Yamagata is known all over Japan for the wonders located all around its prefecture. The impressive Okama crater, Ginzan onsen town with its heavy snowfalls and the sacred mountains of Dewa are all must-see sites. Besides these popular locations, Yamagata city is usually just a place to stopover when going to Okama lake. This town can rather be a great day trip destination. The ancient pottery tradition, the slow-pace atmosphere and the kind inhabitants will make your visit absolutely pleasant.
In the Hirashimizu neighborhood reside some of the oldest pottery factories of the region. With a tradition that goes back in the centuries, here you can buy finely-made products at affordable prices. Among many the Shiciemon is one of the most famous and old laboratories. Hidden down a narrow street of this residential district, this family business is running since more than 200 years. An old wooden house has its doors open letting the wind flowing through, making the furin ring, a charming sound from a little Japanese bell. Inside many kinds of pottery are displayed, ranging from the tiny chopsticks stands to pots and cups of every hue. However what makes this place special is the opportunity of taking a pottery making class. The lesson lasts for about two hours and it’s taken in a wide and sun-lit room in a building next to the factory. On the floor you will find the spinning stands traditionally used in this kind of craftsmanship, the surrounding trees add a touch of green light to the ambience. In this peaceful mood the teacher will show and explain all the steps of shaping clay into what you'll like to create, being that a mug, a cup or a plate. The amazing expertise stands out clear since the first moment; the hands firmly model the clay with the confidence that only comes with years of practice. As the refinements and baking processes take several days, you can ask to the staff to send your creation back home.
Just a few hundred meters from the Shichiemon factory a short but steep trail will lead you to the top of Chitoseyama mountain. This hill is known among the locals for its great view over the city. Right inside the grounds of the nearby shrine, an aged torii gate marks the beginning of the path. The walk is mostly in the shade of the forest but the ascent is quite challenging so don’t forget to bring water. Your effort will be rewarded with a wide panorama and, on a clear day, you will be able to spot even the snowy top of Gassan, one of the three sacred mountain of Dewa. The hike can also be a good opportunity to get in touch with locals and, if you are lucky, to even get a lift back to the city after the walk. In my personal experience, the inhabitants of Yamagata are among the most genuinely welcoming I've ever been in contact with.
A good walk deserves good food and your first option should be the Dondonyaki. This local version of the okonomiyaki is actually very close to the Tokyo's Monjayaki but it's wrapped around a pair of disposable chopsticks. A popular place where to get it is the Yamagata dondonyaki Oyatsuyasan, located right outside the south entrance of Kajo Park. You can get a filling and delicious meal for as cheap as 200 yen for the classic version, reaching up to 400 yen for the juicy "Pizzadondon". The old ladies in the store are very friendly, welcoming you with big smiles and the homely atmosphere will make you enjoy your break even more. If you happen to be there in early summer, during the cherries season, you will likely to be treated with some free cherries from the kind owners.
For the coffee lovers, if you would like to add a relaxing touch to your day, my personal suggestion is to go to the Espresso bar. This place is unknown even to locals and its unique ambience will leave you amazed. Set inside an old train car, its sometime bizarre objects will surely find you snooping around for a while. The carriage opens on one side into a narrow terrace facing the street along the river. The warm wind blowing, the shade of the overlooking trees and the intense smell of coffee in the air will make your stay absolutely pleasant.
Tip: If you don't feel like climbing to the top of Chitoseyama, you can get a nice view over the city from the Washington Hotel. Located near the main train station, just get the elevator to the free observatory at the 24th floor.