, we got going for the morning on to the northern fairways, having planned (for an extra €1000) to have a late 1pm check out.

Snow ebbed but mainly flowed (in between sun peeking through clouds) from 9-12, ending with a good cardiovascular
effort in powdery snow up to the hotel. We were photographed out, and well on time.

Taxi-san came as planned at 1.15pm and connected us to the Shizukuishi local train to Morioka, which then led to the high speed train to Shin-Hakodate, the end of the Hokkaido Shinkansen service. Local JR services start here, that over another nearly four hours took us to Sapporo.

Icy streets tested our roller bags, which fortunately only had a 600m south bound journey. Bentoo boxes bought hastily at Morioka for dinner, and the promise of a washing machine and onsen, was bliss.

Of the five nights stay planned, and on the back of two snow shoeing days, we put day one as ‘contingencies’, as in shopping, and visiting the sunshine health club pool once again. Sub zero snow flurries covered Sapporo for most of the day, and P2 was descending into a state of ill health. The energy levels may have been down, but we squeezed in a short visit to nearby coastal Otaru in the late afternoon, where the famous canals were glimmering, and, as peak hour travel is, we had a stand-up return journey.

We ate in that night, and the following. Being out of horizons sight in the hotel room, with a small window overlooking a wall, in an overheated and heavily air conditioned high rise, might have had something to do with it. And being in the fresh air of Nopporo forest park 15 minutes from the station this afternoon could also have helped it. The bad dose of sinuses continues, and advice and remedies from Nurse P1 might even cease sometime soon.

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