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Yamagata in 4 days | Ginzan Onsen, Zao Snow Monsters


For the past 10 years of so of traveling in Japan, I've hit the major spots: Tokyo, Osaka, Fuji 5 lakes area, Hokkaido etc. In the recent year or so I'm trying to expand to other regions such as Kanazawa, Shirakawago, and Nagano in Hokuriku region. And this time I'm venturing up north to Northern Honshu to Yamagata Prefecture, where they are famous for their onsen bath houses that look like straight out of the Spirited Away ghibli movie (Ginzan Onsen), and the frozen Snow Monster trees on top of Zao. 

If you are planning a trip to Japan in winter  time (Dec ~ Feb) and have a spare 2-3 days, then I'd suggest to head up north to Yamagata! It is still Japan, but you will have graduated from the average tourist who has only seen Tokyo and Kyoto, to a Japan travel enthusiast who has ventured into the snowy North. 

Getting there: by Train or Plane)
You can fly into Yamagata's local airport from Tokyo Haneda, Osaka Itami (Local airport), Sapporo Chitose, or Nagoya Komaki. The flight should take only 45-60min, and since it's a domestic flight you only board 10min before the flight and you can arrive 1hr before scheduled flight. 

With the Shinkansen, Yamagata Shinkansen is the line you want to take. From Tokyo Station, you can take the Yamagata Shinkansen Tsubasa car which takes 2hr45min. What I love about this route is you get to see Mount Fuji (on the left when traveling North), and you pass by so many small snowy cities and towns along the way. The scenery is gorgeous!  


  


PS. When exiting Yamagata station (there will be 2 gates) at the second or final gate, make sure that instead of using the automatic gates which will eat your Shinkansen ticket, use the left side clear door to go see the station master. Hand your ticket in and you can say "Keep Souvenir", they will stamp your train ticket with a Yamagata Station logo (cherry shape) and give you some free Yamagata Shinkansen stickers! I swear I was more excited than my son! 

Where to stay
We used Yamagata train station as our base, and from there we travelled to Ginzan and Zao Onsen, which are accessible by train and bus. 
  • Yamagata Station: Metropolitan Hotel 
The Metropolitan hotel is attached to the JR station and there is a mall right next to it. This is very helpful because you have access to lots of shops and restaurants, and a convenient store! Not to mention Starbucks as well. This spot is also very convenient for walking around Yamagata city in. 

Also the rooms are very large. We had 2 beds plus a couch, desk, and space to open 2 large suitcases on the floor. The price is approximately  ¥14,000 per night ($140usd/night)

 

PS There is a Totoro in the  mall, I think it was on the 3rd floor

  • Zao Onsen: Zao Onsen Sakaiya Mori no Hotel Wald Berg

    堺屋森のホテルヴァルトベルク


    https://www.waldberg-zao.com/inbound/?lang=en#hotspring  

When it comes for Onsen ryokans (traditional Japanese hotels with hot springs in the hotel), it can be very expensive. You can expect to pay anywhere from $500usd/night and that would be an average one. Another thing to mention is that it is sometimes tricky to find ryokans that will allow kids because Ryokans are typically for people who want to enjoy a quiet vacation. 

We choose to stay at Hotel Wald Berg because they are affordable (¥28,000/night including Sukiyaki Dinner and Japanese Breakfast), its right next to Zao Ropeway to see the snow monsters, they have both public (24hr) and private onsens (hourly rental available), and they are kid friendly! They have kids size slippers, onsen robes, and highchairs. There's also a free shuttle between the Zao bus stop and the hotel. 

Link to hotel website: https://www.waldberg-zao.com/inbound/?lang=en#hotspring 

 

 

 

  • Ginzan Onsen: Notaya Ryokan
We didn't actually get to stay in Ginzan because it's incredibly expensive, it's  hard to book (always booked out), and a lot of the places are not child friendly. However if you are traveling alone/adults only, and have a more flexible schedule, you can look into booking Notaya Ryokan. This is the iconic Ryokan that looks like the bathhouse from the ghibli movie Spirited Away. 

 

Things to see

1) Yamagata City: Castle & buildings

Yamagata city actually has a lot more to see than I  anticipated. They have a lot of very interesting architecture, old Japanese ones, old western ones, modern bars and restaurants, and castle ruins! Starting from Yamagata Station, you can take a walking route which takes approximately 1hr to finish. 
  • Daini Park (Train engine), also has a nice playground for those traveling with kids
  • Marugoto-Kan Beninokura: restaurant building which also sells souvenirs 
  • Hottonaru Yokocho: outdoor food stalls (open 7pm) by rainbow car park
  • Watertown Nanukamachi
  • Bunshokan (Culture museum)
  • Yamagata Castle park (enter from Tokyo University Gate on the east side to cross the bridge and see train tracks)

PS If you didn't bring snowboots or warm clothes, there is a Montbell (bottom of the map with green flag), they sell children and adult size snow boots, hat, gloves, snowsuits, and even snowboarding/ski gear.



