Chef and sushi master Shaun Presland learnt the fundamentals of Japanese cuisine while living in a celebrated village deep in the hills of Yamagata Prefecture.
I ran to the mountains to escape after working as a kitchen hand at a Tokyo hotel. I ended up in Ginzan and was taken in by Jeanie Fuji, an American woman married to the owner of a 350-year-old wooden inn, the Fujiya Ryokan. Jeanie invited me to cook with her at the ryokan. I stayed for two years learning authentic cooking techniques (see fujiya-ginzan.com).
Ginzan is a cool-climate region known for growing cherries, watermelons and tobacco. In winter, locals forage in the mountains for sansai - edible, wild mountain vegetables. I loved wandering up the mountain with the elderly women of the village to find vegetables I'd never seen before.
The act of exchanging gifts is an important part of Japanese culture, especially if you visit a new place for a short trip or a holiday. It's customary to buy your friends a small gift (omiyage) of something from that town. In Ginzan, seasonal mountain vegetables are pickled and sold as omiyage. The area's food is rustic and uncomplicated. The emphasis is on flavour and everyone still uses age-old cooking techniques.
Ginzan's hot springs are famous - water feeds into the ryokans along the river. It takes a few hours to travel to Ginzan from Tokyo, so put aside several days for a visit.
Shaun Presland is the executive chef of Sydney's Sake Restaurant & Bar in Argyle Street, The Rocks; and Brisbane's Eagle Street Pier.
This article produced with support from Japan National Tourism Organisation.