Yamagata #2: Flower Hat Festival (花笠まつり)

Along with the previous post on Iwate’s Morioka Sansa Odori, here is the last Great Tohoku Festival: Yamagata City’s Hanagasa Matsuri! “Hanagasa” means “flower hat” in English, and is the main feature of this festival. Dancers wear straw hats covered with artificial flowers of Yamagata Prefecture’s flower, the safflower. In groups wearing the same costumes, dancers dance to the unique music as taiko drummers and other instruments play. The parade is led by flower floats, and over 10,000 people may join in!

The festival is held near Yamagata Station, from August 5th to 7th. You can find more information here. Along with Iwate’s festival, I didn’t get a chance to visit here when I went, to my disappointment. It’s definitely on the list to see next time!

Edit: 2015.11.13: I didn’t get a chance to see the actual festival when I visited Yamagata in October, but I did get to see the dance performed and try it out myself, and I even got the flower hat as a gift!

My flower hat and the postcard

Performing the dance

Yamagata #7: Ball-Shaped Konnyaku (玉こんにゃく)

Hey everyone! We’re in the middle of summer here in Japan, and temperatures in my little corner are reaching 37C/98F during the day, and sometimes higher! It is HOT! Today, I’m looking north a little to a popular food in Yamagata Prefecture called “tama konnyaku”. Actually, Gunma is famous for konnyaku too, but not the ball-shaped variety. This kind is shaped into balls and boiled in soy sauce and sugar. They can be found all around the prefecture, but at Yamadera Temple they are called “chikara konnyaku”, or “power konnyaku”, supposedly giving you enough energy to climb the many stairs up to Yamadera!

I find this ironic, as konnyaku has hardly any calories at all.

I visited Yamagata last spring, so this card wasn’t available at that time. I haven’t gotten it yet, but it’s on my “to buy” list! Here are some pictures I took in Yonezawa, Yamagata, and at Yamadera:

A tama konnyaku stand at Uesugi Shrine in Yonezawa, Yamagata

“Popular item! POWER konnyaku!” at Yamadera Temple, Yamagata

They weren’t bad tasting, actually!

And just for fun, a shot of Yamadera. I guess I made it up, so the power konnyaku really works! …maybe.

If you can find konnyaku (also called konjac and similar) at a grocery store, you can try making them using this recipe (and feel free to leave off the squid). Otherwise, hopefully you can visit Yamagata to try these yourself. Happy eating, and stay cool!

Edit 2015.11.13: I made it again to Yamadera in October, and took some new pictures with the card! Check it out:

Postcard, pot, and konnyaku, yum!

Yamagata #4: Snow Monsters (樹氷)

We’re still exploring Yamagata today, this time heading up to the area around Zao Onsen, where every winter the harsh winter creates amazing sculptures every year, called juhyo, usually translated to “ice trees” or “snow monsters” or the like. Cold, wet wind from Siberia hits the evergreen conifers on a few mountains around the Tohoku region, creating these monsters over a period of time. December is usually the start, while in January they grow in size. February is considered the peak, then they slowly melt through March. On weekends in January, and through all of February, light ups of the mountains and trees are held.

I really enjoyed this video from NHK World’s Fudoki series, which details how they are formed and has some great footage of them. Also, if you’re interested in skiing and snowboarding, see here for information not only on the trees, but the slopes as well. Finally, Zao is not only famous during the winter… its onsen and crater lake can be visited year-round, and in fact is the subject of another postcard, this time on the Miyagi side of the mountain, so look for a post from the same place in the future!

Yamagata #5: Jomon Venus (縄文の女神)

For Yamagata Prefecture’s 5th postcard, let’s talk a little about Japanese history. The Jomon Period in Japanese history was from around 12,000 BC to 300 BC, when Japan was populated by a hunter-gatherer society with a high level of cultural complexity. They are perhaps the most famous in the Archaeology community for “cord-marked” pottery, vessels decorated with markings of ropes which created a very unique look. This pottery is one of the oldest discovered in the world, and is in fact where the name “jomon” came from.

In the mid- to late- Jomon periods, clay figurines were produced in various styles and in large numbers. Today’s postcard is of a type that depicts women, often pregnant, in a stylized manner and are often called “goddess” or “venus”. This one resides at the Yamagata Prefectural Museum (which has an English page, but it isn’t terrible informative… still, you can find it here). It is in great condition for being 4,500 years old, and is revered for its great sculptural beauty.

Recently, the statue was 3D Printed in several aspects, allowing scientists at the museum to handle the statue without fear, and find details that were not as visible on the original. It also allows visitors to interact with the statue freely. As an archaeology nerd, I think 3D printing of relics is a fantastic idea, but I’m not going to get started talking about it because I’d never stop!

I didn’t visit this museum when I visited Yamagata, unfortunately. However I did visit the Jomon replica village of Sannai-Maruyama in Aomori Prefecture, which I highly recommend.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Jomon Period and these figures, This page has some fantastic information on Jomon and beyond. This site goes more into detail about the pottery, but has some great links and references for further reading. And if you’re in Tokyo, the Tokyo National Museum has several figures on display, a number of which are from Yamagata.