Yummy Yamagata! 15 foods you must try in Yamagata
Updated as of 29 December 2023
Originally published on 01 September 2020
If there’s one thing everyone can agree when it comes to motivation for travel, it would be for food. And when it comes to Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō), many would agree that on top of fantastic hot springs resorts and picture-perfect natural sceneries, great food is one of its main highlights. When discussing the foods of the regions, the one prefecture that must be mentioned would be Yamagata.
Yamagata's cuisine. (Image credit: Daisuke Yatsui / JNTO)
Yamagata Prefecture (山形県 Yamagata-ken) is one of the prefectures in Tohoku that directly faces the Sea of Japan (日本海 Nihon-kai) to the west, while bordering others such as Akita to the north, Niigata and Fukushima to the south, and Miyagi to the east. The prefecture name translates as “mountain-shape” since it has a mountainous terrain, therefore having a unique geography of being next to the sea and in mountainous range at the same time. When it comes to food, it enjoys the best of both worlds: fresh seafood from the west, and delicious mountain foods from the east and surrounding areas.
Yamagata’s food incorporates a lot of seafood and mountain vegetables. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture / JNTO)
Yamagata is famous for several things: home to the majestic Mount Zao, having some of the best hot spring resorts in Japan such as Ginzan Onsen, and producers of some of the best fruits in the country. When it comes to food, it is not only famous for its fruits, but for others as well.
Yamagata’s cuisine mapped according locations of the local specialties' origins (indicated by numbers) and region (indicated by colour): central Yamagata (①–⑦ in red); southern Yamagata (⑧–⑩ in blue); northern Yamagata (⑪ in purple); and Shōnai in the northwesternmost region (⑫–⑮ in dark green). (Image credit: Google Maps / Yamagata Prefecture)
Previously, I wrote in detail about Akita’s eclectic cuisine. This time round, it’s Yamagata’s turn. For this article, we will have a look at some of the best foods that the prefecture has to offer. From humble soul foods made with the freshest mountain vegetables, to one of the most coveted meats in Japan, Yamagata is not short of having delicacies that impresses as well as satisfies local and foreign visitors. Without further ado, let’s go explore the yummy foods of the “mountain-shape” prefecture.
Central Yamagata: Hearty delicacies
We kick start off our journey with the heart of Yamagata, where the capital city Yamagata (山形市) and neighbouring city Murayama (村山市) are located, and is also home to famous monuments and tourist destinations such as Yamadera and Ginzan Onsen. If you’re a fan of noodles, this is one region you can’t miss.
① Imoni (芋煮)
Imoni. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Every prefecture in Japan seems to have one or two representative dishes or foodstuffs. Yamagata is no exception, where one of them is cherries. The other is imoni, a hearty dish that can be commonly found in the Tohoku Region, but is most famous in Yamagata.
Imoni is made with taro, thinly sliced meats, and konnyaku in a broth seasoned with soya sauce. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Imoni is usually prepared using taro, thinly sliced meats (usually beef or pork), konnyaku and leeks in a broth seasoned with soya sauce. There are other variations: sometimes other ingredients such as Chinese cabbage, burdock roots and mushrooms are added, and miso paste is used for the broth. Imoni is an autumn dish that is best enjoyed outdoors, and locals often organise imoni parties (芋煮会 imoni-kai) for communal dining among families and friends.
Autumn Imoni Festival, where visitors take part and witness the cooking of imoni in a giant iron pot. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Imoni is so beloved in Yamagata, that the prefecture hosts the Autumn Imoni Festival (芋煮会フェスティバル Imoni-kai Fesutibaru) every year. Held at the banks of the Mamigasaki River (馬見ヶ崎川 Mamigasaki-gawa) in Yamagata City on the day before Respect for the Aged Day (third Monday of every September), this festival draws up to 30,000 visitors who get to witness and enjoy imoni being prepared and cooked in a 6-metre iron pot.
When in Yamagata in autumn, be sure to catch this spectacle and enjoy a dish that warms your heart and soul.
② Dashi (だし)
Dashi. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Mention “dashi”, and people immediately think of the Japanese soup stock, typically made from fish and kelp (I also wrote about this previously). Yamagata has its own idea of dashi that’s nothing like the soup stock, and it involves a lot of greens. Yamagata’s dashi is pickled vegetables that is enjoyed on rice, and some people have compared it to something like salsa or chutney.
Ingredients commonly used in making dashi. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Dashi is prepared by finely chopping and mixing up vegetables such as eggplant, okra, cucumbers and shiso (perilla leaves) and ginger buds (ミョウガ myōga); seasoned with soya sauce, vinegar, miso paste and natto kelp (納豆昆布 nattō-konbu), and finally topped on white rice or cold tofu for eating. Sugar and mirin can also be used for flavouring.
Dashi is a delicacy typically enjoyed in the summer. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
It’s a delicacy specially for the summer season, so much that locals have said how dashi always reminds them of the season. Plus, it can be made using leftover vegetables in the fridge so it’s very economical. This is one dish you should try (or even make yourself) if you’re in the Yamagata countryside in summertime.
③ Ita soba (板そば)
Ita soba, served in wooden boxes. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Yamagata is also home to ita soba, a variant of the ubiquitous soba that can be found everywhere in Japan. Unlike ordinary soba, ita soba is served traditionally in a wooden box (板 ita) and can be enjoyed either solo or in groups. Sometimes they are even served in a big wooden box that can be shared by a group of people.
Ita soba can be enjoyed either solo or in groups. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Also, the noodles are distinctive for their texture and thickness. Soba is commonly thin and soft, but for ita soba, they are darker, firmer, and harder. This is because unpolished buckwheat flour is used instead to make them, resulting in a strong buckwheat taste that becomes more pronounced as you chew it in your mouth. When you're in the central area, you must check out "Yamagata Big Three Soba Highway" (山形三大そば街道 Yamagata San-dai Soba Kaidō) where you can find the best ita soba. They are Murayama (村山), Oishida (大石田), and Obanazawa (尾花沢), all located along the Mogami River basin.
When discussing the best soba in Japan, Ita soba is a candidate worthy of consideration.
④ Hippari udon (ひっぱりうどん)
Hippari udon from Murayama. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Udon is a comfort food in Japan that many locals eat at any time of the day, be it for breakfast or as late-night supper. There are many variations throughout the country, including a rather unique one from the city of Murayama (村山市) in Yamagata named hippari udon.
Hippari udon is enjoyed by pulling it out of the pot and eaten with natto and canned mackerel. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
There are two things unique about this udon: one, the noodles are pulled from the pot upon eating (in fact, the word “hippari” means “to pull”). Two, it is traditionally enjoyed with natto (fermented soya beans) and canned mackerel. Natto is a polarising delicacy in Japan and some people may be turned off by how it smells. For those raring to try something different, and natto fans, this is one udon you don’t want to miss.
⑤ Hiyashi ramen (冷やしラーメン)
Hiyashi ramen. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
A fun fact that many people might not know: Yamagata has the greatest number of ramen shops per capita. That’s right: not Kyushu, home to the tonkotsu ramen; not Hokkaido, the birthplace of miso ramen, and not even Tokyo, the biggest city in the country. Yamagata has the honour of having many ramen shops, and it has distinctive styles: cold ramen, and using a lot of fish. Another fun fact: it's also known locally that the people of Yamagata consume more ramen than those in any other prefecture in the country.
If you’re in Yamagata for the summer and you want something to cool yourself down, try hiyashi-ramen, a specialty dish in the prefecture. It is cold ramen where the broth is served cold and is best enjoyed in the summer. For some shops in Yamagata such as Saekaya (栄屋), the ramen is served with ice cubes made from the broth itself.
⑥ Tama-konnyaku (玉こんにゃく)
Tama-konnyaku, a variant of konnyaku. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
You know what people say: there’s always room for dessert (or snacks in general). In Yamagata, that dessert comes in the form of tama-konnyaku, a variant of the konnyaku that is commonly found in Japanese cuisine. Konnyaku is usually served in oden and sukiyaki, and is known more for its gelatinous texture and greyish look rather than taste.
Tama konnyaku is shaped into balls, and is commonly served as a snack. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
In Yamagata however, konnyaku is shaped into small balls (hence ‘tama’ which means ‘ball’), broiled in a soya sauce broth, and served on skewers with a dash of mustard. They strongly resemble dango—sweet dumplings made from mochi and served in skewers—and it’s something you can find only in Yamagata.
