- 1) Mount Zao (蔵王山): Take a cable car ride into the clouds
- 2) Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉): Stay a night in a hot spring town
- 3) Mogami River: Take a cruise while tucking into a warm Kotatsu
- 4) Miyagi Zao Fox Village
- 5) Mahoroba Fuyusaki Botan Festival (Winter Peony Festival)
- 1)Yonezawa Beef
- 2) Basashi (Horse Sashimi)
- 3) Imoni (Meat Soup)
- 1) Takinoyu Hotel
- 2) Hotel Metropolitan Yamagata
- 3) Hotel Folkloro Takahata
Think winter in Japan and Hokkaido’s white powdery Sapporo ski slopes and Nagano’s onsen-soaking snow monkeys come to mind. But Japan’s natural winter wonders have another secret, and way less crowded, hideout in Yamagata! Best bit, it is only 2 hours out from Tokyo on the JR Yamagata Shinkansen!
There’s so many things to explore from the 100 over onsens, puppy-like foxes, melt-in-your-mouth Yonezawa beef, horse sashimi, cotton like snowbeds for the perfect snow angels, and the most kawaii (cute) oba-chans (grandmothers) who double-up as kick-ass chefs! #Bliss.
If you’ve been searching for a snow adventure close enough to the city, yet far enough from the maddening crowds, Yamagata ‘gata-ya’ covered (in snow)! Here’s our guide to Japan’s secret wonderland, some of the key winter activities not to be missed out on in Yamagata.
Jump to relevant section: Things to do in Yamagata Where to stay Famous eats
Purchasing the right JR East Pass
Things to do in Yamagata
1) Mount Zao (蔵王山): Take a cable car ride into the clouds
It might look like heaven, but it ain’t. I had to slap myself to realize it’s the view from the Zao Ropeway cable car. As you move further up the face of the mountain, the fog shifts against the snow covered tree backdrop making you feel as if you’re floating in the clouds – I kid you not.
Photo credit: Pamela Ho
If you’re like me and are amazed by how nature can create such surreal landscapes, you need to visit Mount Zao in February. Mid-winter is when the Juhyo Snow Monsters come out to play. The strong winds deposits heavy snow onto the trees and the cold wind freezes the snow, forming silhouettes resembling monster guardians of the mountain.
Apart from being a natural wonder, Mount Zao’s well-groomed pistes and clear downhill courses also draws professional skiers, snowboarders and first-time tourists, kids and seniors alike to hit its slopes. There are 14 slopes and 12 courses to explore. If you’ve never tried skiing before there are private lessons much cheaper than in Hokkaido.
This is great for a day trip, or if you’d like to spend more time on the slopes, you can rest for the night at the Zao Onsen Resort and soak in their outdoor hot spring.
Price for Gondola tickets: To Jizo Sancho Station (peak) — RoundTrip: ¥2,600 (Adult), ¥1,300 (Child) To Juhyo Kogen Station (mid-point) — RoundTrip: ¥1,500 (Adult), ¥800 (Child)
Opening hours: 8:45am – 5pm
Address: Zao Onsen, Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan
2) Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉): Stay a night in a hot spring town
Photo credit: JohnnyTimes
Getting there: Take the JR Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo to Oishida Station (¥12,330 one-way) and catch the Bonnet buses (60-90min intervals) to Ginzan Onsen (¥710 one-way). If you are coming from Yamagata to Oishida it is 4 stops on the JR Yamagata Shinkansen (¥1,940 one-way).
If one onsen is not enough for you, you can take your pick from the many at Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉 ‘Silver Mountain Hot Spring’). The almost 100-year-old hot spring town sits snugly in a quiet corner of Yamagata’s mountains and has a traditional rustic charm with traditional ryokans lined on either side of the river that calmly light up at night.
Each ryokan has its own indoor and outdoor onsens for guests to enjoy. If you don’t intend to stay the night in a ryokan, there are two public baths (¥300-¥500) and a foot bath along the river (free) where you can see the water streaming down from a 22-meter waterfall that runs from the back of the town. Most of the ryokans also open their baths to the public in the day for a fee of about ¥300-¥1,500.
Recently a few cafes have opened up along the hot spring town where you can sip on a warm cup of coffee after a relaxing soak.
Opening hours: 8:45am – 5pm (for access to public baths) *Most private ryokan hot baths are open till 9pm but only for ryokan guests
Address: 999-4333 Ginzanshinhata, Obanazawa City, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan
3) Mogami River: Take a cruise while tucking into a warm Kotatsu
In the cold of winter, instead of staying indoors, the Japanese bring the warmth out to nature. In the colder seasons, The Mogami River Boat ride is pimped up with kotatsus* to offer guests a truly warm welcome.
Photo Credit: Japan Online Media Center
*Kotatsus are low tables with a thick quilt fringe from top to bottom, with a heater under the table. This allows it to retain heat and keep you warm under the quilt.
The Mogami River flows from the north to the south of Yamagata and is the heart of the prefecture. It is also one of the three fastest rivers in Japan, but don’t expect rapids. The 13m deep river holds its own against the currents and is a smooth 1-hour ride.
As part of the in-boat entertainment, the boatman sings his heart out through three songs depicting the history and various stories of the prefecture’s longest river against the backdrop of Yamagata’s snowcapped mountains.
In between songs, he explains of the history behind the Mogami river and the significance it has to its people. The feisty singer then ends off with the crowd favourite, The Mogami River Song, which most of the people from Yamagata learnt as a child.
Price: ¥2,200 (¥1,980/pax for groups of 15 people)
Opening hours: 9:30am – 3:30pm (Apr-Nov); 10:50am – 2:50pm (Dec-Mar) *Boats depart hourly
Address: 999-6401 86-1 Oaza Furukuchi, Tozawa-mura, Mogami-gun, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan
4) Miyagi Zao Fox Village
If you ever wondered ‘What does the fox say?’, you’ll find your answer at the Miyagi Zao Fox Village. Let’s just say they sound as cute as they look.
While they may look harmless, these foxy creatures can get up to mischief, and they like big butts and they do not lie – so watch your back. You are also required to keep everything inside your bag, as the foxes will try and snatch anything that is easily within their reach.
Price: ¥1,000 (Entrance fee). Children under 12 enter for free
Opening hours: 9am – 4pm
Address: 989-0733 11-3 Fukuokayatsumiya Aza Kawarago, Shiroishi City, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan
5) Mahoroba Fuyusaki Botan Festival (Winter Peony Festival)
Every February, in the middle of winter, 2 hours north of Tokyo, the residents of Takahata build “komos” to protect their pink peonies from the snow. “Komos” are little straw huts built to house the peonies and shield them from the harsh weather.
Each “komo” has a spotlight shining down on the peonies, illuminating them against the snowy-white backdrop, bringing life and color to Takahata’s snow-layered sidewalks. The largest no. of displays are usually found right outside the JR Takahata station, welcoming visitors to the traditional little town. Truly ‘A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland!’
Yamagata’s famous eats
You can find Yonezawa beef in various restaurants, but word on the street is that Yonezawa Beef Dining Bekoya serves them up the best, regardless of cooking style. ‘Wagyu’-waiting for?
Yonezawa Beef Dining Bekoya
Address:3-2-34 Higashi, Yonezawa-shi, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan
2) Basashi (Horse Sashimi)
Best place to try it is at Hotnaru (warming heart) izakaya street. Where you can choose to drown the taste with sakes of the land if it’s not your cup of tea.
Hotnaru Izakaya street
Address:990-0042, Yamagata Prefecture, Yamagata, Chome-1-14-16
3) Imoni (Meat Soup)
You can find this at almost any restaurant, but the best we had was in Takahata, cooked by the lovely 70-year-old Hat-Chan. You can find her shop, Obakoya, on Showa Main Street. She also serves up a mean Obakoyaki (red bean pancake).
Obakoya Opening hours: 9.30am – 7pm (or till sold out)
Address: Obakoya, No. 17, Syowa Main Street, Takahata, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan
Where to stay
1) Takinoyu Hotel
Room rates: From ¥11,000–¥34,000 Address: 1-1-30 Kamatahoncho Tendo-City, Yamagata, Japan 994-0025
2) Hotel Metropolitan Yamagata
Photo Credit: Hotel Metropolitan Yamagata
Hotel Metropolitan Yamagata is next to the Yamagata train station and is right at the center of access to the Mogami River, Mount Zao (about 30min drive), and Ginza Onsen (about 30min drive). Which is great if you’re planning to visit all three spots (which you most definitely should).
The plus for me was that it’s right next to an S-Pal shopping centre where the basement is a treasure trove of Japanese snacks and a Starbucks for familiar warmth in winter.
Cost: About ¥12,000/night for a standard single room (inclusive of breakfast)
Address: 1-1-1, Kasumicho, Yamagata, Japan, 990-0039.
3) Hotel Folkloro Takahata
What sold it for me was waking up to the snow-dusted morning view of the mountains from your room window.
Cost: About ¥13,000/night for a twin-bed room (inclusive of breakfast)
Address: 200 Oaza-Yamasaki, Takahata, Higashiokitama-gun, Yamagata
Cost effective way to getting around Yamagata
With so many winter hideouts to tick off the checklist, and many being spread quite far apart, getting from place to place can add up to be quite costly — nearly (¥50,000 excluding the Airport Transit).
It is cheaper to get the flexible five-day JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) which includes unlimited travel on local, limited express and express trains including the Shinkansens. You can use the pass on any five days within a 14-day period starting with the date of purchase or exchange in Japan. You can view the list of valid train routes and train timetable to plan your trip.
Remember to book the Toreiyu Tsubasa to experience the moving foot bath — included in the Tohoku region pass!
You can purchase the pass at the JR EAST Travel Service Center at Narita or Haneda airport at ¥20,000. But if you purchase your ticket online, or at the in-store ticket counter at JAPAN RAIL CAFE in Singapore, you can get it for ¥19,000, and save that ¥1,000 to pay for your Fox Village entrance fee!
If you’d like to check out how to further maximise your JR EAST PASS or explore the Niigata and Nagano area, check out Cherie’s Ultimate guide to maximising your JR East Pass (Niigata, Nagano Area).
This post was brought to you by JR East.