Rightfully named one of Japan’s most beautiful villages, Iide in the Yamagata Prefecture of Tohoku is a picturesque town of traditional Japanese farmland. Located in the southern mountainous area of Yamagata prefecture, Iide provides numerous guesthouses and cottages for travelers looking to get outside the city. Due to the beauty of the area I recommend trying as many outdoor activities as possible.
I had the chance to participate in a creating traditional Japanese craftwork. The sugegasa is a conical Japanese hat made of woven dry grass: worn in the past for protection against both sun and rain, nowadays they are mostly used for festivals across Japan. My expert instructor, the wonderful Mrs. Yoshi Ito, has been making these hats for fifty years and is able to make three a day from scratch. When I arrived at Iide, Yoshi had already prepared the skeleton of my own sugegasa hat. Conscious of my beginner-status with Japanese craftwork, Yoshi was kind enough to take things slowly when explaining and demonstrating. Yoshi spoke little English and I little Japanese, but the most helpful instruction with this handicraft is undeniably visual and the instructions were quite clear through body language and gestures.
Stage 1 involved wrapping strips of dry grass around the pre-prepared wooden skeleton. Initially difficult, I soon got the hang of working with the straw and started to think that I was an instant expert at making sugegasa… Stage 2 proved me wrong – I had to add the top layer of grass to the base using string: fun but extremely tricky! When I had finally completed this (with considerable help from Yoshi), I commenced Stage 3: using green thread and a needle to sew the loose strips of grass together. Predictably my end product was far from perfect. I watched Yoshi deftly finishing off her own hat with a new appreciation of Japanese culture and tradition.
Other than craftwork, there is much to do and explore in the Iide area. Tourists often start at the Mezami no Sato tourism building for information before traveling a short distance away to Dondendaira Yurien Garden where you can enjoy over 500,000 lilies and on a hot day try out the delicious lily ice cream. The main outdoor activities consist around the river and mountains where you can boat, fish, hike, enter a hot spring and much more. If you are traveling during the winter season, don’t miss the beautiful scenery and winter sports activities at Dondondaira Snow Park and the beautiful ice festivals in February.
To extend your time and get the most out of Iide, it's possible to join a farm stay where you will have the chance to share a house and meals with a local family. There are numerous farm stay activities throughout the year, though the best time is typically in the spring and summer months. You can help your new family with harvesting rice, vegetables, fruits and more. While eating with your family, expect to try everything from soba, beef, and seafood to fresh fruits and mountain vegetables. You might even be able to join a mountain hiking tour with the family to pick local mountain vegetables such as warabi. The meals go well with the local specialty, doburoku sake. Doburoku is a fresh sake that can only be kept for a short while and must be refrigerated. It is a milky white brew with a distinctive tart smell.
My short time in Iide was relaxing, peaceful and, more importantly, a lot of fun. Far from the rush of the big cities, Iide offers the opportunity to see a simpler way of life. Enjoying traditional Japan while surrounded by the beautiful countryside is truly a unique experience that should not be missed.