For the Japan Traveller, Tohoku prefecture offers a fantastic chance to see some lesser-seen sights and experience a white, snow-filled winter! With the arrival of New Year, we were waiting avidly for thick snowfall and were excited by the flood of pictures showing frost-glazed streets and roofs around Sendai filling our Instagram and Facebook feeds. However, it was not the metre-deep, snow-covered Winter Wonderland we were expecting! To remedy this, we took a short, one-day wander through the historic city of Yonezawa and spa-town of Onogawa Onsen; without further ado, let’s go!
Setting off that frosty morning from our home station, Kitayama!
The bus ride to Yonezawa Bus Station takes around 2 hours from Sendai Bus Station (both a short walk from their respective train stations). It’s comfortable and stops once for a quick break!
As we rolled along the highway, and through the mountains towards Yamagata, we could feel the amount of snowfall steadily increasing. We saw rows of tiny, snow-covered houses, fields, and forests filling our windows along the way.
We arrived into Yonezawa, greeted by heavy snowfall. The streets were white, and everything was covered with a thick topping of snow! Our first stop was ‘Uesugi Shrine’. Since the bus to the shrine leaves from outside the train station, and not the bus station, make sure you have enough time to get there. Else, you’ll have to wait an hour for the next bus to come like we did! The snow showed no signs of stopping as we waited outside, and as it had already been 2 hours since we left Sendai, we were all getting cold and quite peckish! So we decided to head out of the cold and into the warm station for three quick bowls of steaming soba – each ranging within a reasonable price range of ¥500 – ¥750, with various toppings such as mushrooms, tempura or the famous Yonezawa beef.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t wait until the next bus arrived – waiting another hour would have upset our schedule for the entire day. Instead, we took a taxi to Uesugi Shrine for ¥1500; the ride was worth it considering the short time we had! At the entrance of the temple, a few cozy-looking, tiny shops welcomed us. The snow-covered grounds looked serene. The temple premise looked huge and forbidding – almost magical. A few well-fed pigeons – slightly on the rounder side – welcomed us, huddled together for warmth. Visitors were seen feeding them, and we were surprised to see how comfortable they were with us humans in our big, puffy jackets!
After obtaining details of the area from the friendly tourist information centre, we wandered through to the temple. As expected, it was a beautiful sight! The temple buildings stood majestically in the snow and we wanted to explore the whole complex! However, even though we were warmly dressed, we could still feel the cold seeping into us – it really was a chilly day! As we wandered deeper into the temple, there was a lady shoveling snow and clearing the path for us. Later we also saw many others trying to move snow from the front of their houses – it made us wonder how challenging their lifestyle became due to the snowfall each winter.
We wanted to go somewhere warm after moving around Uesugi shrine. By now, our socks were a little wet (make sure you wear good shoes – waterproof is better!), we were cold, and much in need of a warm drink! There is a nice cafe just on the corner of the temple complex, and we all had a hot drink each to defrost. The cafe area is spacious yet warm, and you can also find many interesting souvenirs from Yonezawa there too.
Our next destination was Onogawa – a small town with many onsen hotels. As we had a tight schedule, we had to run for the bus to Onogawa – it was a very slippery run through the ice and snow. One thing to keep in mind when planning a visit to Onogawa is that the bus station and the train stations are a little far apart from each other. So you’d best be alert if you’re going Onogawa on bus – since it comes every hour! A ticket of ¥500 took us from the bus stop at Yonezawa Station up to Onogawa Onsen. On our way, we saw many locals trying to clean their house entrances and parking lots from all the snow.
Onogawa is a scenic, compact onsen town, that has a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) at practically every street corner! As we wandered down the small main road, we bought some warm treats to fend off the cold.
We had originally planned to return back from Onogawa by public bus since it was cheap, but the last bus back to Yonezawa station was just 20 minutes after we had reached the onsen town. We did not want to miss our chance to enjoy a dip at this famous Japanese onsen town, especially after traveling over 100km to get here from Sendai! We decided to book a taxi just before we entered the onsen for 45 minutes (it takes time for the taxi drivers to reach to you). Under the recommendation of a friendly shopkeeper just outside the bus stop, we visited Takasagoya Ryokan (高砂屋旅館).
