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Vegan in Yamagata - Don't become a Snow Monster

Yamagata prefecture in Northern japan is famous for skiing, onsen, winter food and the 'Zao Snow Monsters'! During my New Year's trip I finally traveled up to Tohoku prefecture and had some surprisingly good Vegan finds!


Getting to Yamagata

Having lived in Kyushu and Kanto, I was thrilled to finally be making my way up to Tohoku for the 'nenmatsu' (年末) New Year's break. After attending the RIZIN New Years Eve mixed martial arts event in the Saitama Super Arena, we took the night bus at midnight exactly (not the most interesting count down I can tell you) up to Matsushima, Sendai - known for its breathtaking scenery and ranked as one of the "Three Most Scenic Spots of Japan".

I definitely recommend taking a 1-2 hour break here to ride the ferry and see what the fuss is all about! And while you're at it, don't forget to try the Sendai local specialty "Zunda Mochi"

(ずんだ餅): Mochi topped with sweetened mashed edamame! From Sendai you can take the train or bus to get to Yamagata city.

Zunda mochi in Sendai
Zunda Mochi in Sendai

Whether you have planned yourself an active winter sport holiday on Yamagata's amazing mountains, plan to soak in one of the famous onsen, or will explore the beautiful temples and wonder winter landscape... You will be hungry at the end of the day!


It's all about the Rice

It's all about that rice, bout that rice, no treble!

Tohoku is famous for its delicious rice - and you can definitely see this influence in their regional specialties. Next to the ideal rice-growing climate, places like Sendai were an obvious choice to start a food base for Edo (now Tokyo) back in the day, which has allowed it to specialize in its production.


Mochi Rice is a pretty key ingredient in Mochi rice cakes, so it won't come as a surprise that they are widely available and extremely delicious in this part of Japan. We visited well-known mochi specialist cafe Yamaguchi Mochiya, located in Zao Onsen - a region filled with onsen and ski resorts, located 40 minutes by bus from Yamagata station. They have a simple menu, yet with a wide range of options, and many of them suitable for vegans! When in doubt, just ask the knowledgeable staff about the ingredients. Fresh mochi with hot tea in this weather? Heaven!

We had the Azuki (sweet beans), Kinako (roaster soy bean flower), Nori (seaweed) and Kurumi (walnut, not pictured) ones. My favorite? The one that was gone before I remembered to take a picture...

Mochi in Yamagata 山口餅屋
Azuki, Kinako & Nori Mochi

Sake

It isn't strange that Tohoku is well known for their sake. What better way to keep warm during the extremely cold winters?! And delicious rice of course means delicious rice wine! If you happen to visit the above mentioned Zao Onsen (which you should!) be sure to visit the Yamagata Sake Museum while you're at it. Even if you're not a big drinker, seeing the huge variety of such an ingredient-wise simple drink is amazing. The staff is extremely knowledgeable and very keen to tell you all you'd ever want to know about sake. Museums boring? Not this one. Next to having a super fancy restaurant (vegan friendly sides include olives and tofu), they hold sake tastings where you can choose from 48 different sake (and some umeshu plum wine!) which you can 'shot' at the counter, while having a full explanation on them (or not.). A fun, slightly tricky activity that can make the bus ride back to Yamagata a lot more fun...

Yamagata Sake Museum

Not visiting Zao Onsen? No worries. You can literally not escape the sake bars, menus, souvenirs and even badass vending machines with Sake!


Rice

All of us Japan-based vegans have been there. The plain rice or plain onigiri option. This is much less of a punishment when you're in a city known for its delicious rice!

For dinner, we visited the well known Izakaya restaurant "Nagaya Yamagata" known for their service, traditional dancing staff and wide range of delicious sake. Following the chef's recommendations, we've tried some of the best sake we've ever had! As with any izakaya, the vegan options were simple: white or grilled onigiri rice balls and edamame. However, Yamagata is known for just these things, with Dadacha mame (だだちゃ豆) being another regional specialty, often called "the King of Edamame". A winning menu for us vegans!


Izakaya at Yamagata 山形
Sodacha-mame そだちゃ豆

Be warned that the beautiful lady staff members (Tohoku, specifically Akita, women are stereotyped to be exceptionally beautiful) will start performing traditional dances throughout the night and you will be encouraged (*cough* forced *cough*) to participate. Might want to reconsider splurging on that sake!



Overall: I did not know what to expect going up to Tohoku for the first time. As per character, I went completely unprepared and found out about local specialties and eateries as we went. Note there are both a vegan cafe and a hotel offering a vegan menu if you call ahead - but the cafe was closed for New Year's and we obviously didn't call (read: plan) ahead. Some local specialties are vegan friendly and delicious in their simpleness. and if all else fails, the regular chains and AEON supermarket will have plenty to keep you alive. Yamagata was stunningly beautiful with winter wonderland scenery, the best private, outside onsen I've ever been to, and of course, the impressive ZAO SNOW MONSTERS!

蔵王の樹氷 Zao Snow Monsters
The Famous Yamagata Snow Monsters

Mochi Restaurant Yamaguchi Mochiya 山口餅屋

Address: 35 Zao Onsen, Yamagata 990-2301

Access: 40 minutes by bus from Yamagata Station (Zao Onsen)

Food: Mochi Rice Cakes

Price: between ¥500-¥1200 for a plate of mochi to a mochi 'teishoku' set

Service: At home, no frizz.

Location: Zao Onsen is definitely worth a visit for its onsen, ski resorts and beautiful scenery. *No website


Yamagata Sake Museum

Address: 951 Zaoonsen, Yamagata, 990-2301

Access: 40 minutes by bus from Yamagata Station (Zao Onsen)

Food: Sake Museum with food options

Price: couple ¥100 per tasting ¥500-¥1000 for a veggie side dish

Service: Extremely polite, keen and passionate staff that is willing to help you with both sake- and non-sake inquiries.

Location: Zao Onsen. Just go. Bilingual Website


Yamagata Nagaya Izakaya

Access: 40 minutes by bus from Yamagata Station (Zao Onsen)

Food: Sake Museum with food options

Price: "Japan's Nr.1 Dadacha mame" ¥780 Sake ¥790円

Service: Polite, beautiful "akita bijin" who perform traditional dances during the evening. Be warned: you'll be encouraged to participate. Hence the sake!

Location: 9-minute walk from Yamagata station. Easy access to hotels and... anything else.

Website JP


Mountain of fruit Azumaya (not visited) Hotel offering a vegan menu course: "地元野菜のコース!ヴィーガン・ベジタリアンプラン"

Website JP


Two Vegan friendly eateries (not visited)

Nicole Shokudo Website JP

Vegetime Doyouknow Website JP



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