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Spa Day in Kaminoyama Onsen: Hot Springs, Castle, Dining Tips & More!

Spa Day in Kaminoyama Onsen: Hot Springs, Castle, Dining Tips & More!

Date published: 18 December 2019

The Kaminoyama Onsen was discovered about 560 years ago in the city of Kaminoyama which is adjacent to the southern part of Yamagata City. It is well-known as being a castle town at the foot of Kaminoyama Castle and as a prosperous inn town on the Ushu Highway during Edo times. In the town there are many samurai residences and old houses that are reminiscent of those days as well as many other interesting sights.

Taking a stroll through this old castle town, sampling its famous konjac cuisine, and perhaps a luxurious soak in a hot spring at night are treats that will await you in this city unique even in Japan for the three roles it played as a castle town, inn town, and hot spring town; the perfect place for a leisurely day trip and sightseeing.

How the Kaminoyama Onsen hot spring town came about

To get to Kaminoyama City you first take the Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo which takes about two and a half hours to Yamagata City. From there it is then only about a twenty-minute drive away making it a great place for enjoying a day of sightseeing.

The Kaminoyama Onsen began in 1458 during the Muromachi Period. Stopping here while on a journey, Gesshu, a monk from Hizen (now Saga Prefecture), came upon a crane standing in a swamp to comfort an injured leg. Seeing that it was a natural hot spring, Gesshu, with the help of the villagers, began developing it. Because of that, it is also called the Tsuru-Hagi no Yu which literally means "Crane Leg Hot Spring".

▲ The Tsuru no Yasumi Ishi (stone on which the crane rested) is in the hot spring town and where the crane was said to have rested its wings.

The hot spring town has six distinct districts, such as the Yumachi District that has the oldest history, the Shinyu District with its vestiges of the old castle town, and the Hayama District sitting on a quiet hilltop. Yunohama Onsen located on the Japan Sea side of the prefecture and Higashiyama Onsen found in Fukushima Prefecture are each counted as being one of the Oshu Sanrakugo [Three Pleasure Towns of Oshu].

The reconstructed famous castle of Ushu

Let's begin our stroll by first walking about 15 minutes from the JR Kaminoyama Onsen Station to Kaminoyama Castle and walk around the nearby old samurai residences.

During the Edo period this area was the domain of the Kaminoyama Clan; while the most powerful clan in Yamagata was a the Date Clan, whose domain was in Yonezawa, both clans playing very important roles in this region. In the past the castle called The Famous Castle of Ushu was in the center and the current castle is a reconstruction based on castle architectural documents in the local museum that was completed in 1982.

▲ The three-tiered castle is a famous photo spot. It is a symbol of Kaminoyama City and many people visit it during the cherry blossom season (mid to late April).

Let’s climb the stone stairs and go up inside the castle. A solemn air permeated the dimly lit interior and the moment I entered it I felt myself coming to attention.

After paying the admission fee (410 yen for adults, tax included), we asked a sightseeing volunteer guide to show us around. If there are volunteer guides in the castle when you visit you do not need to make a reservation for one in advance, however, if you wish to also have a guide accompany you on your walks in the area, it is necessary to make a reservation by phone at least five days in advance (contact the Kaminoyama City Tourist Association; reservations can be made for one or more individuals). There is no charge for the volunteer guide service and they are available from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (End and beginning of year excluded).

▲ A figure of a Yamabushi [mountain priest] in the entrance. The interior has a unique air

In the hall, the natural environment of Kaminoyama City, the formation of the hot spring village, and the history of the town are introduced through images and photos.

▲ Our guide, Mr. Kazuhito Kikuchi, explained important things

"Let's go take a look at the amazing view of Zao." Saying that Mr. Kikuchi then led us up to the fourth floor. There is also an elevator which makes it easier for older people to easily access the fourth floor.

The observation deck affords a magnificent view of the Zao mountain range in front and looking down one can see the remnants of the castle town!

▲ The castle keep is 32 meters tall. The observation deck here provides a spectacular view!

It takes about one hour to leisurely go around inside the castle while listening to the guide’s explanation. There is a small space on the first floor where you can take a rest and purchase museum goods as well as have something to drink.

In addition, there is the Kakashi Tea House in the open space in front of the castle gate where you can drink tea and buy souvenirs.

▲ There is also a foot bath within the grounds (open from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.)

Within the hot springs town there are foot baths in five locations and all of them can be enjoyed at no charge. One of them is in the Kaminoyama Castle grounds so you can stop by here and rest your feet before going on to your next destination. When strolling about Kaminoyama Onsen you will need your own towel.

▲ From here you can get a good view of the Zao mountain range as well as that of the castle.
  • Kaminoyama Castle Local Museum
    • Address 3-7 Motojonai, Kaminoyama City, Yamagata Prefecture
    • Phone Number 023-673-3660

    Open: 9:00 a.m. ~ 4:45 p.m.
    Admission: Adults 410 yen, high school and university students 360 yen, elementary and jr hi school students 50 yen (all prices include tax)
    Closed: 2nd Thursday in odd-numbered months, Monday ~ Friday in the first week of September, December 29 ~ 31

Samurai estates are remnants of the castle town

As I learned more about the history of Kaminoyama City, I asked Mr. Kikuchi to accompany us to see the samurai estates. There is a walking course, with Kaminoyama Castle in the center, that goes around the area.

There are public baths scattered along the course. There are five such public baths and it only costs 150 yen to enter each (there is an additional 100 yen fee for shampoo; tax included in both prices). So you can enjoy not only the foot baths, but also visit each of these public baths as well in Kaminoyama Onsen!

▲ The Lower Great Bath in which the Zen Master Takuan is said to have bathed after being sent into exile from Kyoto as a result of the Purple Robe Incident in 1629.
▲ You can walk without getting lost because there are signposts at important points

There are four samurai residences in this area called Nakacho-dori. All of them were built more than 300 years ago, each having a thatched roof, a storehouse in the kagikata (L-shaped) style, with the houses having been constructed in the samurai-house style of the Kamakura period called Buke Chumon Zukuri.

You can get a taste of what life was like in these intriguing residences; in one you can view the interior, in another you can view the garden, and a third is still inhabited by the family's descendants.

▲ It is possible to tour the interior of the Miwa House in which samurai who were entrusted with personally attending to the lord of the domain and having an elevated position lived (9:00 a.m. ~ 4:45 p.m.; adults 210 yen, students 160 yen, children 50 yen, all prices include tax; building closed on Wednesdays) (Photo provided by Kaminoyama City Tourism Association)
▲ The former Sogabe House in which the magistrate in charge of religious matters, such as conducting fumie [stepping on a Christian icon] when Christianity was forbidden, can be viewed both inside and also its garden (9:00 a.m. ~ 4:45 p.m.; free admission, closed on Wednesdays (Photo provided by Kaminoyama City Tourism Association)

You get a strong impression of the past while walking along the narrow pathways looking at the black fences encircling the estates. Setting out from the castle it takes about one hour to complete the walking course. A little tired from all the walking, it was with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that we said good-bye to Mr. Kikuchi.

  • Kaminoyama City Tourism Association
    • Address 1-chōme-2-1 Yarai, Kaminoyama City, Yamagata Prefecture
    • Phone Number 023-672-0839

    Open: 9:00 a.m. ~ 5:00 p.m.
    Guide fee: Free
    * There are separate fees for entering Kaminoyama Castle and the Samurai Estate (Miwa Estate).
    * Reservations need to be made five days in advance of the day of the visit

Try the healthy Konjac Hakozen and konjac miso

If you build up an appetite walking, take a short 15-minute drive into the city and enjoy the local cuisine specialties. This area is famous for its Narageshuku Tanno Konjac cuisine.

▲ The entrance with its imposing gate

The shop was originally established in 1959 as a purveyor of konjac. The Konnyaku Bansho, which consists of a store and a restaurant, and the cafe, Hibikonyaku, have been added, and konjac fans who have heard that they can eat konjac dishes that are not available elsewhere come from all over the country to experience them.

▲ Groups that have booked reservations are greeted with konjac "bouquets"
▲ Delicious konjac balls simmering in a large pot!

We went to the attached restaurant Konnyaku Bansho and ordered the Konnyaku Bakozen from the new menu that has been in effect since March 2019. What followed was an amazing number of various konjac dishes. One of the delights in savoring these dishes is in guessing which ones were made with konjac.

▲ Is this salmon? Beef? Shark’s fin? Not at all! Almost everything in the Konnyaku Bakozen is made entirely with konjac (2,800 yen, tax not included).

Mr. Masahiro Tanno, the president, said, "I hope everyone will delight in savoring these healthy dishes."

Reservations are required at least a day in advance for the Konnyaku Bakozen (available for 2 or more people) It can also be enjoyed in private rooms. There is also the Konnyaku Kaiseki (1,200 ~ 3,200 yen, excluding tax) for which reservations are not required. You can enjoy many konjac dishes to your heart’s content without feeling guilty (lol)!

▲ The Konnyaku Steamed Bun (150 yen, less tax) is a popular gift item.

It is also possible to purchase and eat in the store not only the fluffy steamed konnyaku buns, but also anmitsu [mitsumame topped with bean jam] and miso dengaku [grilled konjac topped with bean paste].

▲ Miso dengaku 100 yen per stick or 5 sticks for 360 yen (both excluding tax)

After dinner stop by the Hibi Konnyaku cafe for a konjac dessert. It offers an amazing selection of konjac sweets, such as cakes and jellies, so authentic in taste you would doubt they were made with konjac.

▲ The delicious Konnyaku Pie Cake is served in a Lady's Set that comes with a drink for 800 yen (excluding tax).
  • Hibikonnyaku
    • Address 608-1 Minamisawa Suwamae, Kaminoyama City, Yamagata Prefecture
    • Phone Number 023-674-2351

    Open: 9:30 a.m. ~ 4:00 p.m.(L.O.3:30p.m.)

‘츠키노이케’에서 즐기는 ‘저녁 당일치기 코스’

카미노야마온센 역에서 도보 15분 거리에 있는 ‘하나아카리노야도 츠키노이케’는 1979년에 오픈한 료칸으로 여자들끼리 여행 온 그룹에게 추천하고 싶은 곳이다. 쇼와 시대의 향수를 자아내는 거리의 중심부에 위치하며 도로 건너편에는 본 기사 첫머리에 소개한 ‘츠루노야스미이시(학이 쉬어간 바위)’가 있다.

▲고즈넉한 일본식 건물의 료칸

“자고 갈만한 여유는 없지만 럭셔리한 저녁을 먹으면서 느긋하게 온천욕을 즐기고 싶다”
이런 욕구를 충족해주는 특별한 플랜 ‘저녁 당일치기(요루노오히가에리) 코스’(부과세 별도 8,000엔・입탕세 별도 / 체크인 16시, 체크아웃 21시 / 2명부터 예약 가능 / 주말에도 이용 가능)가 있다.

▲정면 안쪽에 장식된 화려한 병풍이 인상적인 로비

스태프의 안내에 따라 자갈바닥 위에 놓인 널빤지를 통해 건물 안으로 들어오면 일본의 전통과 모던함이 믹스된 로비가 눈길을 사로잡는다. 은은한 조명과 편안한 음악에 지친 몸과 마음이 치유되는 느낌이다.

▲‘이츠데모카페’에서는 무료 커피와 아로마티, 계절마다 선보이는 과자를 먹으면서 체크인을 할 수 있다.

이 플랜은 객실을 이용할 수 없으므로 입욕과 식사 외에는 로비에서 시간을 보내게 된다. ※전날까지 예약하면 추가요금 1실 5,000엔(부과세 별도)으로 대기실을 빌릴 수도 있다.

디자인과 문양이 제각기 다른 소파와 앤티크한 가구 등 여심을 사로잡기 위해 고민한 흔적이 구석구석 엿보인다. 지금부터 시작될 비일상의 시간에 가슴이 마구 두근거린다.

▲“홍차와 아로마티도 드세요. 이 카페에서는 17시부터 19시 사이에 야마가타현에서 생산된 와인도 무료로 제공하고 있어요” 세심하게 배려해주신 오카미(여주인) 구도 마리 씨.

아기자기함과 놀라움이 가득한 개성파 온천

저녁식사 전에 우선 온천에서 피로를 풀기로 했다. 오카미가 ‘유카고’라는 바구니를 건네주었다. 바구니의 깜찍한 디자인을 보니 기분도 업되는 것만 같다. 이런 사소한 부분까지 손님을 기쁘게 하려는 센스가 느껴진다.

▲바구니 안에는 바스타올과 페이스 타올이 들어있다. 즉 ‘저녁 당일치기 코스’는 빈손으로 가도 된다는 말씀!

“와~ 귀엽다!”

탈의실의 미닫이문을 열자마자 순백색의 세상이 펼쳐진다. 화이트와 레드 컬러의 수목을 포인트로 장식한 스타일리시한 탈의실에 우선 감동! 여성용은 화이트, 남성용은 블랙으로 통일되었다. 그리 넓지는 않지만 그만큼 아늑한 느낌이 강하다.

▲밝고 청결한 느낌의 여성용 탈의실
▲ Citrus-flavored water is available once you get out of the bath. Two types of vitamin water are offered; room temperature and chilled.
▲ Baskets of different sizes for holding clothes are aligned along the shelves. There are many different types to choose from.

There is one large bath in each of the men’s and women’s rooms and also two open-air baths. The spring quality is chloride sulfate, and the temperature at the source is high at 62 to 69 degrees, but the hot spring of the bath is cooled to about 42 degrees.

First soak in the indoor bath before enjoying the renowned open-air bath. The spring water is clear and smooth to the touch. So gentle is it on the skin that it is easy to luxuriate in the tub for a long time. And there is no odor of sulfur.

▲ The large bath with its retro feel.

After soaking here and warming up, next head out to the open-air bath. There are two types of open-air baths: the Hinoki Roten Buro, in which spring water constantly flows, and the Sasa Bune, in which water is added. The quality of the spring water is the same as that of the large baths.

▲ In the evening flower lanterns are put afloat in the Hinoki Roten Buro.
▲ Seeing them floating on the clear bath water is most soothing. (photo provided by Hanaakari no Yado Tsuki no Ike)

What's more, while in the Hinoki Roten Buro you can enjoy sake served in a cedar box, called masuzake, on a tray that floats in the bath (between the hours of 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. at no extra charge). For sake lovers this is a truly sublime experience.

▲ Just be careful not to drink too much!

Behind the Hinoki Roten Buro are jade-colored tubs. These are the Shigaraki-yaki ware Sasa Buro, in the shape of Sasabune [toy bamboo-leaf boat], and are very popular with women and children. At night, you can enjoy the fantastic atmosphere created by the lighting. There are two Sasabune in the women’s bath and one in the men’s bath.

▲ Their distinct shapes are quite impressive! They are large enough for you to stretch out and enjoy a solitary bath. (photo provided by Hanaakari no Yado Tsuki no Ike)

After your bath, return to the dressing room and enjoy a glass of vitamin water. After the bath your body will feel toasty warm and your skin silky smooth and moist. This relaxing bath with its sophisticated dressing rooms and unique baths is bound to elicit sighs of satisfaction.

Enjoy the imaginative kaiseki [a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner] cuisine, the same as that served to guests spending the night.

After your bath enjoy dinner at Hana Dining on the second floor. The Night Day-trip Course also offers the same Tsuki no Ike Hana Kaiseki full course offered to overnight guests. It consists of seven courses from appetizer to dessert.

▲ Savor imaginative kaiseki dishes made using local ingredients in the restaurant adorned with flowers! (Photo provided by Hanaakari no Yado Tsuki no Ike)
▲ Lots of fresh local vegetables are used in the creations, each so delightful it is difficult to know from which to begin (photo provided by Hanaakari no Yado Tsuki no Ike)
▲ For the main course you may select either a Yonezawa beef steak or beef simmered in wine. (photo provided by Hanaakari no Yado Tsuki no Ike)
▲ Each and every course exudes the warm hospitality of the inn. (photo provided by Hanaakari no Yado Tsuki no Ike)

"Please enjoy discovering the delicious flavors from the combined ingredients," suggested the proprietress. I have only introduced a fraction of the many wonderful dishes offered, and I can attest that all of them from the appetizer to the dessert were truly delicious.

In this article we introduced a day-trip course, but remember that Tsuki no Ike also has an excellent overnight plan. Three of the 18 guestrooms have their own open-air baths decked out in roses throughout the year.

▲ A producer supplies the inn with roses throughout the year. (photo provided by Hanaakari no Yado Tsuki no Ike)
▲ The red sofa in the entry is very impressive (photo provided by Hanaakari no Yado Tsuki no Ike)

The proprietress is always ready to welcome you for a relaxing and soothing visit. Why not come and spend a uniquely relaxing and magical time in this flower-bedecked inn brimming with warmth and hospitality, enjoying a leisurely soak in its hot spring and then delicious kaiseki cuisine afterwards?

  • Hanaakari no Yado Tsuki no Ike
    花明りの宿 月の池
    • Address 3-10 Yumachi, Kaminoyama City, Yamagata Prefecture
    • Phone Number 023-672-2025

    Check in: from 3:00 p.m.; check out: until 10:00 a.m.
    Accommodation from 13,000 yen, less tax; (2 meals included in an overnight stay when 3 stay in the same room; hot spring tax is separate)
    Night Day-trip Course
    Check in is from 4:00 p.m.; check out is by 9:00 p.m.
    Course fee: 8,000 yen, less tax; (hot spring tax not included) *Reservations required for parties of 2 or more adults
    Closed: always open

Kaminoyama Onsen is a wonderful town full of history and hot spring hospitality evidenced by the kindness of everyone shown everywhere. Why not heal your body and mind on a day-trip to this wonderful place?

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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