Maxene Graze and Evan Rodgers

52 Trips

Here's the best gear for a trip to Yamagata, Japan

Here's everything you need to enjoy the relaxing landscapes of Japan's Yamagata prefecture.

Shokunin

The first time I went to Japan eight years ago, I expected to be transported to a magical landscape of rolling green hills, mossy shrines and hidden mysteries. I was not disappointed, and I’ve since returned to the countryside four times, covering my bases in the southern, central, and northern parts of Japan. In my most recent trip, I lived out one of my dreams of apprenticing in a traditional Japanese miso and koji shop. While miso is largely known for the soup it made famous, koji is only just gaining worldwide popularity. Traditionally a grain that is inoculated and fermented with the mold, Aspergillus oryzae, koji is the ingredient that gives soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, sake and miso their life and character. It’s no wonder that Japan has deemed it their “National Fungus.”

A family I met on a previous trip to the northern prefecture called Yamagata (which literally translates to “mountain-shaped”) welcomed me to their home. Here, I spent a month learning traditional koji making techniques. In addition to fabricating koji, miso and other koji products, they also run a cozy café that sells koji goods ranging from koji brownies to koji curry. A traditional Japanese wooden building, the interior smelled like my own paradise would: cedar, salty sour miso and baked goods.

Photo by Maxene Graze.

My days were divided by work in the café, the koji workshop, and cozy evenings in their home, all located on the same plot of land. Evenings were spent relishing Okaasan’s Japanese home cooking, stitching away at my sashiko project, or Japanese embroidery, and obsessive study of koji and Japanese. Since the family only spoke a few words of Japanese, I spent most of my free time improving my intermediate level of Japanese. I balanced Japanese study by reading manga for fun and memorizing technical koji-related terms such as “enzymatic activity” and “lactic acid.”

When I wasn’t making koji, working in the cafe, and studying Japanese, I indulged in some local outings with the café owners and their daughters. As the region is well-known for its onsens, or hot springs, and mountains, there are plenty of excursions to choose from that are suitable for any season. It was my second time in Yamagata, so I knew to come prepared with this gear: