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“Flying” through Yamagata: Yamagata Shinkansen celebrates 30th anniversary

“Flying” through Yamagata: Yamagata Shinkansen celebrates 30th anniversary

Have you ridden the Yamagata Shinkansen (山形新幹線) before? Even if you haven’t, you might have seen the iconic purple head of its E3 series Tsubasa (つばさ) train around Tokyo and Eastern Japan.

 

“Tsubasa” means wings in Japanese, and when riding on this train, you might feel like you are “flying” on land! The Yamagata Shinkansen began operations on 1 July 1992, offering services between Tokyo and Yamagata Station (山形駅) in Yamagata Prefecture (山形県 Yamagata-ken), a mountainous and snowy prefecture in southern Tohoku. In 1999, the line was extended to Shinjо̄ Station (新庄駅) in northern Yamagata.

 

Yamagata Prefecture is a wonderful place to visit, and is very well-known for two things:

  1. Being abundant in charming onsen (温泉 hot spring) towns like Ginzan Onsen, Tendo Onsen, Kaminoyama Onsen, and more
  2. Being the “Kingdom of Fruits”, producing delicious fruits like cherries, pears, peaches, grapes, and more

 

2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Yamagata Shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Did you know? The Yamagata Shinkansen is Japan’s first “mini shinkansen” line. Between Tokyo Station and Fukushima Station (福島駅), the Yamagata Shinkansen runs on tracks of the Tohoku Shinkansen, and between Fukushima Station and Shinjо̄ Station, it runs on tracks originally built for local lines.

 

Because local trains also run on the same tracks for the section between Fukushima Station and Shinjо̄ Station, trains on the Yamagata Shinkansen need to have a narrower body (the same size as local trains) in order to run on these tracks. Due to this narrower body compared to other shinkansen trains, the Yamagata Shinkansen is known as a “mini shinkansen”.

 

E2 series Yamabiko coupled with E3 series Tsubasa. (Image credit: photoAC)


When departing Tokyo Station, E3 series Tsubasa services are usually coupled with E2 Yamabiko services, and decouple at Fukushima Station. From there, the Tsubasa services continue on the Yamagata Shinkansen towards Yamagata and Shinjo, while Yamabiko services continue along the Tohoku Shinkansen.

 

On 1 July 2022, the Yamagata Shinkansen celebrated the 30th anniversary of the opening of its first segment from Fukushima Station to Yamagata Station, so let’s check out some of the splendid sights and local delights you can experience along this section!

 

① Yonezawa Station (米沢駅)

Feast on Yonezawa Beef

Exterior of Yonezawa Station. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

The first stop along the Yamagata Shinkansen after Fukushima station is Yonezawa Station (米沢駅). Did you know? Yamagata Prefecture is famous for its renowned Yonezawa beef (米沢牛 Yonezawa-gyū), one of Japan’s three most famous beef brands. The other two are Kobe beef from Hyogo Prefecture, and Matsusaka beef from Mie Prefecture.

 

Yonezawa beef is prized for its marbling. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Yonezawa beef is well-loved for its tender, melt-in-your-mouth texture, which stems  from its intense marbling that strikes a perfect balance between fat and meat. The secret to this delicious beef lies in the cows’ long fattening periods: regular cows are fattened over about 6 months, but Yonezawa beef cows are fattened long-term over a whopping 32 months.

 

Around Yonezawa Station, you will be spoilt for choice at the many restaurants serving Yonezawa beef dishes like as hotpots (shabu-shabu, sukiyaki), grilled meats (teppanyaki, yakiniku), steaks, and even stews.

 

Yamagata’s most famous ekiben, Beef Domannaka, is made with Yonezawa beef (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)

 

If you’re looking for something to take on-the-go, Yonezawa beef is also in Yamagata’s most famous ekiben (駅弁 lunch box for eating on the train): Beef Domannaka (牛肉どまん中  Gyūniku Doman-naka), which features Yonezawa beef on a bed of locally-grown Domannaka rice. So the next time you pass be Yonezawa, beef sure to dine on some tasty Yonezawa beef.

 

② Takahata Station (高畠駅)

Grapes galore

Station platform of Takahata station. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

The next stop after Yonezawa Station is Takahata Station (高畠駅) which has a unique castle-like station building. Another special feature of this station? It also houses an onsen—Taiyōkan (太陽館)—inside! If you have some time waiting for your train to arrive, sit back, relax, and soak in the rejuvenating waters.

 

Takahata is famous for grapes. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Surrounded by mountains on all sides, Yamagata is known as the “Kingdom of Fruits”, and produces much of Japan’s fruits. The area around Takahata Station is known for its grapes and wine, so if you are a grape or wine lover, be sure to check them out.

 

From August to October, you can enjoy grape-picking at the orchards near Takahata Station. Some orchards let you pick a punnet to bring home, while other let you eat unlimited grapes as long as you consume them within the premises.

 

③ Akayu Station (赤湯駅)

Rest and relax with onsen and red ramen

Akayu Station platform. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)

 

After Takahata Station is Akayu Station (赤湯駅). Like Takahata, the area around Akayu is also famous for its grapes and wine. In addition, Yamagata is famous for its onsen, and you can find many hot spring resorts nearby stations along the Yamagata Shinkansen. At Akayu Station, you can also transfer to the Yamagata Railway Flower Nagai Line, which is famous for the many beautiful flower spots along its stops.

 

The name “Akayu” means “red hot water”, and references the nearby Akayu hot springs. It is said that wounded soldiers bathed in the waters to heal, and their blood coloured the waters red, which led to the name “Akayu”.

 

Akayu ramen. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Did you know? Yamagata has the most number of ramen shops per capita, about 180 per 100,000 people (Japan’s national average is 25 per 100,000). When at Akayu, one ramen dish you should definitely try is the Akayu spicy miso (karamiso 辛味噌) ramen.

 

This ramen dish features fat, curly noodles, but the kick comes from the ball of karamiso, a spicy miso paste made with chili and garlic, that you can add to your liking. After mixing the karamiso into the broth, the soup turns a reddish colour, befitting the name “Akayu”.

 

④ Kaminoyamaonsen Station (かみのやま温泉駅)

Enjoy the atmosphere of a castle and hot spring town

Kaminoyamaonsen Station (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)

 

Continuing on from Akayu Station, the Yamagata Shinkansen’s next stop is Kaminoyamaonsen Station (かみのやま温泉駅), which is home to Kaminoyama, a hot spring town located at the foot of Mount Zao. From Kaminoyamaonsen Station, the hot spring town is just a 10-minute walk, making for a convenient trip.

 

Scenery around Kaminoyama Castle in spring. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh)

 

There’s also a castle nearby, with free foot baths (足湯 ashiyu) available on its grounds. Soaking your feet in the warm water while gazing at the majestic Zao mountain range in the distance…what a relaxing time! Kaminoyama is dotted with hot spring resorts, so you can also stay overnight if you wish to enjoy the hot springs. Nearby, there is also a small street featuring four old samurai residences, one of which can be entered for a small fee.

 

⑤ Yamagata Station (山形駅)

The hub of Yamagata Prefecture

Exterior of JR Yamagata Station. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Finally, the last stop of the first segment of the Yamagata Shinkansen celebrating its 30th anniversary this year is Yamagata Station (山形駅), located in Yamagata City (山形市 Yamagata-shi), the prefectural capital. Around the city, you can enjoy a variety of delicious and hearty local dishes.

 

But more than just sights within the city, Yamagata Station is a hub connecting to various regions of the prefecture. From the Yamagata Shinkansen, travellers can transfer to local train lines that stretch north, south, east, and west from the city, to explore the prefecture’s scenic nature, relaxing hot springs, and quaint countryside.

 

The temple atop Yamadera. (Image credit: 山形県庁)

 

At Yamagata Station, you can transfer to the Senzan Line (仙山線), which connects Yamagata with Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. About a 20-minute train ride from Yamagata is Yamadera Station (山寺駅), where you can get off and explore a beautiful mountain temple. Be prepared to walk up 1,000 steps to reach the top though! Reach the top and be rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the valley below.

 

Future of the Yamagata Shinkansen

Artist’s impression of the E8 series train. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Since 1992, the Yamagata Shinkansen has provided travellers with a speedy connection between Tokyo and the beautiful Yamagata Prefecture, and has welcomed over 95 million riders. The Yamagata Shinkansen’s current E3 series rolling stock is scheduled to be replaced with brand new E8 series trains, which will be built specifically for the Yamagata Shinkansen, using colours that represent Yamagata Prefecture.

 

It is planned that the E8 series train vehicles will be built from September 2022 onwards, gradually replacing the E3 series trains and entering service on the Yamagata Shinkansen from spring 2024 onward.

 

Let’s celebrate SHINKANSEN YEAR 2022

Anniversaries in SHINKANSEN YEAR 2022. (Image credit: JR East)

 

 This year, JR East celebrates SHINKANSEN YEAR 2022 (新幹線イヤー2022). Did you know? JR East operates five different shinkansen lines from Tokyo, and all of them are celebrating opening anniversaries this year. While the Yamagata Shinkansen celebrated its 30th anniversary in July, the Akita Shinkansen celebrated its 25th anniversary in March, and the Tohoku Shinkansen celebrated its 40th anniversary in June.

 

Stay tuned for more updates later in the year, when the Hokuriku Shinkansen and Joetsu Shinkansen will celebrate their opening anniversaries in October and November.

 

In commemoration of the Yamagata Shinkansen’s 30th anniversary, a special website was opened, which you can check out here.

 

SHINKANSEN YEAR 2022 decorations in Eastern Japan. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh and Akio Kobori)

 

The SHINKANSEN YEAR 2022 campaign is currently running until 31 December 2022, and at various stations within the JR East area, keep an eye out for decorations like adorable shinkansen wrappings on the ticket gates, large digital signages that express the future of shinkansen, and large banners and posters with the SHINKANSEN YEAR 2022 imagery.

 

SHINKANSEN YEAR 2022 concept movie. (Video credit: JR East)

 

A brand-new CG (computer graphic) concept video, which expresses JR East’s various shinkansen advancing forward with the times, will also be played at stations and on some trains.

 

For the latest updates on SHINKANSEN YEAR 2022’s celebratory activities, check out JR East’s dedicated SHINKANSEN YEAR 2022 website here.

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are planning on riding the Yamagaa Shinkansen, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains like the Yamagata Shinkansen) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥20,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Yamagata (~¥24,000).

 

You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains, and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

Header image credit: photoAC

  

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