Road Trip on Uetsu Line (Part 1)
We check out "Six Jizo" statues, a cafe serving grilled buns, a confectionery shop which uses spring water to make pumpkin pies and a spot once visited by Crown Prince Akishino for its rare fish.
The JR Uetsu Main Line runs from Niigata Prefecture to Akita Prefecture, via Yamagata Prefecture. Opened in 1912, the railway line travels along the plains of Shonai - a famous rice-producing region - as well as the Sea of Japan. For our two-day journey, however, we will ride from Sakata to Akita, passing 23 stations which cover a total distance of 104.8km.
From Sakata Station in Yamagata Prefecture, we first advance by the 9.35am train to Minamichokai Station, two stops away. The ride takes about 10 minutes. We go to the community centre, where we meet a group of teachers having a study session. One of them offers to show us something interesting nearby. She also invites someone who is familiar with the history of the town. We are taken to see the “Six Jizo” statues, which are connected to the six different worlds in Buddhism.
However, we are surprised to see there are nine of these statues here. We find out that originally, there were six of them and no one really knows where the other three came from. The locals respect the statues as the protectors of their town. After this, we end up getting lost and only reach Minamichokai Station after walking for 40 minutes. We then hop on the 12.40pm train and proceed to Yuza Station. We drop by a cafe to have its special frothy coffee and ask about recommended spots.
We are told about a fancy cafe, Wadaya, which is known for its grilled buns. It is located in a traditional house which has been renovated. A lunch set comprising two buns, a drink and salad starts from 750 yen. We order the sweet potato, curry and sweet bean paste buns made from red beans produced in Yuza. Unlike the usual grilled buns which are flat, the ones served here are like fluffy rolls. To make them, the owner, Hayashi, first wraps the ingredients in dough and then places them in a steamer. They are then grilled on both sides on a frying pan. This makes the buns fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside.
After savouring this delicious treat, we continue our search for more recommendations. A resident tells us that the town’s speciality is the spring water, which originates from below Mount Chokai. The mountain’s underground water gushes out at various spots around the town. The person suggests we check out a Western confectionery shop, Kougetsudo, which uses the spring water in its products. Its freshly baked pumpkin pies, made from pumpkins grown in Akita, are so popular that up to 1,500 pieces are sold each day.
We then check out the mountain water springing from the ground next to the shop. We try a bit of the spring water; it tastes very different from tap water, which has a slight medicine-like rusty taste.
We speak to a few more residents and one of them tells us about the Yatsumengawa promenade next to a scenic river. Kids from elementary school and the elderly take care of the flowers here. Ninespine stickleback, an endangered freshwater fish species, can be found in the clear stream next to the promenade. The locals tells us that Crown Prince Akishino once visited Yatsumengawa to see this precious fish.
We next take the 3.50pm train to Kisakata Station, about half an hour away from Yuza Station. A resident suggests we visit a roadside station called Nemu no Oka. Located along National Route 7, it has an observation deck which boasts a breathtaking view of Kujukushima, which looks like islands floating in rice fields. We start walking to the place but then realise we will not make it back on time to catch the 5.15pm train. So we head back to Kisakata Station.
Our next stop is Ugohonjo Station, about half an hour away. We ask a gentleman at the station about hotels with hot springs. He suggests Anraku Onsen. We call the place and it has rooms. However, as it is a last-minute reservation, dinner will not be provided. So we make enquiries about restaurants. A local recommends we try our luck at either Sakanaya - a tavern which has dishes such as hors d'oeuvres, sashimi, pasta and pizza - or Ichiganzushi, a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.
1) The town of Yuza is known for its spring water which originates from Mount Chokai
2) Some hotels and inns do not provide dinner if you make last-minute reservations