There are few things in life that are comparable to something as pleasurable as relaxing in a hot bath, as it soothes muscles, bones, skin, and joints. Japan is known for this activity, which is done in an “onsen”, which is a hot spring bath.
Not all spring baths are the same. They differ in how the tubs are constructed, the view, the water used, making up the overall ambiance. It’s such an important part of Japanese culture that there are resort towns all over the country beside hot springs that are dedicated to giving the best Onsen experience. Ginzan Onsen is one of them.
What is Ginzan Onsen?
Far from civilization and the bustle of Tokyo sits Ginzan Onsen; a town famous for its hot springs. It is on the island of Honshu, Tohoku region, the Prefecture of Yamagata, in Obanazawa city. It’s right between Sendai and Yamagata in Tohoku. Ginzan Onsen is found in the prefecture’s cool mountainside, exclusive to the few who are keen on arriving there.
The reason it is so exclusive is that the path to Ginzan Onsen is no highway. Because the paths leading to this onsen are so narrow, cars that travel to this area are not permitted entry into the district. Instead, they must use the parking lot which is a bit of a walk away, and customers have to walk into the town.
An Older Appeal
Some people may find this tedious, but it’s all part of the charm of Ginzan Onsen. This onsen town looks like time had stopped during the Taisho era (1912 to 1926) and early Showa era (1926 to 1989) – and that’s because most of the structures were built during those periods.
Newer buildings were barely built after the 80’s - except for one special ryokan (Japanese inn) – so as time went by, the more charming this onsen town got. Situated right beside a river (also called “Ginzan”), Ginzan Onsen is easy to navigate, as it will only take you half an hour to get from one end to the other.
The History of Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata, Japan
Completely unrelated to the idea of hot baths, but long before humans even existed, this area was already home to different types of creatures. This was proven with the discovery of fossils that date back to the Miocene era (23.03 to 5.333 million years ago) near Ginzan Onsen.
Millions of years later, the mountain would be used as a resource for silver. Because the area was initially designated for mining those silver ores, the onsen was given the name “Ginzan Onsen”; “Ginzan” which means “silver mountain”, and “onsen”, which means “hot spring”, come together to form “silver mountain hot spring”, also known as “silver mine hot spring”.
A group of silver ore miners was responsible for the discovery of the springs that flow through this part of Yamagata – and it all happened entirely by accident, about half a millennium ago. During the Edo period, most of the town’s livelihood revolved around that mine. If you want to visit the entrance of that mine, the tunnel still exists today, though you can only go as far as 20 meters in. It is close to the majestic waterfall that the Ginzan river leads to.
If you want to go deeper into the mining route used long ago, continue hiking beyond the waterfall (on the nature trail) for around 15 minutes. You will reach a valley with another entrance that you can tour inside, reaching a bit deeper into the mountains. Note, however, that this area is only open depending on the quality of the weather, so during early spring and winter, the entire nature trail is barred from entry.
When the mining stopped, establishments that made use of the rejuvenating water started to appear. It became popular during the early 1900’s and has made its way to the lists of many for having the best onsen, and town ambiance.
Hotel and Ryokan Booking Options When Staying in Ginzan Onsen
Notoya Ryokan, also known as Notoya-Ginzan, is rated as number 1 out of the 16 accommodation services in Obanazawa. It costs an estimate of around 15,000 to 20,000 yen (peak season) per person to stay here. Out of the 94 reviews, this accommodation was given on TripAdvisor, it was given a star rating of 4.5 out of 5.
It is a traditional ryokan, which is made from wood, and stands 4 stories high. It also has an indoor and outdoor onsen, but the outdoor onsen is sometimes closed due to the snowy weather. The staff here are exceptionally friendly and sweet, and look out for you; reviewers say they were given gumboots to make exploring the town easier because it was snowing. The food served is usually seafood-based.
For those who are more on a budget, Showakan goes for 10,000 to 15,000 yen a night, depending on the time of year. On TripAdvisor, it’s ranked 9th out of the 16 accommodations in Obanazawa. Out of the 24 reviews in TripAdvisor, Showakan was given a rating of 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Showakan holds 11 guest rooms that are decorated in traditional Japanese style. As for guest rooms, it has a total of 11 of them, and you can choose whether you want your room to come with a private bath and toilet, or just a private toilet. It has indoor and outdoor onsen that you can use during your stay, each onsen is separated by gender.
Experience the Ginza Hot Spring Fujiya Inn; Luxurious, Traditional, and Uniquely Japanese
Standing out as the most modern building in Ginzan Onsen – and being so controversially new, this ryokan is an architectural marvel. For those who prefer something a little more modern over the quaint ryokan available, this is the choice to make. A room here costs thereabouts of 50,000 yen up; but for those who don’t mind paying a pretty price for a wonderful experience, Ginzan Hot Spring Fujiya Inn gives you a little more luxury than the usual ryokan.
