Ginzan Onsen, Winter Wonderland in Yamagata

It is hard to find a more romantic town in winter than Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉), hidden deep away in the mountainous forests of Yamagata.

Ginzan Onsen - Winter with light snowfall
Ginzan Onsen – Winter

The Japanese translation of Ginzan Onsen reads as “silver mountain hot spring” and describes perfectly well what this charming town, reminiscent of the long gone Taisho era, is about.

Romantic overnight escape 

Ginzan Onsen - Ginzan River cuts the town in half
Ginzan Onsen – Ginzan River cuts the town in half

Particularly in winter, when Ginzan Onsen is covered with two to three meter of snow and at twilight the gas lanterns light up this cosy car free town appeals to all ages. From teenagers capturing the scene on Instagram to Japanese families on a weekend trip alike.

Precious silver and pristine mountain water

The history of the town goes back 500 years ago when silver ore was discovered and Ginzan became one of Japan’s largest silver mines until the shaft collapsed and the mine closed.

Ginzan Onsen - Silver mountain at the end of the town
Ginzan Onsen – Silver mountain at the end of the town

Blessed with a double 22 meter high waterfall, the Ginzan River that runs through the center and therapeutic hot springs with a water temperature of 55 °C (131°F), the town reinvented itself as a hot spring resort.

Ginzan Onsen - Public foot bath
Ginzan Onsen – Public foot bath

Especially popular are the free of charge outdoor warm foot baths right in the city center. They have become a hit on Instagram.

Architecture from the Taisho era to the 21st century

The Ginzan River is lined at both sides with traditional wooden ryokans with excellent indoor bathing facilities. Some also have rotenburu the typical open air hot spring baths.

However, two ryokans stand out for their beautiful architecture as well.

Ginzan Onsen - Notoya ryokan
Ginzan Onsen – Notoya ryokan

Established in 1892, Ryokan Notoya houses warm woodwork interiors in an impressive four story structure from 1921.

Ginzan Onsen - Notoya ryokan - detail of the façade
Ginzan Onsen – Notoya ryokan – detail of the façade

The Notoya ryokan is designated a national tangible asset.

Ginzan Onsen - Fujiya ryokan in the background
Ginzan Onsen – Fujiya ryokan in the background

Blended in remarkably well in the old town is the modern Ryokan Fujiya designed by Kenga Kuma and associates. Prof. Kengo Kuma is one of Japan’s leading architects who designed the new national stadion in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics.

Kokeshi dolls and a TV Drama

In 1983 Oshin, an immensely popular TV drama, was aired by NHK and subsequently sold to almost all Asian countries. It brings the fictional story of a Japanese women named Oshin, from her poor childhood in rural Yamagata till becoming a powerful owner of a supermarket chain.
In a particular scene Oshin cherishes the kokeshi doll received by her mother who works in Ginzan Onsen.

Ginzan Onsen - Kokeshi dolls
Ginzan Onsen – Kokeshi dolls

Ever since these “Oshin” kokeshi dolls have become a famous souvenir.
You can even join a workshop and take your own handcrafted Oshin doll back home. More information can be found on the website of the souvenir shop (Japanese only).

Access

It takes about 35 minutes by bus from JR Oishida station (大石田駅) to Ginzan Onsen (銀山温泉). The bus time table can be found here (Japanese only but English hard copies are available in the Yamagata tourism office near the station). Two important tips. First take note that JR Oishida station is served by the Yamagata Shinkansen and covered by the JR pass. Buses to Ginzan onsen are not covered and rather infrequent. Second it takes about half a day to visit Ginzan Onsen. Therefore a visit with or without overnight stay can ideally be combined with a boat trip on the Mogami River in the morning.