Yamagata is one of those places in Japan that only a handful of foreign travelers have reached. It is a prefecture located northwest of Tokyo, and worlds away from its glamor and modernities. A truly local region, it is where dialects differ from town to town, and English speakers very hard to come by. Much of its towns are countryside areas where nature, history, and the traditional way of life persevere; and bordered mostly by mountains, it is also a hot spring haven where almost all of its districts have an onsen town to boast about.
Indeed, this part of Japan is quite difficult to navigate for foreign travelers, but unlike popular areas like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, this destination offers a more enchanting side of the country. If you are willing to go on a little bit of adventure, you will find that this escape from the regular tourist trail is well worth the effort. Not only will you be let in on the region’s secrets, but you will also get to immerse in its culture and local hospitality.
To give you a headstart, know the best areas to stay while exploring Yamagata. Here’s a list of its best onsen districts and ryokans. Have a relaxing dip while enjoying your escape in one of Japan’s most atmospheric locales.
Zao Onsen is Tohoku region’s oldest onsen town. It lies at the hillsides of Mt. Zao, about 30-40 minutes drive from Yamagata City, and is known for its highly acidic sulfur spring waters, the best of its kind in all of Japan. For more than a thousand years, this town has been welcoming local travelers into its public bathhouses and rustic ryokans all year round. In more recent years, it has also established itself as a choice destination for winter activities such as skiing and snowboarding. Its snowy slopes in winter have excellent powder conditions and are likewise famous for its so-called ice monsters. These are naturally formed snow sculptures made of fir trees that have been covered in hardened snow. With its long history, expect that this town has a rich culture to offer, as well as atmospheric locales. Be on the lookout for interesting local delicacies and souvenirs.
Matsukaneya is a hotel ryokan that offers an intimate atmosphere and personalized service. It has four kinds of rooms – 3 Japanese-style and 1 Western, and customary to ryokan accommodations, it serves delectable traditional meals using only the finest seasonal ingredients from the Yamagata countryside. Its facilities include a spacious common lounge, several karaoke rooms for entertainment, a souvenir shop, and even an archery range. There are, of course, an indoor and an outdoor public bath; one of which is filled with weak alkaline spring water. It is a good alternative bath experience especially for guests who are not accustomed to the strong acidity of Zao’s sulfur springs.
Address: 1267-16 Zao Onsen, Yamagata-shi, Yamagata Prefecture
Price: From ¥11,880 / person / night (Standard room, 2-person occupancy)
Website: http://matukaneya.com/ (Japanese only)
Zao Omiya Ryokan
Zao Omiya Ryokan combines modern comforts and traditional aesthetics. All of its 32 rooms are Japanese-style accommodations fashioned after the retro atmosphere of the Taisho Era, but at the same time, it is equipped with amenities like steady internet connection per room, among other things. Its banquet is a reflection of the Yamagata’s mountain scenery and flavors that are unique to the region. This includes locally-brewed sake that goes well with the locale’s age-old recipes.
During winter months, Zao Omiya Ryokan is a great place to serve as your base. Not only does it provide guests with several hot spring baths to relax and soak in, but it is also a convenient location to access the lifts that will take you to Zao Onsen’s ski areas.
Address: 46 Zao Onsen, Yamagata-shi, Yamagata Prefecture
Price: From ¥11,880 / person / night (Standard room, 2-person occupancy)
Gokan No Yu Tsuruya
Gokan No Yu Tsuruya is an inn that boasts of four specialty hot spring baths where mineral-rich water gushes directly from the source. These baths are available for guests’ use 24 hours a day with each bath having its own theme. As far as lodgings are concerned, it provides classic tatami rooms that evoke authentic Japanese atmosphere; and guest rooms on the fourth and fifth floors are particularly coveted because of its sweeping views of the nearby Mt. Iide and Mt. Asahi.
Address: 710 Zao Onsen, Yamagata-shi, Yamagata Prefecture
Price: From ¥13,110 / person / night (Standard room, 2-person occupancy)
Wakamatsuya is a modern hotel ryokan where guests can expect utmost comfort, highest quality of professional service, and complete amenities. It has 27 rooms, which are predominantly Japanese-style complemented by a few semi-Western lodgings fitted with comfy mattresses. It has 3 in-house restaurants and a spacious common lounge to enjoy coffee, tea, and other refreshments; and same with the other top lodgings in Zao Onsen town, Wakamatsuya has public and private hot spring baths for guests to use.
Address: 951-1 Zao Onsen, Yamagata-shi, Yamagata Prefecture
Price: From ¥12,000 / person / night (Standard room, 2-person occupancy)
Website: http://www.wakamatuya.co.jp/ (Japanese only)
Ginzan Onsen is perhaps the most picturesque onsen town in all of Japan. It is a small rustic village with a 400-year history; an area that seems to have been frozen in time. It sits on a bank of a narrow river, where on each side, Taisho and early Showa era structures have been beautifully preserved to maintain its nostalgic atmosphere. These buildings now serve as ryokans, cafés, and an array of commercial establishments forming a small community tucked away in the middle of Yamagata’s mountains.
Ginzan Onsen’s charm knows no season. However, winter is considered the best time to visit not just for its snow-capped scenery, but also because its super hot spring waters are more suited for below-freezing weather. Its springs are hotter than in most onsen towns, reaching temperatures of over 55˚C (131˚F). Hence, it is going to be a much more enjoyable experience for you if you plan your visit during colder months.
A modern ryokan in a place like Ginzan Onsen might seem like a bad idea at first, but good thing Ginzanso was able to pull off chic and luxurious without compromising the area’s romanticism and nostalgia. Its rooms feature a clean and classic Japanese design fully equipped with modern amenities, and guests get to choose whether to opt for a minimalist tatami room or upgrade to one of its specialty lodgings. This fancier option comes with a semi-open-air extension fitted with private bathtubs overlooking the surrounding scenery. It truly is one of the most indulgent onsen experiences you can have while in Japan.
Address: 85 Ginzanshinhata, Obanazawa-shi, Yamagata Prefecture
Price: From ¥16,500 / person / night (Standard room, 2-person occupancy)
If you’d rather immerse yourself in the Ginzan Onsen’s retro roots, book a room at Kozankaku. This ryokan was built during the Taisho era, but despite its age, it is well kept and still exudes a captivating elegance. It has 9 rooms that vary in size offering townscape or mountainside views. Regardless of your choice, your stay guarantees some sort of a time capsule encounter. Go back to the time of feudal Japan and appreciate the stillness of that era.
Address: 423 Ginzanshinhata, Obanazawa-shi, Yamagata Prefecture
Price: From ¥10,000 / person / night (Standard room, 2-person occupancy)
Website: http://www.kozankaku.com/ (Japanese only)
Established during the Edo period and renovated in 2006, Fujiya Inn is the perfect marriage between old and new. On the outside, its building’s facade fits among the old riverside structures that Ginzan Onsen is famous for, but inside, it features sophisticated architecture. The design, though modern, is still leaning towards minimalism, using bamboo and other light materials. It aims for a harmonious space where guests can enjoy a quiet time to rest the body and spirit.
The ryokan has 8 rooms and 5 private onsen baths available for reservation. Enjoy an intimate atmosphere and personalized service while staying at this unique and historic ryokan.
Address: 443 Ginzanshinhata, Obanazawa-shi, Yamagata Prefecture
Price: From ¥32,300 / person / night (Standard room, 2-person occupancy)
Other Onsen in Yamagata
Koyou (in Kaminoyama Onsen)
Kaminoyama Onsen is the perfect destination for travelers who like to explore history and culture. As a castle town, it has lots of other things to offer besides its therapeutic springs. It is home to a number of historical sightseeing spots: the Kaminoyama Castle, Yunuoe Kannon Temple, and a small but well-preserved samurai district. As a countryside locale, it is likewise famous for its fruit farms, vineyards, and Takeda Winery – one of the oldest in Japan.
Needless to say, staying overnight is a must given the variety of attractions this town has in store for its visitors. In which case, Koyou Ryokan is Kaminoyama Onsen’s most recommended place. This hotel ryokan provides comfortable rooms for all types of travelers – from solo guests to large families. Its dining facilities offer flexibility with its banquet halls and gourmet dining spaces. Other amenities include karaoke rooms, souvenir shops, beauty spa, and of course, onsen baths. It even hosts regular cultural performances at the hotel lobby every day.
Address: 5-20 Hayama, Kaminoyama-shi, Yamagata Prefecture
Price: From ¥20,000 / person / night (Standard room, 2-person occupancy)
Website: http://www.koyoga.com/ (Japanese only)
Yusa (in Kurosawa Onsen)
Low-key but still extremely satisfying, Yusa in Kurasawa Onsen should serve as a good base for your Yamagata trip if you’re looking for an onsen ryokan that is reasonably-priced and centrally-located. It is just a 20-minute drive from the Yamagata Shinkansen Station, and at the same time, Yamagata’s other sightseeing areas such as Mt. Zao and Kaminoyama are easily accessed from here.
Address: 319-2 Kurosawa, Yamagata-shi, Yamagata Prefecture
Price: From ¥9,000 / person / night (Standard room, 2-person occupancy)
Website: http://www.dosayusa.jp/ (Japanese only)
Sakurayu Sanshuyu (in Akayu Onsen)
Akayu Onsen is another one of Yamagata’s historical onsen districts. The discovery of its hot springs dates back to 1093 AD, where according to legend, a wounded samurai had his injuries healed after he was taken to the hot springs for a bath. Since then, the town was known for the medicinal properties of its waters.
Given its long history, there are many good onsen ryokans to choose from in this area. However, if you want something extra special, do check out Sakurayu Sanshuyu. It is a small and intimate luxury ryokan, where guests can enjoy their privacy as if they were in the comforts of their own homes. There are only 7 rooms in total, each with a living room space and an exclusive outdoor bath. Its facilities include a bar lounge, a courtyard, an art gallery, a souvenir shop, and a multimedia room with massage chairs and some refreshments.
Address: 740 Akayu, Nanyo-shi, Yamagata Prefecture
Price: From ¥28,080 / person / night (Standard room, 2-person occupancy)
Website: http://sansyuyu.jp/ (Japanese only)
All price information in this article is as of March 2017.
Thumbnail image is from WikiMedia