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Monday, Feb. 11, 2002

ON THE archipela-GO

NISHIKAWA, YAMAGATA PREFECTURE

Cold lands but warm hearts


By VICTORIA JAMES
Staff writer

The literally hang out the flags for visitors to the small town of Nishikawa in the snowy foothills of Yamagata's Dewa Sanzan mountains. A large British Union Jack was crossed with a Japanese Hinomaru over the entrance to Tamaki, a riverside restaurant famous for its Hina ryori (Doll's Festival food), my first stop on what I hoped would be a restorative long weekend.

If the flag gave me delusions of grandeur, these were redoubled when a TV news crew waiting inside the restaurant filmed my entrance and recorded my thoughts on the 14-dish banquet that I was soon enjoying. It turned out, though, that the reporters weren't there on my account, but to capture the commencement of Hina celebrations at Tamaki, which include a spectacular display of dolls dating back to the Genroku Period (1688-1704).

The cameras followed me no farther, but the star treatment didn't let up for the next 48 hours. Whether it was a kimono-clad attendant tirelessly refilling my glass, a knowledgeable snow-trekking guide sharing forest lore, or a master-cutter letting me rummage through a box of semi-precious stones to select the perfect piece, I received attention and a welcome that was no less warm than the weather was cold.

And how cold was that? Below freezing, with snow lying up to 4 meters deep. In northern Tohoku and facing the Japan Sea, Yamagata Prefecture boasts Japan's highest annual snowfall. So much piles up that the Mount Gassan ski ground doesn't open till April and can be used till July.

I was there to go snow trekking, and my base was Tsutaya ryokan in Shizu Onsen, at an altitude of almost 1,000 meters. Buried in snow up to its first floor, Tsutaya is the picturesque Old Japan of your dreams. There's an irori open hearth where new arrivals are greeted with a cup of hot mountain-grape juice, and guests wearing yukata and quilted chanchanko coats pad around in one-toed tabi socks.

Better still, the in-house onsen has a bottle of hito-kuchi (down-in-one) sake at the side of the cypress tub to further invigorate you while you soak, and outdoors there's a roten-buro buried so deep in snow it's like a steaming, scalding bore-hole.

I might have drunk a little more had I known what regional specialty would be served up at dinner time: pan-fried locust. But having worked my way though dish after dish of delicious local produce, including Nishikawa beef, I wasn't going to falter. The crunchy critters proved tasty enough -- though best eaten with closed eyes -- and a good accompaniment to the superb Gassan beer.

I was woken early by the sound of snow cascading off the roof; more had fallen in the night. After breakfast, our party of four strapped on snowshoes -- metal- rimmed plastic membranes with clawlike grips -- and followed guide Kan Yokoyama off into the pristine landscape.

Others had been there before us that day, but none of them were human. Yokoyama pointed out tracks belonging to fox and hare crisscrossing the beech and larch forest through which we were walking. On which, might be more accurate, as the tree trunks lay buried meters beneath our feet, and we trekked through the spreading treetops, sinking knee-deep in powdery snow.

Yokoyama explained the survival tricks of various trees, which include thick layered bark, sticky shoots and hairy buds. The seeds of one tree-parasite are excreted by birds that eat them. Super-sticky, the bright orange seeds pass through the bird's digestive system and are found hanging from lower branches. In this form, they're safe for humans to eat, and -- I'm telling you this from experience -- have a fruity taste.

Weary yet happy, we trekked home, taking shortcuts by sliding down hillsides on our bottoms. We arrived as snow lanterns were being lit in the ice wall facing the dining room, but there was time for a bath before we ate.

Later, as duck stew bubbled in a cast-iron pot on the table, discussion turned to the joys of rural living: "slow food" and life in the slow lane, all the exercise you needed just shoveling snow from the doorstep daily and all the entertainment of simply watching the changing seasons. My partner voiced the idle thought running through my head: "Shall we relocate?"

An impossible dream for us, perhaps, but the next morning we met Masaru Ueno, who had made it a reality. Once an NTT salaryman, a decade ago Ueno threw it all in and came to Yamagata to pursue his love of fishing. Now, he is the resident gemsmith at the Shizen to Takumi no Denshokan craft hall, cutting locally found semi-precious stones.

The Denshokan is the only place in Japan where visitors can try their hand at this meticulous craft, and Ueno allowed the four of us to choose, cut, shape and do a preliminary polish on a slice of stone from the assortment in his workshop. Yamagata produces red jasper and a richly veined onyx which Ueno declared "more interesting than diamond." My choice was a dull-colored stone, intriguingly honeycombed with irregular hexagonal shapes. These, the master-cutter explained, were fossil coral: Once living in the sea, the coral's million-year-old remains are now found in Yamagata's mountains.

Our clumsily cut and polished stones needed a further 10 days' expert attention from Ueno to bring them to a perfect shine. I would have gladly stayed and attempted it myself, but Sunday was wearing on and there was a shinkansen to catch.

Our final stop, suitably enough, was Dewa-ya, a wayfarers' hostelry. The owner, who for years served pilgrims bound for the sacred Dewa Sanzan, devised what is now Yamagata's characteristic dish, sansai soba noodles in a broth of seasonal mountain vegetables.

I slurped the soba down, and reflected sadly that I was headed in the wrong direction, away from, not toward the peaks. But still -- there's always the consolation of knowing that Gassan's snow will be there until July.

Yamagata City can be reached by shinkansen from Tokyo in 2 1/2 hours, and by plane from Osaka in 80 minutes. Winter two- and three-day hotel and excursion packages are available. Brochures are available at branches of JR East View Plaza; Yamagata Prefecture specialty shop Yutorito (1F Toranomon Mitsui Bld., 3-8-1 Kasumigaseki, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo); or online at www.yama9.com For an English translation, contact Yamagata Prefectural Tourism Promotion Division: tel., (023) 630-2373, fax., (023) 630-2097.


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