 

  

 

2) Ginzan Onsen
How to get there: 1hr train from Yamagata to Oishida station, 30min bus ride to Ginzan Onsen http://www.hanagasa-bus-taisei.co.jp/base.html

The bus doesn't run very often. I'd suggest to look up the train schedule on google maps and set to arrive at Oishida Station at least 10min before the bus departure time. There's a train that leaves Yamagata station at 2:52pm and rives at Oishida at 3:43pm which will allow you to catch thee 3:55pm bus. This will take you to Ginzan onsen close to sunset time (winter) so you can get pictures of both day and night time. 

The last bus is 6:21pm from Ginzan onsen and arrives at Oishida at 6:55pm. The next train departs at 7:36pm from Oishida and arrives in Yamagata station at 8:30pm. Worst case scenario you miss the bus, you can call a taxi to Oishida station (it'll take 20min and cost ¥6,000), or a taxi to Yamagata station (70min and ¥20,000) or you can try to book one of the Ryokans in Ginzan but that's probably not very possible since rooms are always super full. 
  • View from the first bridge by the Tourist center
  • Foot baths along the way
  • Izunohana (little coffee house for snacks and food, right hand side facing away from the entr)
  • Notoya Ryokan (the spirited away building)
  • Sake Teahouse at the very end (where you find the red post box)

(Above: View from the first bridge)


(Above: foot baths)


 

(Above 4 pics: Izunohana)


(Above: Notoya, Spirited Away style Ryokan)


3) Zao Onsen Area

How to get there: 37min bus ride from yamagata station, ¥1,000/person
http://www.yamakobus.co.jp/rosenbus/jikoku/frame/zao-onsen.html

You can also take a taxi which will be 30min and ¥6,000. This is a better option if you are a family traveling with children and many suitcases. The taxi can take you directly to your hotel and you  don't need to wait for the shuttle bus. If you're a family of 4 the bus from yamagata station will already cost ¥4,000. 
  • Zao Ropeway (To see snow Monsters)
The ropeway is actually not clearly marked on Google maps, and there's also multiple ropeways (for skiing). Only Zao Ropeway takes you to the top to see the snow monsters. There are 2 sections, first you start at Zao Sanroku Station which takes you to the middle station  (Jugyo Kogen station), you take another gondola up to Zao Peak Station. It takes a total of 17min. 

Round trip tickets cost ¥3,000 per adult, ¥1,500 for kids in elementary and middle school, and free for those younger. On days where it snowed the day prior and is sunny, AND it's a weekend, the longs can be long. We were there on a sunny Friday and had to wait 40min to board our gondola. Plan to arrive 10-15min before the first gondola at 9am to avoid the crowds. It is also very very cold at the peak, around -6C on a sunny February day, if you plan to visit at night time during the special light up, it might be as cold  as -15C so dress accordingly.

Official website: http://zaoropeway.co.jp/en/ if you switch to Japanese there'll be more info. Just use a plug in translator to translate it into English. 

 

Archer wore: Uniqlo Heat-Tech ultra warm undershirt and underpants, long sleeve shirt + wool sweater, thick jeans, Hokkaido grade snowsuit, snowboots, snow gloves and hat.

I wore: Uniqlo heat-tech ultra warm undershirt and underpants, wool sweater, regular jean leggings, kneee-high snowboots, thick wool jacket, gloves and hat.

   

  • Shiba Mama’s restaurant
This is a highly rated restaurant perfect for lunch after you come down from the ropeway. They serve healthy vegetable heavy lunch sets that are super tasty. They're also child friendly and do offer kids utensils. If you are a Winnie the pooh fan, they have many pooh plushies all over the restaurant!

 

  • Wandering around town: Public bathhouses - 下湯共同浴場 (Shimoyu kyodo yokujo) and upper one 上湯共同浴場Shantan kyodo yokuji, Sukawa Onsen Shrine
We didn't have a specific plan. We just entered in Sukawa Onsen Shrine as the final destination on google maps and set the route that way. Along the way we made turns wherever there was an interesting looking shop. The walk was maybe 15-20min since it's a relatively small town. Look out for the Public bathhouses as they are in these stunning looking traditional Japanese buildings with thick snow piled on top of the roof! If your hotel doesn't have an onsen built in, the public bath houses only cost a few 100 yen to go in (something like 3-5 usd). 





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