⑦ Dondonyaki (どんどん焼き)
Dondonyaki. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) is the quintessential street food in Japan that everyone can identify. It’s a type of savoury pancake made from wheat flour and topped with bonito flakes, Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger. Although the most prevalent variant is the one from Osaka, there are several throughout the country: Hiroshima’s variant layers the ingredients instead of mixing altogether, and in modan-yaki (モダン焼き), noodles are included. In the capital city Yamagata, it involves serving on chopsticks.
Dondonyaki is Yamagata’s own okonomiyaki served on a stick and is a street food especially common during festivals. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Dondonyaki’s origins can be traced back to Murayama in early Showa Era. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Dondonyaki is basically okonomiyaki but served on a pair of chopsticks that acts as a skewer. This makes dondonyaki a convenient snack that can be enjoyed on the go. The origins can be traced back to 1938 in Murayama area when Oba Kamekichi (大場亀吉) pioneered it. Nowadays, it is a regular favourite especially during festivals, and there are a few shops selling it throughout the year in the city of Yamagata. This is one snack you can treat yourself to, especially when you’re in town for summer festivals.
Southern Yamagata: Meats galore
Heading southwards, our tour brings us next to Yonezawa (米沢), a region that has garnered a reputation for amazing food, particularly its beef. To come here just to enjoy its famous beef would be a waste however, as it is also home to some other interesting dishes.
⑧ Yonezawa beef (米沢牛)
Yonezawa beef is considered one of the best beefs in Japan. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Sometimes the reputation of a dish precedes its origins. Case in point: Yonezawa beef, which is regarded as one of the three most famous beef brands in Japan, alongside Kobe beef and Matsusaka beef. In the southern part of Yamagata lies the origin city, where many restaurants and eateries serve the much-coveted beef.
Yonezawa beef is famous for its immaculate marbling, striking the perfect balance between lean meat and fat, resulting in that heavenly melt-in-your-mouth experience. The secret behind the beef is in how the cows are strictly raised, as they are fed with rice straw that is infused with minerals from the nearby mountains. Another important point is the cattle’s long fattening period: more than 32 months in total, compared to the 4–6-month fattening period of ordinary cattle.
Yonezawa beef is enjoyed as yakiniku (left) and sukiyaki (right). (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
How does one enjoy Yonezawa beef? There are too many ways: steak, shabu-shabu, stew, curries even as a jerky. If you’re spoiled for choice, the two popular ways to enjoy it is as yakiniku (焼肉 grilled meats) or as sukiyaki (すき焼き hotpot). If there’s one dish you cannot miss in Yamagata, it’s Yonezawa beef; it is enough reason alone to travel there.
⑨ Basashi (馬刺し)
Basashi from Nagai. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Horse meat is an acquired delicacy in Japan, and it can be served in various ways. A common way to enjoy it is as basashi, which is sashimi served with grated ginger and garlic. Basashi can be found in selected places in Japan, one popular location being Kumamoto in Kyushu. It is also found in Yamagata, its origins tracing back to the city of Nagai (長井市).
Horse meat is unique because of its lean cuts and lack of smell. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Horse meat has been part of Nagai’s history since ancient times, and the city has designated 29 August as ‘Nagai Horse Meat Day’ because of how date can be pronounced (8 / 29 = "Ba" / "Ni-Ku" = “horse meat”). The delicacy is enjoyed throughout the year, during festivals such as Obon, New Year celebrations. If you don’t fancy eating horse meat raw, you can also find it served in other forms: one quirky thing you can find here is char-siew ramen, where the char-siew isn’t roasted pork, but roasted horse meat.
⑩ Yonezawa ramen (米沢ラーメン)
Yonezawa ramen. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
By now you’d probably realise that Yamagata is very much a noodle kingdom. Head south and you will get more ramen, this time with Yonezawa's own version. But take note: this one doesn’t use beef at all as you might expect from a region famous for its beef. It is shoyu ramen that uses chicken and dried anchovies for its broth, and its noodles are characteristically thin and wavy. Because it’s light and easy on the palate, it can be enjoyed at any time of the day, be it for lunch, dinner, or late-night supper.
