Yonezawa may be an unassuming rural town today, but it was once a grand castle town home to the Uesugi clan (上杉氏 Uesugi-shi), one of the most powerful families during Japan's Muromachi and Sengoku periods (14-17th century). The Uesugi had an epic, centuries-running feud with the Takeda clan of Kai (Yamanashi), but they made the mistake of choosing the wrong side in the Battle of Sekigahara (1600) and as a punishment were reduced to irrelevance by the following Tokugawa shogunate, retaining only a scrap of land around Yonezawa. The castle was flattened in 1873 by order of the Meiji government, but the moat remains the focal point of the city, with Uesugi Shrine built on the castle ruins to commemorate the clan.
The Uesugi-Takeda feud provided rich fodder for NHK's historical drama Tenchijin (天地人), set in the closing days of the Sengoku era. The year-long drama's broadcast in 2009 was the biggest thing to happen in Yonezawa since 1600, and the entire town is liberally festooned with banners, statues, souvenirs and more commemorating both the actual figures and their TV versions.
Yonezawa is surprisingly spread out, and the train station is on the wrong side of the river a good two kilometers away from the city core. If you're not in the mood to walk, grab one of the infrequent buses, almost all of which head to the city (ask for Uesugi Jinja).
Yonezawa is known throughout Japan for its beef (米沢牛 yonezawa-gyū), an expensive delicacy, and there are three beef speciality restaurants right outside the station competing for your attention plus countless more in the city itself. Just don't fall into the trap of eating the cheapest bento boxes, made from gristly leftovers: instead, sample a course at a ryokan or speciality restaurant. With diminutive steaks easily costing ¥8,000 per head, most visitors will find stews like sukiyaki the tastiest and most cost-effective option, but locals also prize their meat raw!
Yonezawa is sake country and the best-known local tipple is Tōkō (東光) . Originally appointed to supply the Uesugis, the "East Light" has been brewed in Yonezawa since 1597 and is currently run by the 23rd generation of the same family, so they must be doing something right. Their sake comes in a vast constellation of grades, from the proletarian fūtsūshu (¥1600/1.8L) to the top-of-the-line daiginjō (¥12,000/1.8L), and is available everywhere in town.