March 13, 2018

Yamagata Winters

Located in the center of Tohoku, Yamagata is home to all sorts of wintery fun. From Ginzan Onsen to Mt. Zao, there's something for everyone

The view from the mountaintop Yamadera temple complex in Yamagata Prefecture

Located deep in Northern Japan, Yamagata Prefecture is one of those places that rarely welcomes foreign tourists. While its Yamadera temple complex does have some minor awareness overseas, many of the prefecture’s other offerings are all but unknown to visitors. This is a real shame. You see, despite the lack of notoriety, Yamagata is home to vast treasury of hidden gems including the likes of a mountain shrine that is so sacred that one is not to speak of what happens on its consecrated grounds.

Though Yamagata is rife with an endless array of allures to pick from, few things can compare to the prefecture’s magnificent winters. Nestled amongst its snow capped peaks, you’ll find a smorgasbord of attractions that range from things like rustic hot spring towns to awesome ski resorts. For such a remote prefecture, it really does spoil visitors who make the journey with a cornucopia of choice.

On that note, today we’ll be taking a look at two of my winter favorites, the jaw dropping Ginzan Onsen town and Mt. Zao with its awesome “snow monster” phenomenon. While these areas are perennial draws for Yamagata, a visit when there’s a good blanket of snow is an unforgettable experience. Cold be damned! Traveler beware though as both are located well off the beaten path. Nevertheless, the difficulty in getting there is more than made up by their breathtaking splendor.

Getting to Snowy Yamagata Prefecture

Yamagata City, the capital of Yamagata Prefecture, as seen during winter

As with most destinations in Northern Japan, transportation isn’t exactly as accessible as in more urbanized areas. This makes the journey much more arduous than it would be otherwise. Including all transit time, both the snow monsters and Ginzan Onsen each require about a full day. What’s more, due to Yamagata’s remote location, you’re going to want spend the night up there at the very least. Realistically, this area is too far out to be considered as a day trip.

Anyway, for starters, you’re going to need to either take a bullet train or airplane up to Yamagata Prefecture. From there, the next step depends entirely on which of my two suggestions you’re more keen on seeing first. Given you are venturing this far north already, I’m going to recommend that you do both. Yet, should you have another attraction in mind such as Yamadera, feel free to swap out either location.

If you’re going to hit up Ginzan onsen first, you’ll need to make your way from Yamagata Station to Oishida Station. There are a number of ways to accomplish this task but the easiest way is to dig around in Hyperida until you find a bullet train with direct access from Tokyo. The earliest one that I can find is the TSUBASA 123 which leaves Tokyo Station at precisely 7:12 AM. This will get you into Oishida station at no later than 10:39 AM.

Once there, you’ll need to wait for the next bus to take you to Ginzan Onsen. The route runs rather infrequently so you may need to wait over an hour (here is the schedule). While you’re killing time, take a second to find the bus terminal. Though everything is entirely in Japanese, Oishida Station isn’t exactly a bustling hub like Shinjuku. Just depart the station’s only exit and turn left. You should see the bus stop sign soon thereafter. It’s directly in front of a drab-looking waiting room.

For those who rather see the snow monsters first, then your initial goal will be to make your way to Yamagata Station. From there, you’ll need to catch a bus to the Zao Onsen and Ski Resort which is located on Mt. Zao. The whole journey takes about 40 minutes and will run you a total of 1,000 yen each way. Here’s the bus timetable for reference. You’ll find the bus stop located in front of Yamagata Station. Simply follow the red signs and you should be good to go.

Visit Yamagata’s Charming Ginzan Onsen

Snow falls on 100 year-old ryokan in Yamagata Prefecture’s Ginzan Onsen hot spring town

A wintertime visit to the quaint hot spring town of Ginzan Onsen is a dreamlike experience taken right out of the pages of a fairy tale. Nestled deep within the Yamagata mountains, this gem was originally founded as a silver mine over five-hundred years ago and grew to be a major source of the material during the Edo period (1603–1868). Since then though, the town has transformed itself into one of Japan’s most striking onsen despite its remote location and relatively small stature.

Without a doubt, Ginzan Onsen’s claim to fame is its collection of historic ryokan (traditionally styled Japanese inns). Many of these three and four story wooden buildings date as far back as Japan’s Taisho period (1912–1926). Strolling these rustic, antique structures is sure to take one back to a bygone era that has been all but lost to the modern world. Ginzan Onsen is especially enchanting in the evening when all the ryokan are lit up and the streets are illuminated by gas-lit lamps.

Can’t shake the feeling of having seen these antique ryokan somewhere before? You’re not alone. Many posit that the bathhouse in Miyazaki Hayao’s acclaimed Spirited Away actually drew its inspiration from Ginzan Onsen. That’s right! You can actually book a reservation in a ryokan that is taken straight from the pages of one of Studio Ghibli’s most renowned works. Just be sure to not upset “No Face” unless you want to have a gigantic mess on your hands! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Anyway, as you might conclude from its location, Ginzan Onsen is a secluded mountain getaway. An escape to a place like this is an attraction unto itself. As such, there is not really much else to do per say but enjoy the spellbinding ambiance and relax with a good soak. To make the most of your stay, try to snag a reservation in one of the ryokan. They are extremely popular with Japanese in winter so be sure to start the process well in advance!

If you rather stay somewhere else or can’t manage to find an opening, don’t worry. Many of the historic ryokan open their baths to non-guests prior to the 2:00 PM check-in rush for a fee ranging from 300 to 1,500 yen. What’s more, the small town also has two public paths which will run you a few hundred yen. There’s even a free foot bath in the center of the town! Given the extremely limited capacity of Ginzan Onsen’s accommodations, don’t feel badly if you have to default to the day-use-only option.

Before moving on, take a minute to check out the area behind Ginzan Onsen where you’ll encounter a majestic twenty-two meter tall waterfall. Nearby, you’ll also find several of the historic entrances to the silver mines that date back over five-hundred years. In the warmer months, I’ve read that visitors can actually explore the mines’ tunnels but in winter, the snow makes this all but impossible. While that’s a bit of a bummer, I personally think the sight of Ginzan Onsen blanketed by snow more than makes up for it.

Yamagata’s Snow Monsters on Mt. Zao

The cable car on Mt. Zao heading up through the “snow monsters” in Yamagat Prefecture

OK, OK. By now you’re probably asking yourself who the hell are these snow monsters that supposedly inhabit Mt. Zao. While I hate to burst the bubble of readers who have images of gargantuan yetis in mind, this strange and unique phenomenon is totally explainable by science. Known in Japanese as “juhyo,” this mystic wonder of nature is the result of supercooled water droplets in snow clouds coming in contact with the mountain’s white fir trees. Due to Yamagata’s frigid winter temperatures, rime forms and eventually snow accumulates to fill in the gaps.

Typically speaking, the snow monsters form towards the peak of Mt. Zao and are most spectacular in the middle of February. Access to the summit is provided by a ropeway that can be utilized by skiers and non-skiers alike. A trip to the top will cost you 2,600 yen roundtrip. Though definitely impressive in the daylight, the snow monsters come alive at night when they are lit up. While night skiing is forbidden up this high, an evening lift ride is the perfect way to experience this unique Mt. Zao phenomenon.

The Zao Onsen & Ski Resort facility comes equipped with many ski lifts and ropeways although only one goes to the height where the snow monsters form. Rather than complicate things more than they need to be, I’ll just give you a link to a Google Map that will take you to the correct lift. If you rather navigate things on your own, know that it is easiest to just look for the only route that has a transfer point. Doing so makes it simple to identify the right ropeway for the snow monsters.

A visit to the summit should take a solid two hours or so but be sure to budget more time than necessary. After all, you do have to compete with the ski and snowboard fanatics for lift space. What’s one to do after snapping a few pics though? Glad you asked! Luckily for you, Zao Onsen & Ski Resort holds the distinction of being one of the highest rated hot spring towns in all of Japan. What’s more, many of the facilities even welcome day-use customers making this the perfect way to thaw out.

Oh and before moving on, I have one final tidbit for the history buffs out there. While researching for this article I stumbled across a placard claiming that the hot springs of Mt. Zao have a history dating back to about the year 110. This would make them about as old as the antediluvian Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya. Supposedly, Mt. Zao’s hot springs were originally called Takayu after the warrior Takayu Kibino who founded them ages ago. According to the legends, his battle wounds were miraculously healed by the onsen’s rejuvenating properties.

There’s Still More to Yamagata Prefecture

The mountaintop Yamadera temple complex during the months of winter in Yamagata Prefecture

Are you hungry for more? Don’t worry, Yamagata is more than able to deliver. Though its best attractions are scattered throughout the prefecture, there’s more than enough in Yamagata alone to keep you busy for a solid week. For starters, why not consider a visit to the solemn Yamadera complex? As can be seen in the shot above, the mountainside temple grounds are absolutely stunning when blanketed by snow.

Nearby, you’ll also find the town of Tendo. In addition to having its own collection of onsen facilities, Tendo is also Japan’s primary producer of Shogi (Japanese chess) pieces. Lastly, if you want to extend your stay in Yamagata a little longer, the sacred Dewa Sanzan (lit. “three mountains of Dewa”) are quite the site. These mountain bare the names Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono and still today are centers of mountain asceticism (Shugendo).

That said, part of this area’s appeal is its remoteness. Unfortunately, Yamagata’s profuse snowfall in winter makes travel during the colder months quite arduous. This is especially true for foreign tourists who likely will not have access to a car. Perhaps the sacred mountains and mummified monks there will need to wait until spring — but more on that in another post…