Friday, March 20, 2015

Ginzan Onsen- Northeast Japan's Living Snowglobe

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).

Kosekiya Bekkan
We arrive at Kosekiya Bekkan (古勢屋別館), one of the many gorgeous buildings lining the edges of the valley. The interior is warm and inviting with a golden glow. A professionally dressed smiling face is there to greet us. We are invited to take our valuable items with us and leave our luggage there so we can freely explore until check-in at 3pm. Finally, we've arrived at out home away from home.

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
There are many dining options ranging from little cafes specializing in sweet manju filled with red bean or edamame paste or curry bread and coffee sets to places with more hearty offerings such as soba noodles. Unlike the interior the of the hotel which is actually very modern, the cafes and shops maintain a preserved antiquity. We are directed to the second floor in our cafe of choice and find a few seating options despite its small size. There are tiny private booths separated by walls and curtains while the rest of the room opens into a more free and less intimate space with low tables and zabuton. Along the windows facing the town, there is a long, low bar where one can gaze at the falling now while sipping hot tea.

the foyer in Ginzan-sou
Travelers planning to arrived early can hit up any other hot springs in the area before they close shortly after noon. Fortunately, Kosekiya has a sister relationship with another onsen, Ginzan-sou (銀山荘). Guests at either ryokan are allowed to enjoy both onsen until guest closing time at 8:30pm absolutely free! Clerks in the lobby at reception will recognize sister-patrons by the provided yukatas (and jackets during winter) unique to each onsen and allow them entry. The shuttle can also ferry people to and from the onsens

Kosekiya offers rooms for up to six people with 4 futons and 2 western-style beds in separate rooms. Our room was very clean and spacious. After our guide admits lets us in, he explains the features of the room and their sister-relationship to Ginzan-sou.

Our package deal came with both dinner and breakfast served on the second floor. A little pamphlet introduced us to each dish served in Japanese and which order to eat them in. Ours started with the oh-so-necessary kampai with cherry-flavored wine in little heart-shaped cups. Dishes ranged from delicious steak pieces seared on your own little hot plate to fresh morsels of sashimi. To top it off were little cherry and pear-flavored offerings showing off Yamagata prefecture's specialty. Everyone left feeling full and ready to lounge the night away. Breakfast proved to be just as delicious and satisfying and endless refills of rice ensured everyone was prepared for the long journey home.

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!

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