Forty-five minutes later, we regretted our decision to call the cab earlier, as we were still soaking in the onsen – it was definitely not enough time to enjoy an onsen at Onogawa! The high walls of the onsen parlor, the gentle splashing of water echoing around the stone room, and the wonderfully warm water soaking your body invites you to stay longer. After we were sufficiently warmed up, we moved to the outdoor section – it is the outdoor onsen that made this visit even more special! The feel of cotton-like snow falling gently on your exposed face and body and immediately melting as you relax under warm water is simply heavenly. It is not an experience to be missed and you’ll definitely want to find a snowy day in your schedule to do just that! A dip at Takasagoya cost ¥500 and they also supplied the usual shampoo and body gel.
While we were busy getting dressed and checking out, our cab driver was outside waiting for us. We felt bad for making him wait and were preparing ourselves for a curt reception from him. Luckily, however, our driver was not only benevolent but incredibly kind. Not only did he patiently wait for us, but he was very friendly. We had planned to visit a specific Yonezawa ‘Shabu-shabu’ restaurant by Yonezawa Station, but once we arrived we discovered it was shut! In fact, it was the amicable driver who braved the weather outside and got out of the taxi to check! Since we needed to catch our return bus shortly, we wanted to eat somewhere close to the bus station. He thought of another place to try Yonezawa’s famous beef and drove us there. As he showed us around, we noticed he had stopped the meter after arrived at the initial destination, to keep it from charging extra! Touched by his kindness, we decided to take a picture with him – and he readily agreed!
The coolest taxi driver in Yonezawa!
As we were escorted into a nice restaurant that served top notch steak, we were thankful for our ever-helpful driver, who offered to help us find this place for free! Luckily, Touyokan Steakhouse (ステーキ東洋館) was also just a few blocks away from our departure point. We ordered the recommended ‘おすすめ’ course of steak and beef tail soup. To be honest, it was quite expensive – it cost us just over half of our trip expenditure! However, we all agree that it was the most amazing beef we have ever tasted – it simply melts in the mouth! If you want a cheaper option, you can find many other restaurants that serve you “sukiyaki”, “shabu – shabu” and “yakitori” with Yonezawan beef. The only downside is, you’d have to wait for them to open (from 5 pm). Since we did not want to miss our last bus, we had fewer options but it was no less enjoyable!
With that, we headed home! It was a fantastic day out but over all, the schedule was a little tight. Without a doubt, we could have happily spent a few more hours, if not another day here, since there is so much to see! We hope you will also include Yonezawa and Onogawa on any travel plans you make soon! Thanks for joining us!
Travel Tips for Yonezawa
- If you are traveling in winter, be ready for snow! Uesugi shrine includes a garden and is quite spacious – it takes a while to get around, so make sure you wear warm clothes (gloves and a woolen hat recommended!), and waterproof shoes.
- If you are traveling on a budget, be sure not to miss the local bus. Taxis can be quite expensive!
- If you plan to go to Onogawa, it is better to stay there overnight. A few hours is definitely not enough time to explore this amazing town (and appreciate the whole ryokan experience), especially in the snow!
- If you only plan to stay the day, start early since the last bus departs early! Also be careful of the time schedule, especially for the local bus. Have your options ready, in case you miss the bus! Note that trains run later but are more expensive!
- If you do want to use taxis, make sure to call them beforehand. It might take a while for them to come especially to Onogawa from Yonezawa.
How much will it cost?
- Sendai Station -> Yonezawa Bus Station “by bus” 3500 yen (Two way)
- Yonezawa Bus Station -> Uesugi Temple “by Taxi” 1500
- Uesugi Temple -> Onogawa Onsen “by bus” 510 yen
- Onogawa Onsen -> Yonezawa Bus Station “By Taxi” 3840 yen
- A full course meal of Yonazawan Steak 9500 yen.