Road Trip on Nagai Line (Part 1)
Highlights this week include beautiful trains with flower patterns, a symbolic carved rabbit ornament, a station building popular with railway fans and a hotel known for its "medicinal cuisine".
Join us as we embark on a two-day journey of enquiry and discovery along the Flower Nagai Line, which runs through the southern part of Yamagata Prefecture. This local line originally started operating in the Taisho era. It became the current Flower Nagai Line, a joint private and public sector project, in 1988 under Yamagata Railway. It runs between Arato Station and Akayu Station, covering 17 stations over a distance of 30.5km. The trains’ exterior features flowers which can be found along the line’s route.
We start our trip from Arato Station in the town of Shirataka. It is known for cultivating safflowers to produce textile dyes or a crimson pigment for makeup. This area is currently Japan's leading producer of these flowers. We begin by taking the 10.25am train from Arato Station to Shikinosato Station, one stop away. We arrive at Shikinosato at around 10.30am and the next train from here will leave at 11.50am.
A local we speak to suggests we visit the Hachiman Shrine, located at the site of the former Ayukai Castle. We speak to the chief priest who tells us that the shrine was established here during the late Heian period by warrior Minamoto no Yoriyoshi. The priest also leads us to the main shrine, located in a building which has been around since the late Edo period. It is one of Yamagata Prefecture’s tangible cultural properties, due to the magnificent wooden carvings of phoenixes and dragons.
We next head by train to Shirousagi Station, which is three stops away. This time, we ride on a yellow train featuring dahlia patterns. We arrive at the station at noon and have until 1.35pm to explore the place. We meet Mr Yokosawa, who tells us about a rabbit ornament he carved and which can be found in the train station’s waiting room. A farmer by profession, he was asked by the mayor to decorate the station when it opened 30 years ago and decided to put his hobby of wood carving to good use. Since then, the wood carving of the rabbit has become the station’s symbol. Some black lion masks placed at the local Hayama Shrine were made by Mr Yokosawa as well.
Our next stop is Uzen-Narita Station, which opened in 1922. The wooden station building has retained its original structure and design and has been designated as one of the country's tangible cultural properties. The elegant station building draws railway enthusiasts from all over Japan. We want to have lunch and a local recommends we go to Unohana Onsen Haginoyu, a hot spring inn which serves delicious spicy miso ramen. The inn’s natural hot spring water is drawn from 1,000m underground. A giant granite weighing 30 tonnes was hollowed out to make its black lion open-air bath.
Yamagata Prefecture is said to have the most number of ramen stores per capita in all of Japan. Each area has its own version, with spicy miso ramen being the most popular. The miso is a blend of two types of bean paste and chilli peppers. At Haginoyu, we order the recommended ramen with fried squid rings, its most popular side dish.
At the restaurant, we ask the staff to suggest a famous spot near our next destination, Nagai Station. The staff mentions Tas Park Hotel. We head back to Uzen-Narita Station and take the 4.15pm train to Nagai, two spots away. We reach in about five minutes and first drop by a lacquer crafts place to ask about more popular spots. The owner tells us about a cafe, Yamanoshita, which has a board game store on the second floor. More than 200 games from around the world are sold here. On weekend nights, customers can enjoy playing board various board games on the first floor. We later find out that the cafe is closed on this particular day.
We then go to the recommended Tasu Park Hotel, which opened in 2009. The nine-storey building has halls, conference rooms and a sports gym. When he was still the Crown Prince, Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako had visited Yamagata and ate lunch at this hotel. After checking out our room which commands a nice view of the city, we have dinner at a Japanese restaurant on the top floor, Seiseiden. We order the Yakuzen set, which showcases medicinal cooking with seasonal local ingredients. An example is fiveleaf aralia, a vegetable the locals have been eating for a long time. It has polyphenols which are good for the body. The miso-style somen noodles have Japanese ginger, which promotes digestion and is good for detoxifying. The corn rice, meanwhile, has a good balance of minerals and fibre.
1) Fans of games should visit the board game store at Yamanoshita in Nagai
2) Try the Yakuzen meal at Tasu Park Hotel to get a taste of medicinal cuisine