I’m not sure whether I should tell you this. I feel like my relationship with Yonago is a dirty little secret, an exultant affair that I had behind Tokyo’s back, and that it might be too soon to share my delightful sins.
If you have heard of Yonago, that’s probably because of its airport. Located in Japan’s southwest, the city itself has very few sights. Instead, it acts as an access point to Tottori or Shimane — two prefectures that are both stunningly beautiful and chronically underrated.
On the spur of the moment in late November, a friend and I hopped on a plane to Yonago. It became our base from which we planned to explore the area and make a trip to the Oki Islands, north off the coast. However, we had been strongly advised to not visit the Oki Islands at this time of year due to rough weather frequently canceling ferries and flights. But my companion had seen photos of horses on cliff tops and there was no dissuading her. We waited two and a half days before the waves calmed enough before boarding a ferry from Yonago, uncertain when we’d be able to come back.
The locals were bemused. “You’ve got the whole island reserved just for you,” we were told numerous times. That was just the way we liked it. The wind was fierce and fueled our energy for exploring. We ran about our private playground, devouring scenery more reminiscent of northwest Europe than anything we had seen in Japan.
But this is what you should know: Yonago is even wilder than the Oki Islands.
And it’s particularly wild after dark. Here are some of our delicious nighttime adventures.
Izai is an unmissable modern izakaya. So good we went there twice. They combine creative cuisine with beautiful crockery, all accompanied by an extensive sake menu and great service.
The otoshi (a small appetizer served with alcohol) was chawanmushi — a savory steamed egg custard that I personally often find underwhelming. But Izai’s version was a delight and promised good things to come.
Everything was exquisite, even simple dishes. The agedashi nasu (deep-fried eggplant in a light broth) was possibly the best I’ve ever tasted. Their homemade potato salad comes as a perfect circle topped with tobikko (flying fish roe) like an extravagant cake. And they’ve brought the ebi chili mayo (battered fried prawns with a sweet sauce) into a new realm of sophistication.
If in season, order the satsumaimo (sweet potato) tempura. It takes about 40 minutes to prepare and only increases the tantalizing anticipation for the sweet, soft potato enveloped in light, crisp batter. I get butterflies in my stomach just remembering it.
If you don’t know where to start on the sake list, begin with their own label Izai. It has a lively fruity freshness. Perhaps later you can ask for something with bolder umami to stand up to the fried dishes.
On a personal note, I want to offer a big thank you to the chef and owner who helped run us and our suitcases to the bus stop to get to the airport on time. However, the food and experience are so good at Izai, missing your flight wouldn’t be the biggest sacrifice to make.
Whereas Izai represents the face of the modern izakaya, Sake-dokoro Hisa is the traditional tavern. Perusing their menu, we determined that sashimi and yakitori seemed to be their strong points. Our foodie instincts proved to be correct. Soon, a beautiful platter of sashimi was presented before us, laden with Japanese sea perch, Japanese Spanish mackerel, horse mackerel, salmon and stickleback.
The biggest surprise, though, was the yakitori. I’m a yakitori snob who is notoriously hard to please, but the sasami shiso maki (chicken tenderloin wrapped with perilla) was juicy and flavorful, as was the succulent negima (chicken thigh and leek).
Also worth noting is their platter of smoked snacks to pair with your drink, plus a notably generous portion of a fluffy Japanese rolled omelet.
L’Atelier Wine Café and Guest House
If you visit Yonago and want somewhere cheap yet charming to stay, L’Atelier Wine Café and Guest House is your place. French owner Michael has beautifully decked out the rooms as if he airlifted them straight from a French cottage. As added encouragement, the first floor is home to possibly one of the most stylish bars in Yonago. Or one of the most stylish cafés, depending on your perspective.
After our izakaya adventure at Hisa, we could still hear Yonago calling to us. And so we settled down on the low leather sofas in the dark wood-paneled room, admiring the art while waiting for both drinks and desserts.
The wine options are actually fairly limited, but we enjoyed crisp sparkling wine from the Loire in France, alongside a decadently rich and smooth chocolate terrine that Michael orders from a local patisserie.
This quasi-French experience was not something we had been expecting on our travels, but it was extremely welcome. Yonago is truly a city with many faces.
New River-Side Air
New River-Side Air is a laid-back and welcoming American-style bar and café. It has garnered rave reviews for its hamburgers and offers craft beers and a wide variety of drinks. Bonus point: it’s clear that the owner has a passion for music too.
Most importantly, however, it was the ideal setting to end a wild Yonago night. I was soon jumping up and down, dancing to System of a Down and Ed Sheeran (I guess my musical tastes are as diverse as Yonago’s nighttime dining scene…)
We arrived very late and only ordered a simple cocktail. At that point, we may have already had, oh, a few drinks. I can only insist that the relaxed atmosphere and friendliness of the owner makes this a place to stop by. Plus, the hamburgers look delicious and will be on my list for next time.
With Yonago, there is always a next time.
If you make it to the Oki Islands…
On Nishinoshima, enjoy local dishes at Isoshiki. The restaurant, attached to a ryokan, serves amazing sushi and kaisendon (seafood bowls), as well as teriyaki, a local fish stew traditionally eaten by fishermen at sea.
For caffeine junkies, there’s an extremely stylish coffee shop Sailing Coffee, where you recharge with double espresso shot lattes.
For a warming lunch, a stone’s throw from the ferry terminal on Okinoshima, stop by MS Home. Fortunately, it’s not a boring homeware store, but a modern udon eatery. It uses seaweed salt and mackerel dashi in its soul-warming bowls. Spice lovers should get Shigoku no Aka, which has a wonderfully thick and deep red broth.
Read more of Pheebz’s Eats foodie adventures: