Lost near the city of Obanazawa, seated in a green setting that would make Shinjuku Park jealous, far from the turmoil of the urban landscape, you can find the whimsical hot spring town Ginzan Onsen. This jewel nested in Tohoku is the perfect destination for your winter escapes.
Picture-Perfect Ginzan Onsen
Nothing could predict the huge success that Ginzan Onsen would have when it was created: as the Japanese name suggests, Ginzan Onsen was a silver mine back in the day and you can still visit a part of the mine when visiting during the spring and summer. However, the town is now more known as one of the most beautiful onsen spots in Japan since it was converted into a resort more than 400 years ago.
Even though plenty of towns in Japan could be rivals and many claim to be the inspiration for a Ghibli anime, Ginzan Onsen doesn’t even need that to shine. The central, very unique street of centuries old ryokan – plus a brand new one with incredible architecture – gives this town a lost in time atmosphere, especially during the winter months when it’s all covered in snow.
Here, we’re talking no cars, gas lamps, wooden fronts, wanderers dressed in yukata by night… Nothing beats the unique atmosphere that Ginzan Onsen will leave you with. An eerie feeling that is perfect to get away from your worries or just spend a weekend with your significant other.
What to Do in Ginzan
If you can, we definitely recommend that you spend the night. However, it can be tricky to find a spot in a ryokan and you would have to book months in advance especially around Christmas or Valentine’s. Still, you can make it a one-day visit during your trip to Tohoku! The town is small and you can have a look at everything in half a day, staying the night is a way to continue the magic and leave with incredible images in your head.
When arriving in Ginzan, leave your carriage and start by entering the coffee shop right at the entrance of the main street. There, you can enjoy a cup of tea or coffee and gaze at the red bridges, visitors taking pictures or enjoying the ashiyu – outdoor foot bath – and the white and black architecture of the ryokans. You will find few to no private habitations in this street, and that’s what makes the beauty of these wooden fronts, creating a really unique scenery of old hotels lining in front of you.
Ginzan Onsen is a place that you can feel: start walking along the central river and immerse yourself in this lost in time place, some say that it feels like being in the Taisho Era (18th century). The more you advance, the closer you will get to the impressive waterfall that sleeps during the winter months. This waterfall belongs to Shirogane Park, but most of the park will be closed for security reasons when the snow sets. Come back in spring to enjoy a nice walk in the nature of these mountains.
After taking your big breath of fresh air, you can browse the few souvenir shops at the end of the valley and maybe grab a bottle of local sake to enjoy in your ryokan room. And now, we’re moving onto the specialty of the town: onsen! There are two public hot baths in Ginzan Onsen that you can enjoy for around 500 yen and the ashiyu, foot bath, is totally free of charge.
Refreshed, clean and relaxed: it’s time to get to your hotel and enjoy your dinner, before soaking in your natural hot bath. The magic happens when the day visitors leave Ginzan, and you can have a stroll along the river in your yukata – almost alone. Don’t forget to enjoy the town on the morning too, right before the crowd gets here.
Pure calm and relaxation in a remote town also means no ATM, no convenience store and no shops. Be prepared when going in Ginzan Onsen as you will need cash to pay your ryokan, onsen, or the snacks! You can find coffee, tea, some snacks or food to eat on the go. You can also eat noodles, cakes and a local specialty called dondonyaki in restaurants but be aware that the variety of foods to eat is very limited – so be prepared if you have allergies or a specific diet.
Ginzan Onsen is attached to a city called Obanazawa in Yamagata prefecture. You can park your vehicles at the entrance of the valley, but come early as the spots will fill quickly. The town is a rough 10 minutes’ walk from the parking but you can take the trolley bus to get to Ginzan Onsen. From Tokyo, it will take approximately 4 hours to get to Ginzan Onsen: take a shinkansen to Oishida, then a bus to Ginzan Onsen. We actually recommend you to rent a car in Oishida and do this little road-trip at your own pace.
As we said, most ryokans will be full months in advance during the peak season which is winter. That does not mean that spring, summer and autumn are a bad time to go there! Actually, the autumn too will be a perfect timing to enjoy the red foliage, spring to witness the nature coming back to life and summer to refresh yourself from the humidity and hot temperatures.
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