Having toured Aomori and Iwate Prefectures previously and discovered many interesting sights along the way, we decided to again return to the northern coasts, this time to explore the Prefecture of Yamagata and the Sea of Japan Coast Road.
With a four-day weekend planned, we left Tokyo on a clear Tohoku Expressway one Thursday morning. After driving for about four hours and spending ¥7000 in tolls, our first stop was in the mountains of Yamagata-ken.
Upon exiting the expressway we immediately saw a well-kept Isuzu 117 Coupe. Isuzu’s 117 Coupe was a luxuriously equipped grand tourer, with all models fitted with full instrumentation and a number of luxury items: rear wipers, alloy wheels, twin headlamps, headlamp washers, velour interiors, air-conditioning, and numerous other niceties that made them one of the most expensive local cars sold in Japan at the time. With a few versions built over their life-cycle, the square headlights on this silver one we spotted identified it as a late model third-generation version. Although not on original plates, its JAF badge cemented the oji-san conservative nature of the 117 Coupe.
Our first overnight was in the old castle town of Kaminoyama. With natural hot springs in the area, it grew into an onsen town many years ago. Our ryokan, located in the center of the old town and built in the post-war peak of 1960s Japan, was equipped with a top-floor bath commanding views over both the rest of town and the mountains in the distance.
Before dinner we diligently checked the onsen’s framed water certification to ensure we were about to enjoy the aqua pura as advertised. Then we properly cleansed first before entering the steaming natural hot water. The slight smell of sulfur twinged our noses and the mineral-clouded water conveniently hid our private parts from fellow bathers. With two outside ofuro on the roof, standing naked seven floors up with the cool mountain breeze blowing over you was, as the locals say, kimochii…
The next day we took a slow walk around the old castle, the street of old samurai houses, and the many hundreds of period kura still populating the streets. Some remain storage houses as was originally built, but others have been converted into shops, cafés and, in some cases, homes. A Honda kei with owner-applied racing stripes was parked next to one particularly large kura.
After lunch (a locally made nasu-soba) we drove further into the mountains, via ever- smaller roads and tunnels to the famous onsen town of Ginzan. On either side of the river were Taisho and Meiji era ryokan built for visitors to overnight and enjoy the natural hot springs in the surrounding area. Accessible only by walking, most have private facilities for guests to enjoy and foot onsen are helpfully provided in the main street too.
Our next stop was the coastal town of Sakata, and coming down out of the mountains we passed many villages. Preparing for the pending rice harvest, oba-san made their lunchtime rounds on Honda Cub with seriously cute wicker baskets.
On 35°C days the ubiquitous vending machines were always available for a cool drink.
Approaching Sakata — a town fabled for its 500 years of rice transportation — we stopped at Towa Motors to talk to their shacho about the silver first-generation Honda Life 360cc. This was the first Life we’d seen badged “Twin,” perhaps a reference to its twin-cylinder configuration.
Before we could get confirmation, the shacho apologized profusely and excused himself as he had a buyer wanting to go over the car in detail.
Leaving Sakata, we followed a Mitsubishi Jeep on original plates as we again traversed low mountains and their rice-growing valleys. In one village between snow tunnels, a field of BMCs was parked next to a shop specializing in Minis. We chatted briefly to the boss as he was selling one of two identical red Coopers to a potential customer.
A bit later in the day, a well-stocked Subaru kei yard attracted our attention with a Pop Orange Honda Z parked out front — on original issue Yamagata-ken plates and period alloys no less. Identifiable as a last-run version by its pillar-less design and lack of spare wheel trunk between the rear bumperettes, the domestic market-only Z360 GSS looked pretty snappy.
While the boss was busy with customers, he gave us permission to crawl over and photograph some cars in his shop. Notably, a U11 Bluebird and a cack-brown X30 Toyota Mark II with a splendidly disgusting tan crushed velour interior were there to receive work. Tucked away under covers were a few Cedric and a Laurel too, all in various non-running conditions.
A quick stop on one touge had us passed by squadrons of sport bikes and one sanitora, all of whom promptly disappeared down the twisty road, leaving us with the sound of their four-throated carburetors singing away.
