Hidden away in the mountains of Yamagata is a hot spring town where traditional ryokan are surrounded by forests. Visitors come to Hijiori Onsen to enjoy the famous hot springs, exceptional farm-fresh Japanese cuisine, and a romantic stay at one of the many family-operated inns. The town feels pleasantly lost in time far away from the bright lights of the city.
Of the thousands of hot spring towns and villages throughout Japan, few feel quite so remote as Hijiori Onsen. Buried in the mountainous hinterlands of Okura-mura, this local hot spring resort resides in the heart of a volcanic caldera, from which mineral-rich waters feed the innumerable bathhouses and onsen ryokan dotted throughout the tiny hamlet.
Hijiori Onsen is locally famous for the legendary—and often-thought miraculous—healing waters. Few travelers outside Japan have wandered these streets, while town folk rarely travel beyond the mountains that surround this valley. Yet the residents, nearly all descendants of the original founders dating back to the Edo Period, are eager to share their secrets with far-flung visitors willing to make the trip.
A journey to Hijiori Onsen, and the ancient forests that surround it, conjures a sense of having wandered into a community lost in time. Aside from modern amenities, Hijiori Onsen retains much of its 17th-century Edo-era rustic elegance. The same twenty-six founding families operate all the ryokan and shops in town, and that sense of community handed down through generations still permeates daily life here.
The Legend of Hijiori Onsen
Legend has it, a Buddhist mountain ascetic took a deadly fall from a nearby peak 1,200 years ago. On the way down, he broke his elbow, but also happened to tumble into one of the warm natural pools bubbling up around the Dozan River. As the story goes, his wounds were instantaneously healed by the waters.
Ever since that fateful day, Hijiori Onsen has become, not only a site for wounded patrons seeking respite for their various ailments, but also a holy pilgrimage for worshippers of the venerable Jizo-sama—that revered monk’s cherished bodhisattva.
While many visitors continue to seek out the promise of healing from Hijiori Onsen, countless more simply enjoy the naturally therapeutic and relaxing effects of hot spring bathing, as well as the opportunity to experience ometenashi, the best of Japanese hospitality at a local ryokan. And as with any ryokan stay, excellent kaiseki ryori—traditional Japanese cuisine—can be expected as part of the stay.
Local farms and a myriad of wild foraged delicacies provide the basis for exceptional dining at whatever hotel you choose, and every morning vendors line the main street of town, selling a variety of produce, mountain vegetables and homemade goods. One unique aspect of Hijiori Onsen is several ryokan even allow customers to use their kitchen to prepare foods purchased from the market.
A certain unhurried air permeates the town, which is perfect for leisurely strolls around the narrow streets or along the banks of the Dozan River. Yet more active-minded visitors will find plenty of things to do here as well. Hike to a sacred mountain shrine, explore country roads ideal for cycling or enjoy a variety of local experiences with the town residents.
When to Go
Hijiori Onsen can be enjoyed year-round and the extreme variations in weather throughout the seasons provide different backdrops for travelers. In particular, summer and winter each bring unique splendor to this quiet hot spring town. The town often experiences some of the heaviest daily snowfall in all of Japan and the winter view of Hijiori Onsen is truly a sight to see with massive walls of snow over five meters high not uncommon. Alternatively, the deep green backdrop of summer in the lush mountains is perfect for outdoor activities and a bounty of mountain vegetables and locally grown crops to enjoy.
Hijiori Onsen can be reached entirely via public transportation from Tokyo Station. Travelers will first take the Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Shinjo Station (3.5 hours) and then board a bus at Shinjo Station directly to Hijiori Onsen (60 minutes, ¥600). The journey can be split up with a stay in Yamagata City or Murayama, which are both along the Yamagata Shinkansen route. Keep in mind the JR East Pass (Tohoku Area) can be used for the Shinkansen fare.