The hidden Onsen (Hot Spring) town of Atsumi’s own hidden gem
At first glance, Atsumi Onsen looks just like any other hot spring town; long river meandering its way through a narrow valley, cherry blossom trees, small family-run Ryokan inns, but a look under the hood reveals a secretive location bound to make any nature lover rejoice, the town’s very own hidden world of wonder, Atsumi-dake.
温海岳 | あつみだけ
Atsumi-dake (温海岳あつみだけ) is a 736m (2414 ft.) peak in the Shonai region of Yamagata prefecture best climbed from mid-May to late October. Atsumi-dake is a level 2 in terms of physical demand, which means it is relatively easy to hike, has a A technical grade, which means it requires little expertise, and you want to allow at least 5 hours for a climb.
Two: 1) Atsumi-dake Trailhead (5 hour loop) 2) Hirashimizu Trailhead (5 hour loop)
Best time to climb
Mid-May to Late October
Day trip possible?
Minimum Time Required
The 736m Atsumi-dake (熱海岳、熱海嶽) lies in the north of Atsumi Onsen. Atsumi Onsen is a tiny township on the southern edge of the Shonai coast on the Sea of Japan. Atsumi-dake boasts an eclectic mix of natural features. There are forest streams, waterfalls, shrines, and deep cedar and beech forests. There is even an abandoned Shukubo pilgrim lodge, not to mention countless memorial stones, shrines, and caves. Ascetics would have used these during spiritual training proving that Atsumi-dake was a popular destination for followers of Shugendo.
Reaching the peak of Atsumi-dake, loyal followers in the past would have been doubly rewarded. First with the grace of Kumano, the Kami of Atsumi-dake enshrined at the summit. Then the unbeatable views over the surrounding mountains, valleys, and islands in the Sea of Japan. Perhaps, they were also rewarded with a soak in a hot spring at Atsumi Onsen.
Do not let this low-profile mountain fool you, however. Atsumi-dake is by no means an easy peak to summit. In fact, barring climbing Gassan and Yudono-san from Haguro-san, it might just be the toughest mountain to climb in the whole Shonai region. Or at least that was the case for me, although we were climbing in the middle of the summer heat. As we all know though, the only way to truly appreciate tranquility is through having experienced hardship. Climb Atsumi-dake, and that onsen (hot spring) right after doesn’t just feel like heaven, it is heaven.
Put simply, Atsumi-dake is climbable when there is no snow. At a guess it would be possible to climb Atsumi-dake in snowshoes. There is a forest area with mountain stream and waterfalls that would definitely be worth exploring in winter. However it probably wouldn’t be worth going all the way to the summit because of how far it is.
Either way, the recommended season for hiking Atsumi-dake is from mid-May to late October. Mid-May is when the fresh greenery is out, as well as the mountain cherry blossoms. This is arguably one of the best times to be anywhere outside in Japan. October is right when the autumn leaves are changing, also one of the best times to be outdoors.
Like most places in rural Japan, Atsumi Onsen is best reached by car. Atsumi Onsen does have a train station on the coast. It is a bit of a walk to get to the mountain though, at least 30 minutes. If you’re coming from central Tsuruoka, there is a free highway you can use to get to Atsumi Onsen. Coming from the south, take Route 7 north from Murakami City. There will be a right hand turn into Atsumi Onsen.
There are a few carparks you can use in Atsumi Onsen to climb the mountain. One is located across the Atsumi river from the entrance to the mountain. This is an easy spot to drop off and pick up your car.
There are really only two trailheads up Atsumi-dake that both loop to one another. First is the main Atsumi-dake Trailhead, and then there is the Hirashimizu trailhead. I would only recommend taking the main Atsumi-dake Trailhead that takes you clockwise around the mountain. The descent from the summit down to the Hirashimizu trailhead is very long and very steep. It’s best to use this for a downhill. There is also a trailhead from the Iragawa side of the mountain. This trail is famous for being long and steep, a challenge for another time perhaps.
First, there is a narrow mountain road that takes you to the trail into the mountain. This road takes you alongside a river basically the whole way. There are plenty of waterfalls and other sights to check out along here. Before long, there will be a section with a sign featuring a map of the mountain. You will also see a trail that leads into the mountain proper. This trail is the official Atsumi-dake Trail.
The first part of this mountain trail takes you alongside a long stream in the middle of a natural forest. Here there are tons of small waterfalls, footbridges so overgrown with plants they blend into the scenery, and countless varieties of flora and fauna.
The mountain stream has three larger waterfalls; Ichinotaki, Ninotaki, and Sannotaki. There is even a waterfall known as the lover’s waterfall where a stream meets the main stream. Keep a look out for caves along this path as well. These would have been used by ascetics training there.
The climb up this section is quite long, and took us probably around 90 minutes to two hours. At the top, you’ll come out at the road from earlier. Again there is a map to check your position. This road is a service road for the power lines, so should be well maintained. In fact, it takes you quite high up towards the summit.
It should be obvious, but you want to head up this road. Eventually, there will be a ‘T’ intersection. Take a left here. The path eventually evens out. If you’re tall enough to look over the trees, the view out to the west is quite spectacular. Keep following this road up the hill. Soon enough the forest path that takes you to the summit will appear on your left.
Kumano shrine at the summit is not very exciting, just a giant concrete box, but the views are really something. If the weather’s great, the views are basically 360°. You can see the Asahi mountain range, Gassan, Chokai-zan, the Shonai Plains. You can also see to the Sea of Japan and Sado and Awashima Islands. This is a great spot to take a break and catch your breath before making the descent back down.
After you’ve rested enough, it’s time to head back down the mountain. By this stage, you are about 3/4 of the way through the loop. Now all that’s left is a descent through the cedar and beech forests that lead to the Hirashimizu Trailhead. From the summit, you should see the path as it goes off into the forest. There is a sign directly in front of the shrine in case you get confused.
Be warned though, this part of the trail is rather steep and rather long. It would be a good idea to have a stick for this part of the hike, as it can also get quite slippery with fallen leaves or especially if the ground is wet. There are also errant tree roots to watch out for.
Nearer to the bottom of this path, you will come across the Ipponsugi, the lone Cedar. Also, nearby lie the remains of the Kyuhaiden Hall, locations formerly used by followers of Shugendo and other mountain religions. Right next to the remains of Kyuhaiden Hall is a well with fresh mountain water. This was a lifesaver for us as by this point we had both run out of water. We are both pretty sweaty guys anyway. We both ploughed through 2 litres of water, if that’s any indication for the difficulty of a climb.
Once you’ve had your chance to refresh, continue following the trail down, and eventually there will be a bamboo forest next to an abandoned building. It turns out that this building is a former Shukubo, a pilgrim lodge used for Shojin Kessai or purification of pilgrims to the mountain. The path continues downhill from here and takes you back to the Hirashimizu Trailhead.
From the Hirashimizu Trailhead, simply head back along the river and you should find your way back to your car relatively easily. Once you’ve climbed Atsumi-dake, it’s definitely worthwhile checking out the surrounding town. I would go so far as to recommend making an event of it and booking a night or two in one of the local Ryokan as well.
The name Atsumi literally means ‘hot ocean’ and comes from the fact that there is a natural hot spring that comes out at the bottom of the Atsumi river, which then flows into The Sea of Japan.
Locals separate Atsumi Onsen into two main areas; Hama-Atsumi along the coast, and the inland Yu-Atsumi along the Atsumi river. Hama-Atsumi is the area along the Sea of Japan, an ocean known for harsh winds and high waves in the winter, but great fishing year-round or swimming in the summer.
Yu-Atsumi is a traditional onsen (hot spring) town along the banks of the Atsumi River. On either side of the Atsumi River lie any number of Ryokan, big and small, a long line of cherry blossom trees, cafes, and it wouldn’t be an onsen town with foot spas for all to enjoy. Since you’re in town, why not check out, or even check in to, the numerous Ryokan (traditional inns) and other onsen facilities Atsumi Onsen has to offer.
Thankfully, in reward for your efforts climbing to the summit, Atsumi-dake happens to be in one of the best spots to relax in the whole of Yamagata. If you didn’t know already, Yamagata prefecture has over 500 Onsen facilities, and at least one in every municipality. Tsuruoka City is famous for having three Onsen towns; the inland Yutagawa Onsen near Kinbo-zan, the coastal Yunohama Onsen near Takadate-yama and Arakura-yama, and of course Atsumi Onsen.
Being one of the top places in the prefecture is definitely saying something. It also means that once you’re done climbing or exploring, you’re all but guaranteed a great chance for a dip in an onsen hot pool, or if you’re anything like us a tasty ice cream while enjoying a foot spa at the region’s most popular cafe, Chitto Motche.
