Note: this post was re-posted from my old website, originally published in August 2017.
The first time for me to stumble across the name Kaminoyama (上山市) was when I randomly searched for information about Japanese castles around Sendai. There were plenty of results, but the image of Kaminoyama stood out the most. So I hastily launched an investigation trip to see what could I get from going to the area that borders the prefectures of Yamagata and Miyagi.
Reaching Kaminoyama is pretty easy. From Sendai, it takes only about one and a half hours — perfect for a day trip. From Tokyo, it would be quite a long way since you have to change trains here and there so a day trip is not recommended.
Despite my main mission of visiting the castle, the town’s primary attractions are its onsen (hot springs). They are many and pretty famous among Japanese, though not so much for foreigners since it is not so well-known internationally. I felt like I was the only non-Japanese during my travel there. Even so the onsen there are reportedly great. I went to one of the public baths there — story in detail later.
So the moment I walked out of Kaminoyama-Onsen station, I set on going for the number one destination: the castle. Kaminoyama Castle perches on a small hill about 10-15 minutes’ walk from the station. And there it was, standing proudly on top of the hill. Though small, the castle makes up with its beautiful location, overlooking the town. If you go to the observation deck at the top, you can pretty much see the surrounding areas including Mt. Zao over the distance.
No 1 of ‘Things to do in Kaminoyama’: visiting the castle — check!
Behind the castle are a park and shrine called Tsukioka Park and Tsukioka-jinja, respectively. They are not much but they add to the charm the castle has. Also, somewhere in the castle ground lies a small foot onsen (足湯) where you can dip your feet and just relax while enjoying the view of the castle.
Kaminoyama also boasts its small portion of the samurai district, where there are 4 preserved middle-class samurai clan houses dating back from 200 years ago. They are still used as either a residence or community place so you could not enter them aside from one house: the Miwa-clan house. You have to pay a small fee of ¥210 for adults, but trust me it is worth the money.
Entering the samurai house makes you wonder about the life they had so many years ago. It was like entering a time machine and ended up in a period where things were very different. I did enjoy just sitting from room to room, nodding my head in astonishment when I saw the signs in each room explaining their functions — study room, bedroom, guest room, and others. I feel it would be very cool to own a house like this if I could ever afford the price 🙂
No 2 of ‘Things to do in Kaminoyama’: visiting the samurai district— check!
Leaving the samurai house I stopped by a place that is said to be the origin of the town when a monk observed a crane soaking its wounds in nearby hot spring. The place is called tsuru no yasumi ishi (鶴の休石 — crane resting stone), perhaps also the reason why there are many crane symbols throughout the town.
Aside from the town attractions, Kaminoyama is also known as a base to go to Mt. Zao, especially to the famous Okama crater. There is a free bus from Kaminoyama station to Kattadake peak twice daily (Note: this was in 2016, you might want to check the current situation first). It takes around a 1-hour trip to the peak. You need to pay attention to the schedule because they change slightly depending on the season, but the information center at the station is very helpful in providing you the right information. Although the bus is free, you still need to pay for the ropeway that will take you from the parking area in Kattadake where the bus stops to the peak where you can view the crater. It costs ¥750 for 2 ways trip.
Alas, my luck was terrible. Though the day was very sunny and overall great weather, when I arrived at the peak there was mist all over the place. I could not even see anything in front of me. There goes my chance to view the beautiful green emerald colored Okama crater. I guess sometimes to get a clear view of this place all you need is a stroke of good luck.
As if not being able to see the crater was not bad enough, I had two more unfortunate things that happened to me at the peak. First I dropped my camera polarizer filter somewhere when desperately trying to take photos of the unseen crater. I just realized that when I headed back to the ropeway and I frantically searched for it. Me losing my stuff actually acted as the catalyst for my second unfortunate event.
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So the time window between bus arrival to the ropeway and departure is actually very short. Visitors have only one hour to see the crater (but hey it’s a free bus so can’t really complain right?). And precisely because of this I forgot the time because I was so focused searching for the missing stuff that I just realized it was about the time to go. Even though I ran, I missed the bus by a very narrow margin. I saw the bus left without me just about 200 meters in front of me.
No 1 of ‘Things not to do in Kaminoyama (or anywhere else)’: not keeping an eye on my belongings — check!
No 2 of ‘Things not to do in Kaminoyama (or anywhere else)’: not keeping an eye on bus timetable — check!
Luckily this is Japan. And were it not for the Japanese being very polite to their visitors I had no idea how to go back to Kaminoyama. When I said I missed my bus to one of the staff there, he arranged a company car to pick me up from the ropeway to another lodge where a bus is waiting, due to Kaminoyama. I was very thankful and at the same time feeling pretty embarrassed since this was my first experience missing a ride. But hey, I got this off my list!
No 3 of ‘Things to do in Kaminoyama’: visiting the Okama crater— check!
Coming back to Kaminoyama, there was only one thing I had not done yet: taking a bath in the onsen. There are plenty around the area and most of them are within hotel complexes so you have to pay quite a sum to enter. I was looking for a more affordable version of the hot spring. So I headed down to one of the oldest public baths in the town, Shimo-oyu (下大湯).
Shimo-oyu is categorized as sentou (銭湯), a type of unique communal bath. This public bath is located not so far away from the castle, and it costs only ¥250 for adult entry. However, if you are not comfortable with being naked in front of other people, I advise you not to come at all. This is literally one of the places where you can see naked men even before entering the bath because the door to men’s bath is always open and visible from the front entrance! Plus the reception is literally inside the men’s bath so the lady in charge can see all your ‘privates’ without restriction. I have no inkling if that is the case too in the women section though.
Anyways, if you are cool with all that, be my guest and try the bath. It is small yet comfortable. Another warning though, the hot water was very, very hot. Scalding hot, hotter than any onsen that I have tried. So take your time to adjust first before jumping diver style into the water. I spent just under one hour there, but I felt so refreshed after the bath.
No 4 of ‘Things to do in Kaminoyama’: trying one of the
onsen sentou — check!
One last thing to add, Kaminoyama was also the setting of some of the scenes of the critically acclaimed Japanese movie ‘Departures’ (送り人). Avid movie lovers might recognize the locations.
For an overall impression, in my book Kaminoyama is a great place to visit if you have spare time to visit Yamagata. It might be overshadowed by the more widely known Ginzan Onsen (which I have yet to visit) in the prefecture, but it has its own charm being a quaint, less touristy spot. Plus it has the extra point of being one of the hubs to go to Mt. Zao. Just make sure you pray to get the good weather before you go to the crater!
Kaminoyama Tourism Site (English)