Halfway down the hill we stopped at a curiously twinned flower nursery and soba restaurant. Perched next to a river and overlooking a small waterfall, on this hot day no air-conditioning was present, just the windows open to the mountain breezes and the sound of falling water next to us.
In our world of family-run Nihon lunch stops, it met a number of important criteria — frequented heavily by workers clad in clothes purchased at the local Workman, a TV in the corner showing mid-day programs, boxed and framed inked papers of caught fish (one is usually enough to secure quality food), and signed TV talento cards framed in sequence on the walls.
For those not familiar with casual mountain lunches in Japan, the menus are short, usually populated with a few stable soba and udon variations — hot or cold, sansai (mountain vegetable), tenzaru (buckwheat), yasai (vegetable), etc), with maybe a local variation as their susume (recommended) item. Tissues, water hot and cold, cha (tea), or mugi-cha (barley roasted tea) are provided as sabisu (complementary) and are usually self-serve from a dispenser. A red or perhaps blue flag outside with the easily recognizable そば (soba) or うどん (udon) identifies restaurants in the smallest of places.
In even smaller villages with no casual restaurants, a lunch can still sometimes be found by asking a local. If you are lucky enough the recommendation to visit someone’s home — usually with the capacity to make lunches for visiting workers — can secure one or two set meals for a reasonable cost of a few hundred yen.
As we approached our last evening stop, rounding one corner I was once again tricked into thinking an old VW Typ-2 van was being used for deliveries. It was, as usual however, a Subaru kei with dress-up parts.
If not sold from, it was perhaps serviced at the massive Subaru dealer at the bottom of the hill, which despite the state of its main sign, was still a going concern.
Our stop for the evening was an isolated ryokan built in the mid-century North American hunting lodge style. At the bottom of a ski-in, ski-out set of slopes and lifts, it commanded tremendous views in all directions.
For us, in the hierarchy of onsen, there are a number of steps to enlightenment. While we prefer onsen over the utilitarian sento (bath of heated tap water), the rotenburo (outside) onsen is preferred over the conventional indoor facility — particularly under snow, where our favorite at Minakami has yet to be beaten. Of the rotenburo, the konyoku (mixed) is tremendous, as you can sit there with work colleagues, friends, golf-buddies, and partners with no concern for not being able to mix the sexes. Sipping a cup of atsukan (warmed nihonshu sake) heated by the onsen waters just adds to relaxing experience.
One of the best, though, is the private konyoku rotenburo, and though we did not know it when we booked, arriving at the hunting lodge near Aga we were pleased to find our room included just that. Adding to the sublime rotenburo was the extensive dinner of sashimi, fresh mountain trout, and vegetables.
The next day we embarked on two-way roads through the mountains barely wide enough for our full-size car. Even the ubiquitous screaming kei-trucks would have found this road difficult to pass on at full speed!
Coming down to the coast, we watched as rice-farming infrastructure was replaced with fishing and surfing support. Boat shops, board rentals, and many fish restaurants nestled among the old buildings behind the tsunami wall.
Seaside shrines and lone tree outcroppings added to the scenery as we wound our way south down the coast to Niigata-shi. The combination of mountains sloping into the sea and one of the highest annual snowfalls in mainland Japan means that many sections of the Yamagata-ken coastal roads are protected by snow tunnels. On enjoyable 35°C days, it was a curious sight to see such heavy protection contrasting with families scurrying about with inflatable water toys.
Stopping to photograph an R32 Skyline, one such snow tunnel took on the appearance of a portal directly into the blue summer sky.
Parked at another tunnel a short distance further south, an AE86 Corolla Levin on mis-matched wheels and fat rubber waited for the next spirited drive down the gloriously twisty coast road.
Looking for lunch on our last day, we decided on a Chinese restaurant, clearly identified by the moderately-sized fiberglass panda on the front lawn — because nothing says authentic Chinese like some good old-fashioned kitsch.
Unfortunately after four days exploring Yamagata-ken, we joined the expressway at Tsugawa near the Kirinzan onsen town — famed for its foxes — and made a clear run back into Tokyo. Finishing the last of our medium format film on the Shutoku Metropolitan Expressway sound wall, we contemplated our next journey.