Northern Yamagata: Ramen quest continues
The next part of our culinary tour brings us further inland to Mogami (最上), a region where the picturesque Mogami River (最上川) flows from the mountains to the Sea of the Japan via the city of Sakata. Here, the food is less focused on seafood and more towards those that use ingredients from the mountains, as the prefecture is also geographically known for. It is here where our ramen quest continues.
⑪ Torimotsu ramen (鶏もつラーメン)
Torimotsu ramen from Shinjō. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Shinjō (新庄市) is the largest city in the Mogami region, and is in the mountain basin of the northeastern part of Yamagata. It is known traditionally for raising chickens because of the availability of clean water and fresh air due to its mountain basin location, and eating chicken offal is part of the local customs. Use chicken offal in making ramen (again), and you get tori-motsu ramen.
How torimotsu ramen's broth is prepared. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Tori-motsu ramen is a shoyu ramen that uses motsu-ni (もつ煮 simmered chicken offal) when making the broth. Motsu-ni is a popular dish in izakaya in Yamagata, and this ramen incorporates this with soya sauce seasoning to create a ramen that is rich in taste. There’s also a bit of wordplay with the name: “tori-motsu” also means matchmaking in Japanese and is thus affectionately known by the locals as “ramen of love”.
Shōnai Region: Treasures of the Sea
Shōnai (庄内) is a region located in the northwestern part of Yamagata, facing the Sea of Japan directly to the west. It includes cities such as Sakata (酒田) and Tsuruoka (鶴岡), which is the gateway to the world-famous Dewa Sanzan (出羽三山 Three Mountains of Dewa). The region is famous for being one of Japan’s top rice producers—and when there’s good rice, naturally there’s good sake—as well as great seafood. Here is where our gastronomic journey begins.
⑫ Gandarajiru (寒鱈汁)
Gandarajiru. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
As a region that directly faces the Sea of Japan, Shōnai's main staple is seafood. And when it comes to exemplifying Shonai's cuisine, no dish does it perfectly as gandarajiru (or read in the local Yamagata dialect as dongarajiru). This hearty soup is made from pacific cod (真鱈 madara) freshly caught from the nearby sea, and nothing is spared when preparing it; that is, all parts of the fish―the flesh, bones and guts―are used for the broth. This dish is mostly enjoyed during winter, as it is the perfect one to warm up your body during the region's chilly weather during the season.
Gandarajiru is synonymous with winter for the locals in Shōnai. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
The pacific cod's liver (肝臓 kanzō, local dialect: あぶらわた aburawata) is also a local delicacy in winter that's enjoyed alongside gandarajiru. Another part is the milt (白子 shirako, local dialect: 菊わた kikuwata), enjoyed with a side of ponzu-soya sauce. The dish is synonymous with the winter mood, so when the season comes, gandarajiru immediately comes to mind. In fact, the name "gandarajiru" means "winter madara" in local dialect.
⑬ Iwagaki (岩牡蠣)
Iwagaki in summer. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Iwagaki are rock oysters that are known locally as “summer oysters” since they are in season in the middle of summer. Unlike other commercially farmed oysters, these are caught in the wild, and they take several years to be cultivated and harvested because of strict harvest limits. Iwagaki's taste is superior compared to other ordinary oysters because of they grew up on mountain spring water full of nutrients, that melted and flowed down from Mount Chōkai (鳥海山 Chōkai-zan) in the border of prefectures Yamagata and Akita.
Iwagaki are enjoyed raw, either plain or with a bit of lemon juice. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Iwagaki are best enjoyed raw, when its mellow sweetness transforms into savoury when you place one in your mouth. They can be enjoyed either raw or with a bit of lemon juice, both to draw out its natural taste that makes you feel as though you're tasting the sea itself. They are in season from July and August, and you can find them at several places including Sakata Fish Market (さかた海鮮市場 Sakata Kaisen Ichiba) near the city harbour, Shōnai Tourist Souvenir Center, and Roadside Station Chokai Furatto (道の駅鳥海ふらっと).
