Yunishigawa during the Kamakura Festival

Yunishigawa Onsen (쉷) is a small hot spring town in a remote valley in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, about a one hour bus ride deeper into the mountains from Kinugawa Onsen.

The town was founded after the Taira clan (also known as the Heike clan) was defeated by the Minamoto clan (also known as the Genji clan) for political supremacy over Japan towards the end of the Heian Period (710 - 1185), and many members of the Taira clan fled into hiding in remote regions of Japan. Yunishigawa was one such hidden settlement of Taira refugees.

Heike no Sato open air museum

Strict rules were maintained to keep the town from being discovered, such as bans on chicken (because of their crowing) and koinobori streamers (because the colorful streamers could be easily seen from a distance). Interestingly, some of these bans are still observed today, despite the fact that the town has long been put onto the map. An open air museum, the Heike no Sato, exhibits about a dozen old homes and tools that illustrate the everyday life of villagers in the past.

Thanks to its hot spring sources, Yunishigawa Onsen has turned into a tourist destination in more recent times, and the town now offers multiple lodgings, ranging from rustic ryokan to large sized hotels. Several of the lodgings include dinners of local cuisine served around a fireplace (irori).

Dinner is served around a fireplace (irori)

Yunishigawa receives a fair amount of snow in the winter, attracting visitors with river lined outdoor baths surrounded by snow. An even more popular winter attraction is the Yunishigawa Kamakura Festival ("Yunishigawa Snow House Festival"), during which hundreds of snow houses (kamakura) of different sizes are built and illuminated in the evenings around town and along the river.

The Yunishigawa Kamakura Festival is held from late January to early March (January 27 to March 4, 2018) on multiple sites across the town. The main site is the Heike no Sato and features hot pot meals in snow houses during the day and illuminations in the evenings until 21:00. A nearby riverside site features lots of mini snow houses and is illuminated everyday except Wednesdays and Thursdays. Various outdoor activities, such as a snow slide and snow shoeing, can be enjoyed at other sites.

Snow houses in the forest during the Kamakura Festival

Access

Yunishigawa Onsen can be reached by direct hourly buses from Kinugawa Onsen Station (one hour, 1750 yen one way). Alternatively, you can take the train as far as Yunishigawa Onsen Station, from where there are 1-2 buses per hour to the town of Yunishigawa Onsen (25 minutes, 880 yen one way). Yunishigawa Onsen Station is somewhat special as its platform is located inside a tunnel, and the station complex features a public bath fed by hot spring waters.

How to get to and around Kinugawa Onsen