Step back in time with me. Come crunch and slide down ancient paths where all signs of life are constantly eroded and white-washed over with snow. Where time freezes in a snowglobe of serene calm. Such is Ginzan Onsen, one of Japan's truly well-hidden treasures.
We drive through an endless maze between towering walls of white beckoning us forward. Soon, soon, they whisper. My 2001 Toyota Vitz cranks through the powder, also desperate for respite from the 2 and a half-hour drive from the coastal town of Nikaho in Akita prefecture. The drive had been pleasant with warm sunshine cascading through the windshield and glistening off blacktop roads. Tires hummed over smooth asphalt as easily as on a spring day. Once we turn off the beaten path, however, things got a bit interesting.
The road narrows and the snow spilling over into the middle of the street make for precarious passage. Orange mechanical giants whir down the street in a desperate attempt to clear away the white menace. Old buildings and houses line the way forward, not a conbini or supermarket to be seen. It's not the out-dated nature of the architecture or the utter lack of any signs of life besides old men and women wandering the street. It's how long the street seemed to continue forward. GPS and street signs desperately keeping their heads aloft above the drifts promise our destination is ahead, but my belief soon begins to fade as do the houses and other dwellings. Farther and farther back we go through time in a wormhole of ice and snow.
Finally, curving around one last bend, we breath a sigh of relief as a tiny hamlet materializes out of the valley. As we try to get our bearings and locate our ryokan, we are told that only foot-traffic is allowed down there. We're directed to go back up the hill to the parking space around the corner and wait for the van they will send for us. Back to the parking lot we go, gather our luggage, and the van arrives shortly as promised.
Down the hill we go, into the snowglobe where only feet and designated vehicles are allowed to tread. I'm reminds me of Disney Land and how all efforts are made to maintain the feeling of a self-contained universe completely separate from reality. Indeed, the only modern technology I see there outside the buildings are the occasional cellphone (which miraculously still get a signal way out there).
Eager to stretch our cramped legs and start our adventures, we go to meet up with fellow JETs outside. We call out to greet them, but the perpetual thunder of the crashing river below drowns our voices. Thick, fluffy whiteness falls softly and gently to constantly remind us we are in true snow country. It covers everything, clinging to hair, melting into fabric, coating the bridges and windowsills in garland. In Nikaho, the icy wind rips into your flesh and chills to the core. At Ginzan, it settles slowly and gently onto the skin and vanishes.
|snow falls gently on Ginzan Onsen|
|the foyer in Ginzan-sou|
Renowned as an "onsen town", there are many options to choose from large outdoor "rotenburo" to a little footbath built into the walkway through town. Ginzan-sou offers a sizeable indoor bath in case of foul weather, but also connects to a bath outside the building wear you can sit in the hot water (and trust me, it will be HOT no matter what the ambient temperature) while snowflakes dot your skin with cold. To top that all off, another bath is connected via stairs with wooden seats built into the floor to lay back and lounge in to take in the the snowy vista. There is also a roof over this part of the bath in case you've had enough snowflakes falling on your head.
The other onsen I recommend is Takimi (瀧見) onsen. Like the name implies, this one boasts a stunning view of a waterfall! The building is located in the very back of the town and up quite a long,
but beautiful trek up a winding hill. Your best view of the waterfall will be on the way up. It's actually quite hard to spot from the actual bath unless you lean way out (which is very dangerous since it's on the edge of a cliff!). But after the arduous hike you'll be rewarded with a hot bath that also includes an indoor and outdoor area. The outdoor bath at Takimi is a little more "outdoors-y" in atmosphere since rotenburo at Ginzan-sou are still part of the main building while the outer wall of the pool in Takimi is made of rocks and stones giving it a more natural feel.
Fans of the world-renowned and award-winning Ghibli film Spirited Away will be delighted to know that Ginzan Onsen was one of the inspirations for the movie's mysterious, majestic setting at an enormous bathhouse along with Dogo Onsen (道後温泉) in Ehime prefecture. When the suns sets over the mountains, and the gas lamps cast soft shadows over the ancient buildings, you'll know you've entered the realm of the spirits.
Tohoku winters can be harsh and a pain to get through with lack of sunlight. Onsen are one of the best ways to keep your spirits up and your body warm and healthy. If you find yourself unable to flee to the tropical climes of Okinawa, why not look a bit closer to home? Great service, a fantastic setting, and hot, soothing waters wait for you at Ginzan Onsen.
See you there!