Public Baths Around Ginzan Onsen
While many of the ryokans here already have onsen built inside, and sometimes outside as well, there are places that specialize in being onsen spas. So far, there are two of them in Ginzan Onsen town and one footbath. To find this onsen, head to the town center. There, you’ll find Shiroganeyu, and Omokageyu, the two public baths, and Ginzan Onsen Waraky Ashinoyu, the foot bath.
Ginzan Onsen: The Inspiration for A Scene In “Spirited Away”
A Studio Ghibli-produced hit film for both children and adults, Spirited Away is about how a girl named Chihiro Ogini/Hiiragi gets whisked away into a paranormal realm. During her discovery of the different, fantastical occurrences and places around her, she meets a series of paranormal entities and continues along a strange, monster/yokai-filled adventure in a quest to free a spell that bound her parents
In Japanese, this movie is known as “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi” (千と千尋の神隠し). It was released in July 2001 and runs 125 minutes long. The writer and director of this animated film, Hayao Miyazaki, used different places around the world (and in Japan) as inspiration for the enchanted settings that he would place Chihiro in. One of them is based on a ryokan in Ginzan Onsen.
The scene in the movie depicts a notorious red bridge. This red bridge represents the connection between the supernatural world, and the normal world in the film. Haku, Chihiro’s guide, was trying to sneak her into the Ryokan without anyone noticing. Chihiro, the star of the film, was supposed to cross it without breathing, as the other monsters who were walking into the inn with her can smell humans when they exhale. The inspiration for that inn was taken from Notoya Ryokan, as the monsters are found lounging in the onsen and participating in merrymaking inside the ryokan.
Ginzan Onsen and the Japanese Drama TV Show, “Oshin”
Another show that features Ginzan Onsen is Oshin – though this time, Oshin is a live action TV show, all about a girl named Oshin, and her life from childhood all the way until her old age. Each episode runs for 15 minutes, and there are a total of 297 episodes. It was originally released on April 4, 1983, until March 31, 1984. Because she grows up in Yamagata, they used many places around Ginzan Onsen to film, adding to the romanticism and popularity of this onsen town up in the mountains.
What Is the Weather Like in Ginzan Onsen?
The weather in Ginzan Onsen is intense both ways; some winters can get intensely cold, while summers can be quite humid and hot. It rains frequently here no matter what month it is, but mostly so in the months of August, September, and October. By November, it already gets quite cold and begins to snow.
Average temperatures during its coldest winter months (January and February) drop to as low as -1.3 degrees Celsius and -.9 degrees Celsius, respectively. However, during July and August – its hottest summer months, the temperatures hit averages of 21.6 degrees Celsius and 24.4 degrees Celsius, respectively.
Find A Map to Help You Navigate Ginzan Onsen
Ginzan Onsen is a tiny town, so it would be quite hard to get lost. To keep an updated map with you of this area, it’s highly suggested that you print a copy for yourself from google maps, or take a screenshot with your smartphone – just in case there’s no signal around the mountains. However, if you have pocket wifi or data that works in these parts of Yamagata, having the mobile app on as you navigate your way around the town is the most efficient way to go.
You may want to prepare an English to Japanese dictionary as an app on your phone (or a good old-fashioned book) to help you get around.
How to Access Ginzan Onsen
There are three ways you can get to Ginzan Onsen; by riding a train, car, or using a bus directly from the airport that your flight arrives in.
If you’re coming from Yamagata Airport, you can take one of the two scheduled roundtrips that day. Depending on the departures to the different airports (Haneda, Itami, and Komaki Airport), the buses leave at different intervals at either morning, early noon, or noon. A one-way trip from Yamagata airport takes at most 90 minutes and costs 1500 yen.
You can also opt to rent a car in Yamagata from a rental outlet – usually in available in stations such as Yamagata, Shinjo, and Murayama. The car can take you all the way up until the path allows, where you have to take a 10-minute walk (less than a mile) to arrive at Ginzan Onsen.
As for those who mean to take the train, take a line that leads to Oishida Station. From Tokyo, the best option is the JR Yamagata Shinkansen. It’ll take quite a while; a bit over 3 hours, and set you back 12,000 yen. From there, you can take a bus, which takes you directly to Ginzan Onsen. This trip has a duration of around 35 minutes and costs 710 for one way. You can use the Japan Rail Pass, JR East South Hokkaido Pass, and JR East Tohoku pass to pay for your train rides – except the bus ride.
Experience Real Japanese Hospitality
You can try booking a hotel wherever country you travel to in the world, but only in Japan you can get to have the entire ryokan and onsen experience.