Come on in, the water’s warm! Watch your worries evaporate like the steam of a hot spring at this charming mountain destination.
When was the last time you truly relaxed? The last time you let go of your day-to-day worries and responsibilities, cleared your mind completely and felt a much-needed sense of relief wash over you? Perhaps it was sometime last week on the couch, last weekend in Savasana or even last night in the bathtub—but no matter where it was, I’d wager a guess that it wasn’t quite as scenic as this: one of Japan’s most breathtaking onsen.
Nestled in the picturesque mountains surrounding Obanazawa, Yamagata Prefecture, Ginzan Onsen is a sight to behold. Literally “silver mountain hot spring,” this postcard-perfect onsen village is situated on land originally built up around a silver mine—hence the name. Featuring a river lined with traditional wooden ryokan (Japanese-style inns) and quaint, pedestrian-only streets at its centre, Ginzan Onsen beckons visitors from near and far to come and slip into a bygone place and time—and to put their feet up for a while.
Escaping to hot springs to relax and rejuvenate has long been a favourite pastime in Japan. The first recorded onsen in Japanese history dates back over a thousand years—back to a time when the hot water from natural springs was considered to be a sacred gift from the gods. Popularity continued to pick up in the 12th century with the Buddhist understanding that onsen water had the power to cleanse and purify the body and mind. And nowadays? Well, you’d certainly be hard-pressed to find many Japanese—singles, couples, families young and old—who haven’t experienced (or don’t long for) an onsen weekend away
So, in today’s fast-paced, high-tech cultural climate—particularly in megacities like Tokyo and Osaka—it’s easy to see why locals and foreigners alike are enticed by a place like Ginzan Onsen. Picture it for yourself:
it’s December and snow is lightly falling. Taking a high-speed train and then a short bus ride, you arrive at the sleepy village after dusk. The wooden roofs are sprinkled with snow and gas lanterns softly light the walking bridges that cross the central river. White-capped mountains in the distance are framed by a twilight sky. You’re greeted with a smile at your ryokan and equipped to settle in for a cosy night’s rest on traditional futon beds laid out on tatami floors. All is quiet until morning, when it’s time to explore this endearing little town.
The village centre has three public onsen (Shirogane, Kajikayu and Omokageyu) available for a small fee, and many ryokan also open up their indoor baths to non-guests during the day. For those too shy to strip down, there are several foot baths around town that can be enjoyed for free. Visitors can hot-spring hop to their hearts’ content but should be mindful of the rules set out at each onsen or bath—from thoroughly rinsing off before bathing (entering the water dirty or still wearing soap from the showers is frowned upon) to respecting the peaceful, meditative atmosphere of many baths. Quiet conversation is acceptable, and some excitement from children is to be expected, but most guests will be looking to immerse themselves—physically into the water and figuratively into total relaxation.
After a good soak—or if the springs just aren’t your thing—there’s plenty to do around town. A short walk will take youto the base of Shirogane Falls, a beautiful 22-metre waterfall, and a nature trail through a valley that’s perfect for hiking (but may be closed if there’s too much snow). Not far from the waterfall, visitors can check out the historic entrance to the silver mine that dates back over 500 years and was the lifeline of Obanazawa during the Edo period. Tip your head and enter the tunnel to get a sense of what the area’s miners experienced hundreds of years ago.
There’s no shortage of onsen to explore across Japan, but Ginzan Onsen stands out among the rest. It’s no surprise the area has been featured in a multitude of television dramas and movies for its esthetic appeal. Oozing with warmth and traditional simplicity, “Japan’s most charming winter village” (as CNN Travel coined it) is the perfect escape from the bright lights of big cities. Visit at this time of year (Christmas getaway, anyone? A romantic New Year’s Eve, perhaps?) to get the full effect—the snowy surroundings will make the water feel that much warmer.