Onsen or Japanese hot springs are an important part of Japanese culture, also one of the essential experiences to have when visiting Japan. While there are thousands of onsen towns across the country where you can experience this unique bathing culture, some are simply exceptional that you just have to visit at least once not only for the hot springs but also for the atmosphere and wonderful surroundings. For me, Ginzan Onsen, which this article is about, is one such place.
About Ginzan Onsen
Ginzan Onsen 銀山温泉 is a hot spring town in Obanazawa, Yamagata Prefecture. The area used to prosper as a silver mining town during the early Edo period, as suggested by its name “ginzan” which means silver mine. Following the closure of the mine in the late 1600s, the town has since been developed as an onsen destination.
It became nationally famous after it was used as filming location for Oshin, a hit television drama in the 80s. Today, it remains as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the prefecture, famed as one of the most beautiful onsen towns in Japan.
Enjoy the romantic vibe
Does this resemble the setting for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away? Image: Syuzo Tsushima on flickr / CC BY 2.0
What makes Ginzan Onsen special is the picture perfect townscape which evokes a sense of nostalgia. It has remained largely the same since the town was reconstructed between the late Taisho and early Showa periods following a massive flood.
Nestled in the mountainside with the Ginzan River flowing through it, the town has many traditional ryokan (hot spring inns) lining both sides of the river, with small bridges placed across the stream to connect these wooden buildings. The town looks especially beautiful in the evenings when the buildings are lit up and streets are illuminated by the gas lights.
Explore the quaint little town
Ginzan Onsen is a very small town, which takes no longer than 30 minutes to walk from one end to another. Even so, there is no need to rush, as it is meant to be explored at a slow and relaxing pace so to take in the sights and sounds of the place.
Many people visit Ginzan Onsen in the winter for its gorgeous snow scenery. Located in the northeastern region of Tohoku, the area receives metres of snow in the winter, which only enhances the beauty of the town by turning it into a winter wonderland.
Even so, Ginzan Onsen is a nice place to visit all year round. If freezing temperatures are not what you are after, you can always visit the town in other seasons which promise different outdoor interests such as colourful foliage in the autumn, or hiking in the summer.
Let’s take a look at what the town has to offer:-
Ginzan Onsen is essentially a place for hot spring baths so while you are here, so don’t pass up the chance to take a dip in the bath. The type of hot spring in Ginzan Onsen is sulfate spring, which is said to be good for skin diseases, arteriosclerosis, and diabetes. Water from the source is pumped into the ryokans and bathhouses in the area, where various types of baths such as indoor, open-air, and private baths are provided.
You can enjoy the baths by becoming a staying guest at a ryokan or use a public bath. The town has two public baths: one is Kajika-yu which costs 300 yen per entry, and Shirogane-yu which costs 500 yen per entry. Some of the ryokans also allow day visitors or non-staying guests to use their baths during daytime for a fee. You can check out the list of these ryokans at the tourist information centre near the town entrance.
At the entrance of the town there is also a public foot bath where you can sit by the river and relax your feet after walking around the town. It uses water directly from the hot spring source and is free of charge.
- Shirogane Park & old silver mine
A must-do in Ginzan Onsen is to take a walk at the Shirogane Park located at the back of the town, where there is a 22 metre tall waterfall Shirogane no Taki, and further into the woods the old silver mine which reminds people of Ginzan Onsen’s history. Visitors can follow a hiking trail that leads past the waterfall to the mine which they can enter for free. But note that the trail and the old silver mine are closed in winter and early spring due to snow.
- Food & souvenirs
When it comes to food, be sure to try the region’s specialty – soba noodles. A famous place to have this dish is Takimikan, a restaurant near the Shirogane Falls which specialises in handmade soba made from Obanazawa buckwheat flour. You are also likely to find different kinds of snacks made using local ingredients, and don’t forget to try the popular curry bun from a cafe called Haikarasan’s Currybread!
If you would like to pick up some mementos, do keep an eye on the local crafts such as kokeshi dolls – these handmade wooden toys are exclusive souvenirs from Tohoku, traditionally sold in the region’s onsen areas.
A perfect hot spring trip
Ginzan Onsen is a great addition to any trip to Tohoku, where famous sights such as Mt. Zao and Yamadera are just a short train ride away. While it can be visited for a day trip, an overnight stay at one of the historic inns is always recommended to fully experience the charm of Ginzan Onsen.
After all, what really makes a difference is omotenashi or Japanese hospitality provided by the ryokan to ensure their guests are having a great time. Besides enjoying delicious meals made from local, seasonal ingredients, a stroll around the town in yukata after a relaxing hot bath is also an experience not to be missed!
How to go
From Tokyo Station, take the JR Yamagata Shinkansen to Oishida Station 大石田駅, where you transfer to a bus departing for Ginzan Onsen. The shinkansen ride takes around 3 hours and 30 minutes and costs about 12,000 yen one way, while the bus ride takes about 40 minutes and costs 710 yen one way.
Bus schedule: http://www.city.obanazawa.yamagata.jp/1158.html (in Japanese, pdf format)
For staying guests at the ryokan, shuttle bus service from the train station directly to the town may be available, be sure to enquire and request the service in advance when making your reservation.