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Yamanaka Onsen 山中温泉

Hot spring village with moutainous scenery, geisha culture, and local lacquerware

Yamanaka Onsen is a 1,300-year-old hot spring village located in the mountains of the Kaga area. The town’s onsen baths and mountain scenery have fostered a rich culture of song, dance, geisha performing arts, and handcrafted lacquerware.

The town is centered around Kiku no Yu, a public, gender-segregated bathhouse in the main square. An ashiyu (footbath) and drinking spring outside the public bathhouse are both free of charge. The area’s numerous ryokan inns offer Japanese-style lodging and local cuisine.

In the 1800s, captains and crew of kitamaebune, wooden ships that traded along the Sea of Japan coast, often visited the town during the winter season. Influence from the shanties they sang led to the creation of a song called Yamanaka-bushi. Yamanaka-bushi is performed by geisha on Saturdays, Sundays, and national holidays at the Yamanaka-za theater, located at the main square. On weekdays, the theater hosts more intimate Yamanaka-bushi performances in which visitors can play traditional games with geisha.

The town has a distinctive style of lacquerware. Each step of the lacquerware-making process is performed by a different artisan, and Yamanaka is most famous for its expert lathework. Locally crafted pieces can be found in many of the historic shops that line Yuge-kaido, the town’s main street. Some shops let visitors try their hand at turning bowls and other items on a lathe. One kilometer north of the town center is Urushi-za, a Yamanaka lacquerware store, gallery, and museum. There is an adjacent school where woodturning is performed on site.

The Ayatori Bridge, meaning “cat’s cradle bridge,” spans the Kakusenkei Gorge in a unique shape reminiscent of its namesake game. It was designed by avant-garde filmmaker Teshigahara Hiroshi (1927–2001). After dark, the bridge is lit up, dramatically highlighting the gorge below. A 1.3-kilometer-long walking path winds through the forest, parallel to the river, on the side of the bridge opposite the town.

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