By David HotWaterBaum
Here is a great weekend road-trip idea for you. Why not combine a visit to a 1200 year old temple compound with a 500 year old onsen town that was one of the sites that inspired the movie “Spirited Away”?
Here is what I propose. Get in your car, or get in your friend’s car, and head south. Make sure that your friend is okay with it though, because if not, it might be the end of the relationship. Some friends are more forgiving than others though. Don’t go too far south, this is after all, just a weekend trip.
Our first stop is the fantabulous Chusonji (temple compound) in Hiraizumi, Iwate. It is a beautiful area rich with history and very impressive. The trees alone are wonderful and as you walk around there you can imagine yourself traveling through time. I don’t think they had soba and udon shops 1000 years ago, but maybe they did. Because cars are not allowed to drive up the main path, I kept expecting a Japanese warrior to swoop down on his horse. The area is stunning year round. There are temples scattered all around, and there is a gorgeous old Noh theater there too. If you have any visitors from out of town, I highly recommend visiting Chusonji with them.
There is a lunch-area in the parking area of Chusonji with different kinds of foods. They also claim to have wanko-soba. Don’t be fooled by their wanko-soba claims. If you haven’t tried wanko-soba yet, it is a lot of fun, but the best place to do it is in Morioka. You eat small amounts of soba in bowl after bowl with the goal of eating as many bowls of soba as you can. Interestingly enough, Hanamaki actually invented wanko-soba, but their wanko-soba portions are bigger so you don’t eat as many bowls.
Chusonji is about 3 hours from Aomori city and Hirosaki and about 2.5 hours from Hachinohe. On your way there, you will see glorious Mt. Iwaki with it’s snow-covered peak, also referred to as “Tsugaru-Fuji”.
Upon leaving Chusonji, you should jump back in the car, and drive for another 2 hours or so to Ginzan Onsen. You may say that this seems like a lot of driving… well, yes, it would be if you did all of it once, but this is an onsen article, so naturally, you would be stopping at all the onsens on the way. Wait… no, not all the onsens, that would be a lot of onsens. I think that two onsens a day is a good goal. One in the morning and one in the evening. The life of royalty!
Ginzan Onsen is located in Obanazawa, Yamagata. It is a bit of a drive to get there, but well-worth it. The actual onsen town will blow you away. It was founded 500 years ago as a nickel mine, hence the name of the town. That lasted 50 years or so, but the town continued to exist, and remains today as a relic of the past. The actual onsen area is pedestrians only and you will need to park up the hill and walk down to the town. This is because 500 years ago they did not anticipate that people would need anything more than a horse and maybe a wagon. The large ryokan in town inspired the movie “Spirited Away” (千と千尋の神隠し), and you will understand why as soon as you see it.
There is a beautiful 20+ meter waterfall in the back of the town and you can visit the silver mine to see how it functioned back in the day. My suggestion though is just to walk around the town, crossing the multiple bridges and hopefully it will be a sunny day when you visit, because you can just bask in the sun! There is a free public foot-bath too,
There are three public onsens in Ginzan, and there is an onsen that can be rented hourly too if you wish to have a private onsen. Shirogane Onsen is an amazing onsen. The women’s bath is on the second floor, and they have a better view. There is only one bath for men and one for women. The bath itself is not huge, but big enough. The water is a little milky and hot. The building was designed by a famous architect. The building has a strange exterior and you might even walk by it without knowing it is an onsen.
You will love this town, it feels like you stepped back in time.
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