Kaminoyama is a small city a short distance from Yamagata City, where you can go for a day trip while you’re in Yamagata Prefecture.
You can start at Kaminoyama Castle which has, in the way of many of Japan’s castles, been converted into a museum. This is easily better than a lot of the museum castles I’ve been to though; aside from the usual historical artifacts and samurai armor, it has a short, beautifully animated dialogue-free movie explaining the history of the city; there is a tiny fake forest with a mountain monk blowing a conch shell; and there is a balcony running around the whole roof, giving you a 360° view of the city and surrounding mountains. Entrance is only ¥400 and, while there is not a lot of information available in English, it’s visually pleasing enough that you can enjoy it anyway.
After all that education, you’ll want to rest your weary feet, so head to the gardens behind the castle where you will not only find beautiful flowers in the right seasons, but also a free foot onsen. Stick your feet and legs into the naturally hot, beautiful water and relax for a while.
Kaminoyama is well-known for its foot onsens, so keep your eye out for them as you walk around town.
Next, wander into the ‘ninja-like’ streets behind the castle to find Bukeyashiki Street, where there are some samurai houses still standing. Some of them allow you to visit their gardens, but at least one of them is open to the public.
Delving into history really works up an appetite, so splash out and head to the divine Koyo Onsen Hotel for lunch. For ¥7,000 you can get a room in the hotel for the day, so you can put down your bags, have a cup of green tea and admire the view, before heading to your private dining room for a traditional Japanese feast.
This meal, which has plenty in the way of local specialties including pickled cherry sushi and imoni stew, may well be one of the best meals you have in Japan, and it is all so beautifully presented you will definitely want to have your camera ready.
Once you’ve licked the pudding jar totally clean, it will be time to clean yourself up, so head to the onsen in the hotel. Everything, from towels to face wash, is provided, so you just need to sink into the bath (or ice-cold sauna, if that’s your thing) and let the natural hot springs work their magic.
From there, you can either take a stroll around the city in the evening or head back to wherever you’re staying. Or, if the thought of leaving the hotel is just too much, why not inquire about a room for the night?