The quality of the spring water in Atsumi Onsen has led to the area becoming very popular. The water is said to be great for healing all types of scratches and bruises, or simply for a relaxing soak. The water naturally comes out at 68℃, so only needs to be cooled a little for bathing, and is clear with zero colouration containing sodium, calcium and chloride sulphate that is great on the skin, especially for those with skin problems.
There are a few stories as to the origin of the hot spring, most famously that Kukai (A.K.A. Kobodaishi, the monk who brought Buddhism to Japan) had a revelation in his dream where he stamped his stick into the ground and the earth shook which formed the hot spring to form. This story happens to coincide with an earthquake that happened in the 8th century, the very time Kukai was alive. One other story states that a lumberjack witnessed an injured crane heal its injured wing in the warm water before finally being able to fly away.
There are three main foot spas in Yu-Atsumi that anyone is able to use for free; the Anbe foot spa, the Mokke foot spa, and the Motche foot spa. The Anbe foot spa is in the middle of the road across the bridge from Bankokuya Ryokan. The Mokke foot spa is located adjacent the river. Lastly, the Motche foot spa is located on the deck outside Chitto Motche, a café facing the river. The foot spas are known to help improve the circulation to the lower part of the body, that eases sensitivity to cold, and provides relief for swollen feet, the perfect thing after a long hike.
There are two famous large Ryokan lodges in Atsumi Onsen, Tachibanaya and Bankokuya, of which I’ve only ever stayed in Tachibanaya. Tachibanaya has a massive onsen fit for a king that I’d recommend going to after your hike, or there is even an option for a private onsen. Tachibanaya is available for day-baths, although it is on the expensive side. There are also numerous other small Ryokan that are eager to host you, some of which can only be booked by phone or fax machine (contact me for details).
Besides the foot spas, there are three communal baths in Atsumi Onsen; the Shomen bath, the Shita bath, and the Sato bath. The Shomen and Shita baths are open from 6am to 9:30am, and 12pm to 11pm. The Sato bath is open from 2pm to 10pm. A donation of 200 yen is appreciated for general upkeep of the baths. There is an awesome sign for the Shomen bath made by the 28th Tate-gyoji (highest-ranked sumo judge) Kimura Shonosuke.
Atsumi Onsen offers something for every season. Arguably the best time of year to visit is during the cherry blossom season in spring, usually around the end of April to mid-May. Each year, the 250-odd cherry blossom trees that line the river are lit up, and the soft pink and white petals reflecting in the river contrast deeply against the pale blue sky.
Spring also brings with it the start of the Atsumi Onsen morning market. Said to have begun at least 265 years ago, the local farmers known as Aba sell pickles, such as Atsumi turnip, an heirloom vegetable grown on the nearby hills in the ‘slash-and-burn’ method, and seafood such as squid that has been dried overnight, a local delicacy called Ika-no-ichiyaboshi (lit. Squid dried overnight) in Japanese.
Other popular foods at the market include Genroku Mochi or Bero bero mochi, a locally-made soft pounded rice cake. Or try Tochi-mochi, another pounded rice cake flavoured with a paste that has been painstakingly extracted from horse-chestnuts. As with many other hot spring towns in Japan, a local variety of Onsen Manju, a rice cake filled with red bean paste cooked in the hot spring water, is available. One local delicacy is a special type of Sasamaki, rice boiled inside bamboo leaves with a distinct yellow colour attributed to the special way in which it is made in Atsumi Onsen.
The Atsumi Morning Market runs from April 1st to the beginning of December from 5:00 to 8:30am.
Summer is time for rock oysters from the Sea of Japan, and the rock oysters found near Atsumi Onsen are some of the freshest to be found anywhere. Couple that with some local sake. The nearby Maya-san is home to Mayasan, a local sake enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.
During summer, the river attracts a whole lot of mosquitoes, and this is the reason for the name of Kajika street. When Emperor Showa visited in 1961, he was so taken aback by the sheer number and noise of the mosquitoes, he named the street after the type of mosquito found there, Kajika.
Don’t let the bugs put you off though, it’s only really a problem if you go down to the riverbed. Which, if you’re ok with it, is a great location to see fish swimming upstream, notably Ayu sweetfish in the summer heat in July, and salmon in autumn. Although the sides of the river have been concreted to combat consistent flooding, the base of the river has been left alone to allow the fish to still climb upstream.
