Tohoku Onsen Journey in Winter

Looking for something so ‘Japanese’? My suggestion would be: take a dip in an onsen (温泉, Japanese natural hot spring). Onsen are scattered all around Japan, including the Tohoku Area. There are generally 2 types of bath at most Onsen: indoor baths and ‘Roten-buro’ ((露天風呂 or 野天風呂, outdoor baths). Traditionally, onsen were gender mixed. However since the Meiji period it became more common for them to be gender separated (even though in rural areas you still can still sometimes find a mixed one). The warm water rich in minerals will relax your body and mind. You have to clean and rinse your body properly before entering the hot water. I know bathing and being completely naked in front of others can be really embarrassing for some of us. But these three onsen with their magnificent views will make you forget all your apprehensions!

Psssttt… do not worry, in these onsen areas you can also find a lot of fun things other than dipping in the hot bath. Keep scrolling to find out more!!

  • Ginzan Onsen (Yamagata)

Ginzan Onsen covered by snow

(Photo credit: Tourism Association of Yamagata )


Ginzan (銀山) onsen is located in Obanazawa city, Yamagata prefecture. This is one of the best onsen areas in the whole of Japan. The area used to be a silver mining area (銀; Gin literally means “silver”) and the natural hot spring was discovered around 400 years ago. I fell in love with the beautiful allies of traditional wooden buildings. When the sun goes down, they light up the area with gas lamps to create a very romantic ambience to enjoy. The locals said the best season to visit ginzan onsen is in winter, as the wooden houses covered in snow is simply breathtaking!

What to do?

The front door of the old mining area is still open. Take a walk through the streets of wooden inns and you will find it, as well as a 22 meter-high waterfall! I recommend you to came early so you will have enough time to enjoy the trekking path further up the mountain. There were two public baths and lots of onsen inside the many ryokan (旅館; japanese style hotels). The ryokan baths are usually open to the public (who aren’t staying overnight) only until 2pm. After relaxing your body and soul in the hot bath, do not forget to try eating soba and curry-pan (curry bread) which are very popular in this area.

Useful information:

 Best time to visit: Winter (mid january-february); Summer (mid August, during Hanagasa festival)
 Bathing fee: 200-500 JPY (before 14:00)
Ginzan Onsen , 〒999-4333 Yamagata-ken, Obanazawa-shi, Ginzanshinhata

Note: The public bus last service is before sunset, so I recommend using taxi to go back since the nightview was so beautiful! (japanese only)

  • Zao Onsen (Yamagata)

Zao onsen (蔵王温泉) is located on the slope of mount Zao. With an altitude of over 880 meters above sea level, the area gives you fantastic scenery during any season, but especially summer and winter.  The natural hot spring was discovered 1900 years ago! The hot water in Zao onsen is one of the most sulfurous in Japan.

There are 4 public onsen in Zao area, one of which was an open-air bath in the forest (Zao Dai-Rotemburo). Soaking in hot baths surrounded by the forest sounds tempting, right? But unfortunately that one closed during winter. So we decided to go to the other one, Shinzaemon no Yu. That one was amazing!! The best feature is they have big tubs for one person, too. A good tip for those who want to go here: take off your metal jewelry and tie up your hair before dipping! (The acidic property of the water whilst safe for you can tarnish your silver!).

What to do?

This area is widely famous for skiing and snowboarding in winter. But if you’re not into winter sports, you still can enjoy the scenery! My friends and I also did not try skiing there (we didn’t dress properly for THAT MUCH snow) so we only took the ropeway up the mountain and made a snowman. Everything is so white, all covered by snow!!  When stepping off the ropeway train I felt like I had been transported into a Narnia-like world. Such an unforgettable experience!! Further up the mountain, by taking ropeway, you can see the famous Zao Snow Monsters – a forest of pine trees fully covered by snow which look like snow monsters! From the end of December until mid January they will light up the snow monsters at night in a special illumination event.

Useful information:

 Best time to visit: Winter (mid january-february)
 Bathing fee: 700 JPY (weekdays 10:00-18:30 ; weekends 10:00-21:30)
Zao Onsen , 〒 990-2301 Zaoonsen, Yamagata, Yamagata Prefecture
Note: See the bus timetable here

  • Takayu Onsen (Fukushima)

Takayu Onsen (高湯温泉) is located on the slope of mount Azuma, 14 Km from Fukushima station. The resort town was developed around 400 years ago. Nowadays you can found lots of ryokan, hotels, and also public baths around the area. The water in Takayu Onsen is colored a milky blue due to its rich hydrogen sulfide. As we reach the resort area, we were welcomed by a pile of snow! 5 minutes walk from the bus stop we found a hand spa (te-yu) – try to touch it to see whether you can handle the temperature of the hot spring.

We decide to go to Tamago-yu ryokan which famous for its Rotenburo (露天風呂; outdoor baths). We have to clean our self in the indoor baths first, then go to the outdoor baths. As we passed through the door I understood why this ryokan is so famous. The area was HUGE and the view is marvellous! They have a total of 4 outdoor baths, and 1 foot-bath. I also spotted a Torii (shrine gate) further up the mountain, but I couldn’t go there this time, since the path was covered in knee-deep levels of snow!

What to do?

The best part of this place is that it is not yet widely known by tourists!! Most people I met there were Japanese. So if you like a nice place to just chill with your buddy, this place is the best. If you like trekking, you can also try to climb the Bandai-Azuma line. I met a few people who had come back from climbing the mountain, covered in snow –  yet they looked so happy! There were also some waterfalls near to the resort area, unfortunately they are closed during winter (too much snow for us to handle! LOL). A good tip if you just want to spend a day trip here (and not stay overnight at one of the Ryokan): eat before you come or bring your lunch with you. I couldn’t find any nearby restaurants…

Useful information:

 Best time to visit: Winter (mid january-february);
 Bathing fee: 700 JPY (Tamagoyu open from weekdays 09:00-14:00) or 250 JPY (public bath open from 09:00-21:00)
Takayu Onsen, 〒960-2261 Fukushima-ken, Fukushima-shi, Machiniwasaka, Takayu−25番地

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