⑭ Dadacha-mame (だだちゃ豆)
Dadacha-mame from Tsuruoka. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Edamame is young soybeans served in their pods, and is a classic snack found in any izakaya (居酒屋 Japanese bars) throughout Japan. There are a few variants of edamame found in Japan, one of which can be found in Tsuruoka, Yamagata. Here lies a special kind named dadacha-mame.
Dadacha-mame pods. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
At first glance, dadacha-mame may look like regular edamame. But upon closer inspection, the former has a more brownish hue and has more fuzzy hair on the pods. They are often described as having a more earthy and savoury taste, with an aftertaste that’s a little sweeter than regular edamame. And here’s a fun fact about it: “dadacha” casually means “father” in the local dialect!
⑮ Sakata Ramen (酒田ラーメン)
Sakata ramen. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Still can’t get enough of ramen? How else to finish off your foodie tour in the "ramen kingdom" of Yamagata than with ramen! Among all the ramen in the prefecture, perhaps Sakata's version is the one that you can't miss, as it combines the best of the region's seafood and the foodstuffs from the inlands.
Sakata ramen's thin wontons. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Sakata specialises in shoyu ramen that uses kelp and a lot of fish in the broth such as dried sardines (煮干し niboshi) and flying fish (トビウオ tobiuo), since the city enjoys a lot of seafood from the nearby sea. It is commonly topped with roasted pork, bamboo shoots (メンマ menma), spring onions, and wontons which are characteristically thin.
The origins of Sakata ramen can be traced back to the Taisho Period. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)
Sakata ramen’s roots dates to the Taisho Era (大正時代 Taisho-jidai 1912–1926), when a noodle dish by a Chinese cook was so popular it became iconic to the city. When discussing Sakata’s history with food, no other dish may sum it up as perfectly as this humble bowl of ramen.
As you can see, Yamagata Prefecture is not short of having great foods that are delicious and unique to the prefecture. Food lovers will be spoiled for choice on what to have there, be it ramen, different kinds of meats, and even something different for a change. So, for all the foodies out there, make sure to mark Yamagata on your maps as your next gourmet destination.
More details on Yamagata
Yamagata Prefecture is in the southwestern part of Tohoku Region, and is reachable from Tokyo by bullet train. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Yamagata Shinkansen (山形新幹線) bullet train from JR Tokyo Station (JR東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) to JR Yamagata Station (JR山形駅 Yamagata-eki), which should take about 2 hours 45 minutes with a one-way fare of ¥11,210.
Murayama: the city is north of Yamagata City, and visitors can take the JR Yamagata Line from JR Yamagata Station to JR Murayama Station (JR村山駅 Murayama-eki). The journey takes 40 minutes.
Yonezawa: Located in the southern part of Yamagata Prefecture, visitors can take the Yamagata Shinkansen from JR Yamagata Station to JR Yonezawa Station (JR米沢駅 Yonezawa-eki). The journey takes 33 minutes.
Shinjō: the city is in the northeastern part of Yamagata Prefecture. Visitors can take the Yamagata Shinkansen from JR Yamagata Station to JR Shinjo Station (JR新庄駅 Shinjō-eki), which takes 45 minutes.
Sakata / Tsuruoka: the cities are located in the northwestern part of Yamagata Prefecture, in the region of Shōnai. Visitors can take the JR Yamagata Line from JR Yamagata Station to JR Shinjo Station, then change to the JR Rikuu-West Line (JR陸羽西線 Rikuu-sai-sen) to JR Sakata Station (JR酒田駅 Sakata-eki). For Tsuruoka, trains depart directly from JR Sakata Station to JR Tsuruoka Station (JR鶴岡駅 Tsuruoka-eki). The journey from Yamagata to Sakata takes 2 hours 30 minutes , and for Tsuruoka, it takes 3 hours.
*2023 update: Please note that the JR Rikuu-West line is currently suspended due to road construction works and a substitute bus is provided, with a scheduled end during FY2024 (~ 31 March 2024). More information about the operational status of the JR Rikuu-West line as well as other lines can be found here.
(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the Yamagata Shinkansen and train lines above, and make seat reservations for free! See more in the next section.)
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It is only ¥30,000 with 5 consecutive days of unlimited use, making it a great companion for your railway trip. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.
The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)
Header image credit: Yamagata Prefecture