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Wednesday, March 8, 2000

Steaming winter away in Yamagata


By MATT TWOMEY
Staff writer

Water's three states converge at ground level in Yamagata Prefecture in winter: The white stuff never seems to stop falling, and the hot spring water never fails to bubble up, sending steam into the chilly air.

That makes it an ideal spot for Japan's treasured tradition of onsen -- the healing waters warmed by the earth's cockles.

Yamagata is distinguished by being Japan's only prefecture with at least one onsen in each of its 44 municipalities, according to Nobuhiro Domon, manager of international tourism for the prefectural government.

This onsen country just became a lot more accessible, with the Yamagata Shinkansen stretching 60 km further north as of this past December. From the new terminal, Shinjo Station, an hour's bus ride delivered me and 20 fellow travelers to Okura-mura, a hamlet of just 4,700 people -- the prefecture's least populous. The formerly seven-hour journey from Tokyo took just four and a half.

Part of the fun of joining a package tour is in enjoying the strangers with whom you are thrown together. On the bus ride from Shinjo, the first of our group to make himself known is the happy drunk who had started in on the sake with his partner, a silent giant, when we left Tokyo Station at 10 that morning. When the bus guide notes a shop selling the locally brewed sake we'll be imbibing with dinner, he jokes he'll get off there and we can pick him up again on our way back.

Coming from Tokyo, where hardly a snowflake has been seen all season, the glaring white snow is mesmerizing. But it isn't until we reach the far end of a mountain tunnel that we see what's been lying in store: roads carved out of snow more than 3 meters deep; a village ritually laboring to keep from being smothered by the stuff; a burbling brook dotted by jutting rocks carrying surreally cylindrical towers of glistening white.

Every local to be seen outdoors is engaged in snow removal of one sort or another: on rooftops, on sidewalks, with snow blowers.

"When it's like this the snowplow operators hardly get a chance to sleep," the guide says as the bus stops to make room for one to pass. "They're at it from 3 a.m. until after dark."

This amount of snow is not uncommon in Okura-mura, and its powdery consistency makes skiing a natural draw. The village annually hosts about 3,000 people for its "snow run," a cross-country skiing event. With the new bullet train, this year's March 20 run may draw a record number.

For the occasion, some 25 tons of the area's abundant white resource is put to use in the construction of a 29-meter-tall snowman, with a slope down one side for sledding. Locals say the massive yukidaruma doesn't completely melt away until July.

Soon enough I come to know others in my group. I dine with those members who are staying at the same ryokan: a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter trio -- who have such a good time they end up planning a return trip in March -- and the happy drunk and his partner, who would speak up only to tell his friend when he was making no sense whatsoever.

Being on the take-it-easy course, we spent no time on the slopes. But even our less vigorous activities -- making snow lanterns one day, and soba buckwheat noodles the next -- left us eager for the onsen to ease the chill from the smalls of our backs. Hijiori Spa Land offers three to choose from, although the one that is entirely outdoors, Ishidaki Onsen, is closed for the snow season.

Hijiori Onsen opened in 1997 and still has the sparkle of newness. Situated on the edge of the village, it's within walking distance of the three local ryokan. Besides the standard sitting shower stalls and the hot communal bath, it offers a smaller "sleeping" bath, containing warm water and a sloped side one can lay back on -- and even snooze a bit -- when the heat of the main bath becomes too much.

The other spa, Kogane Onsen, is part of the Garudera Onsen Complex -- the cream of the onsen experience. Besides a well-kept o-furo (bath) with windows that open to a view of the frosted outdoors, the complex, a short bus ride from the village, claims to be one of only two in Japan that offer both hot and cold spring waters -- the latter for drinking. (The other is in Oita Prefecture.)

The complex makes grand claims about the benefits of the onsen. An expert had prepared a short lecture on the subject and advised us on how to make the most of our visit to the spa. One example: Resist the temptation to drink beer or oolong tea after emerging from the onsen; instead, drink the spring water to keep the enriching minerals in your system.

The members of my group expressed their profound appreciation of the lecturer's words with intermittent ehhs and ahhs. We then proceeded to the o-furo, where the instructions were roundly ignored, with the happy drunk even bringing a beer into the bath with us.

A word of caution to foreigners who travel to this nook of the north. While people are more than willing to meet you halfway, tours here do not specifically cater to the foreign traveler. Which is to say this is authentic Japan -- if you can handle it.

For instance, there is little offered in the way of English-language guidance. If you don't have a grasp on Japanese, be prepared to cheerfully communicate with gestures, dictionaries or whatever else it takes.

Also, the food served is mostly of the local variety -- meaning it's fresh, of a high quality and reasonably priced, but sometimes requiring an adventurous palate. There's no McDonald's to escape to if a breakfast of miso soup and fish turns you off.

One lunch served was made up of my two weakest points in all of Japanese cuisine -- natto, the odoriferous fermented soybeans, and mochi, rice pounded to the consistency of Silly Putty. I'm ashamed to say I gave in to my weakness and had a bowl of ramen specially made.

Much of the food is wonderful. My ryokan offered sukiyaki one night and shabu shabu (basically a variation on sukiyaki) the next. Both were made with the locally produced Yonezawa beef, second only to Kobe's in fame.

If you don't behave like an accidental tourist and instead go with the flow -- joining the activities available in tour packages, trying the local cuisine, adorning the ryokan-provided yukata robe for dinner and mixing with the locals and your fellow travelers -- serendipity awaits in the snow and onsen country of Yamagata.



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