Traveling in Tohoku Part 1: Ginzan Onsen, Yamagata

I had an amazing summer holiday with my parents, and although not everything went according to plan, I still have a lot of places to recommend for future explorations!

This three part series will definitely be more of a photoblog than anything else, but I’ll try to add stories or commentary where needed. If you need mood music, I recommend “The Name Of Life” (Instrumental) by Joe Hisaishi. So without further ado, on to our first destination:

YAMAGATA — GINZAN ONSEN

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Ginzan Onsen is a small (emphasis on the small) hot spring resort town in Yamagata Prefecture. Despite it’s size, the onsen town is quite famous here in Japan, owing to it being a filming location for the popular 1980s drama Oshin.

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I was hoping to visit in the winter, which is the town’s peak season. (Look up the photos… it’s gorgeous!!) But summer turned out to be a more opportune (and just as lovely) time of year!

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Even in the rain, the town was absolutely stunning. Although Oshin ended years ago, I felt as if we were still on a movie set.

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Sadly, we weren’t able to stay in one of the beautiful old ryokan in the center of town. However, I did manage to book the slightly more modern ryokan that is set on a hill above the town. And our room came with our own private onsen!

One of the highlights of the whole experience for us was the food. Our ryokan stay included breakfasts and dinners, and no guest was left hungry. Crab legs, wagyu beef, sashimi, escargot, fish eggs, fish cooked 100 different ways, three kinds of soups, lotus root salad, sake, plum wine, watermelon, and of course… rice. We were so full by the end of every meal that my parents began refusing the rice — to the horror of the waitstaff!

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Ginzan Onsen itself is really tiny. If you are a normal person, strolling from one end to the other should only take about 15 minutes at a leisurely pace. And that’s being generous. If you’re a speedy walker, it’ll take you 5 minutes.  If you are, however, a photographer (or a wannabe) like me, then it could take over an hour to cover the whole town. The first time we walked the town, my parents actually considered stopping by a cafe for coffee (without me) because I was taking my sweet time snapping away with my camera.

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We could, however, follow the river to the back of the town. Here, we strolled by a beautiful waterfall before willingly entangling ourselves in the maze of hiking trails in the forest beyond.

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Ginzan Onsen originally developed around a silver mine. The mine itself is now defunct, but you can still enter a small part of it and look around. It was a pretty hot day, but the mine (and all the little tunnels that we passed on our hike that led into the mine) were cool — natural air conditioning! This little hike is definitely a perk of coming to Ginzan Onsen during the summer, because in the town’s peak season, all the trails are made impassable due to heavy snowfall.

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Overall, it’s a sleepy little historic town. Visitors take pictures, relax in the onsens, and get stuffed with all the delicious kaiseki (multi-course) meals.

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The rather sleepy town comes alive at night, however. After dining, guests emerge in their respective ryokans’ yukatas for an evening stroll along the river. The ryokan are lit up beautifully, and sometimes the town plays music to set the scene even further.

Imagine walking along this little street and hearing One Summer’s Day — from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away — filling the sweet summer night. Because that’s exactly what happened while I was there. All I can say is, that was perfection. Rumor has it that the ryokan pictured above served as inspiration for the famous bathhouse in the film… however, I’ve also heard that inspiration is shared with at least three other ryokan, one of which is located in Taiwan.

Of course, my parents and I joined in on the after-dinner stroll, decked out in our yukata. My mother and I went one step further, having fun stumbling around in geta — traditional woodblock sandals worn with yukata and kimono — although my dad vetoed the geta, deciding  that his sandals were the safer option.

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We ended up staying at Ginzan Onsen for two nights. It was a perfect amount of time — quiet and relaxing after all the sightseeing and train hopping my parents had done before — although the whole experience could have easily been summed up in one night as well.

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I know I’ll probably never get back to Ginzan Onsen, but I’m immensely glad that I had the opportunity to go even once. It was a little taste of traditional Japan… a little step back in time.

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