Summer also marks the start of the Atsumi Onsen Rose Garden festival. Located in what used to be a sumo ring, the Atsumi Onsen Rose Garden is the only garden of its kind in the Shonai region that started with donations of 300 rose buds by the Tsuruoka Rose Association in 1863. A further 150 rose bushes were donated by Tachibanaya, one of Atsumi Onsen’s most famous Ryokan traditional inns. Currently over 3000 rose bushes of 90 different varieties bloom between July and September, including the Lord’s Rose (Tonosama Rose) that was moved there in 2013 from Tsuruoka Park.
As with much of the northern Tohoku region, Atsumi Onsen offers an excellent location for Momijigari, a pastime where you go out ‘hunting’ for the changing leaves. Japan is renowned for its photography, and it’s fair to say that this is because it is such a picturesque country. The hills surrounding Atsumi Onsen, such as Atsumi-dake or Maya-san, or the villages in the mountains behind Atsumi Onsen, provide the perfect location to capture the quintessential Japanese autumn photo.
Winter in the Shonai region is cold, but thanks to Atsumi Onsen’s location next to the sea, and the abundance of hot spring water, the area is still accessible, and is even more pretty when covered in a blanket of white. The hot spring water also means that a lot of the snow simply melts as it falls or is pushed into the hot water in the drains that run through the town.
Historically, Atsumi Onsen has also been a feature location for famous literary figures. Notably, Japan’s most famous Haiku poet Matsuo Basho as he returned to Edo during his journey writing The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but also other famous authors such as Akiko Yosano, and Riichi Yokomitsu. Atsuki even once inspired the Japanese Emperor to write a poem; during a visit by Emperor Showa in 1961, he wrote “A green mountain covered in drizzle, as a garden on a mountain peak”. The poem has since been inscribed at the nearby Kumano Shrine.
Nezugaseki is the town at the southernmost point of Tsuruoka City’s Shonai coast, and was once one of the main checkpoints into the Ou region (the other two were in Shirakawa and Nakosonoseki). According to local legend, Nezugaseki was the checkpoint where the events of the famous Kabuki play Kanjincho took place.
The tiny fishing village of Nezugaseki has a few peculiarities worth checking out, such as Itsukushima Shrine, the Nenjunomatsu Garden, and Asahiya Sushi Restaurant. Itsukushima Shrine isn’t that grand, but it has many cool statues and artefacts and juts out on the coast where there is a pretty cool lighthouse to explore.
Nearby, there is a traditional Japanese garden called the Nenjunomatsu Garden, home to a very special 400-year-old Bonsai tree called the Nenjunomatsu (lit. the Buddhist Rosary Pine). What makes the Nenjunomatsu pine tree special is that it is less than 4m tall, but has one branch that stretches out 20m to the east. The diameter of the main trunk is 1.16m, but the one branch that sticks out has a diameter of 1.3m.
This is because the Nenjunomatsu Garden is actually the garden of a 400-year-old former Ryokan called Murakamiya that went out of business in 1960, but the garden and Bonsai were felt to be too special to destroy. The owner of the Ryokan requested the bonsai pine be a Garyu, a pine shaped like a dragon. The Nenjunomatsu is one of only 10 such Garyu in Japan, however none of them have a branch that reaches this length.
The Nenjunomatsu was registered as a natural monument of Yamagata prefecture on August 1, 1955, and the whole garden was redesigned by world-famous landscape architect Ken Nakajima in 1994.
What would a fishing village be without an eccentric sushi chef. Nezugaseki is also home to one of my favourite sushi restaurants, Asahiya. Asahiya is owned by one of the craziest guys I know who even hosts sushi parties on top of Maya-san, and who was enamoured by one of the Sokushinbutsu of Yudono-san, Tetsumonkai Shonin, and even has many of the actual tools used by Tetsumonkai Shonin as he trained to reach enlightenment in this current world. If you have a Japanese speaker, definitely take the time to listen to the chef’s speech, he’s a really knowledgable guy full of great lessons!
Not too far from Atsumi Onsen there is another mountain on the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata list, Nihon-koku. Nihon-koku literally means ‘The Country of Japan’, so if you hike to its summit, you can truthfully say ‘I conquered Japan’.