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Saturday, Nov. 9, 2002
Cornucopia direct from 'Fruit Kingdom'
By ERIKO ARITA
Fresh pears, apples and persimmons from the "Fruit Kingdom" are available at Yamagata Plaza Yutorito.
Yamagata Prefecture produces virtually every fruit, except citrus varieties, that can grow in Japan. Its climate, with wide temperature differences between day and night, creates perfect conditions for sweet fruit.
Cherries, peaches, melons and watermelons are grown in summer. In the fall, La France pears, apples and persimmons are at their best and occasionally appear at the shop in the Kasumigaseki district in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward.
"La France pears become delicious and have a sweet aroma when they are ripe enough after being stored at a low temperature," said Kahei Horigome, assistant director of the prefecture-run store.
Pears grown in Yamagata account for 80 percent of the yield in Japan, Horigome said. La France pears were first imported from France in 1903 and introduced to Yamagata, which was already a pear-growing region, during the Taisho Era (1912-1926).
La France pears were not popular until around the 1960s due to their nonuniform appearance and the difficulties farmers had growing them. But since the best cultivation techniques were finally identified in the mid-1980s, the fruit has been grown in the prefecture on a large scale, according to the Yamagata branch of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations.
Yamagata is a key agricultural prefecture, producing a variety of vegetables and rice. Such local products can be savored together at an "imoni" (simmered potato) party. Traditional outdoor cooking in Yamagata, imoni involves taro, beef and "konnyaku," a calorie-free gelatinous cake made from bulbs, cooked in a pot.
Imoni was originally prepared as a supper as farmers cooked taro they had planted in the ridges between rice paddies after harvesting the rice, Horigome said.
"Imoni is an autumn tradition in Yamagata. Riversides are lined with people having imoni parties," he said.
On the first Sunday of every September, an imoni event is held in the city of Yamagata. The food is prepared in a 6-meter-wide pot, he said.
At the Tokyo shop, precooked imoni sets are sold.
Various "soba" (buckwheat noodles) dishes are also available. Hot and cold soba are served at a small soba restaurant on the premises.
Yamagata is blessed with a rich natural environment. In the center of the prefecture are three mountains known collectively as Dewasanzan, and the Mogami River flows northwest into the Sea of Japan.
The natural environment attracts many tourists, including legendary haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-94). Basho traveled to northern Honshu, including the area now known as Yamagata, and wrote a travel diary in 1694 titled "Oku no Hosomichi" ("The Narrow Road to the Deep North").
Basho wrote a haiku about the Mogami River, which once served as a major transport route. The river is now popular for its tourist boat rides.
Risshakuji Temple, a popular tourist spot known as Yamadera, is a collection of small temples alongside paths up and down a steep mountain that inspired Basho to describe its scenic beauty in a haiku.
Information on all of the prefecture's tourist spots can be found at Yamagata Plaza Yutorito.
Access to Yamagata improved dramatically with the 1992 opening of the Yamagata Shinkansen Line, which links Tokyo with the prefectural capital in 2 1/2 hours.
But the bullet train has also had at least one negative effect on the local tourism industry, Horigome said, allowing more people to make day trips without staying at local hotels.
Yamagata Plaza Yutorito is on the first floor of the Toranomon Mitsui Building, a three-minute walk from Toranomon Station on the Ginza subway line. The shop is open from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. but closed on weekends, national holidays and over the yearend holiday. Call (03) 3504-2700 or fax (03) 3504-8744.