One day out of the blue, my mate asked: why are we going to Ginzan? (ok, she meant, why, out of so many onsens, did I choose this one?)
I gave her the only answer that came to my mind then: because there’s a ryokan there that looked like the Spirited Away bathhouse.
While I did a virtual face-palm on the side, I braced myself for the next inevitable question. But it didn’t come.
Actually it was the photo of the ryokan Notoya that did it. A building that looked as if it came straight out of a period drama.
No journey is complete without an ekiben
Before we began our journey, I thought I’d introduce my mates to ekibens first.
Ekibens are these awesome, retaurant-quality meals packed into elegant ready-to-go packages. In my view, no shinkensen journey is complete unless you savour an ekiben enroute.
These ekiben shops are usually within the gated area. In tokyo station, look for Ekiben Matsuriya 駅弁屋祭 which is located between platforms 6 and 7.
Hint: set aside enough time for ekiben shopping.
I went in looking for a kanetsu shiki ekiben 加熱式駅弁 (self-heating ekiben) but came out holding a Kamameshi instead (was intrigued by its shape). Next time, kanetsu ekiben, i’ll definitely get you.
My delicious ekiben was from Oginoya a kamameshi specialty shop founded in 1885 in Yokokawa, Gunma (132 years!). This ekiben debuted in 1958 (59 years ago!) after oginoya collaborated with renowned pottery/ceramic craftsmen at Mashiko to develop an ekiben container that would be ‘fun’, kept food ‘warm’ and could be brought home as a souvenir. Then they gave this 3-in-1 ekiben an imposing name: Touge no Kamameshi 峠の釜飯 (lit: mountain pass pot rice).
This winner was once japan’s most popular ekiben and still topped the charts regularly. I totally dig. Ok, actually I only found these out after I’d devoured all the contents inside.
At last, Ginzan
With our ekibens safely nestled in our bellies, we could focus on our main target – Ginzan Onsen.
Moving to Ginzan was a straightforward affair. We boarded the Tsubasa Shinkansen from Tokyo direct to Ooishida 大石田 (3 hours), then hopped onto the hotel bus already waiting for us. Once the next train dropped off the rest of the hotel guests, we were on our way.
For 25 minutes, the mini-bus followed a meandering course, flanked by thick snow on either side, sometimes riding over the swift-flowing mogami river, and finally up a steep slope before making made a sharp turn for the final approach into Ginzan Onsen.
All the Ginzan hotels provides free station transfers but there’s also a public bus to Ginzan Onsen. Check the time table right outside the train station (sample here).
The bus deposited us just outside the little onsen town because vehicles were not allowed on its streets and we walked the last few paces to the hotel. Not a bad idea because we could immediately feel like we had gone back in time.
Notoya 能登屋 wasn’t looking quite like Spirited Away’s Aburaya that day but its Taisho era architecture captivated us instantly nonetheless.
It may look small from the outside but Notoya has 15 rooms that can accommodate up to 82 people at any one time.
When we were shown to our room at the end of the 2nd floor of the annex, we were immediately wowed. The sliding door revealed a spacious room that appeared to be newly furnished, with a high ceiling from which two rows of beautiful lights hung. A wooden beam was balanced across the room just below the high roof, and we noticed not a single nail had been used. I’ve been to a fair number of ryokans but this one was truest to its original (Notoya was renovated in 2010).
As soon as we settled down (and done with taking photos in the room), we went out again to explore tiny Ginzan Onsen which we found out had a population of only 190 residents.
All the buildings in the town looked like some beautifully preserved cultural relic.
Ginzan (and Notoya) were used as location shoots for that immensely popular 1983 drama Oshin which we were all addicted to when we were kids, and amazingly looked better 34 years on.
There’s also a big public foot bath for people to soak their feet and people-watch at the same time. If not for the cold and the hassle of removing my unwieldy boots, this would have been a perfect place to settle down with a book and coffee.
Not far from Notoya, a pink anomaly stood – Haikarasan’s Currybread. It’s an Amai Dokoro, literally a sweets place where you satisfy cravings for dessert, coffee, omiyage and of course that to-die-for curry bun. The curry bun was so good my mate was willing to trade in the ryokan’s breakfast for it.
When the night has come
Night was much colder than day and the sound of the gushing ginzan river amplified multi-fold in the silence (I thought it was raining!).
Whatever the weather, the ryokan was prepared: walking shoes, water proof padded boots, down jackets. We could just walk out from the dinning room in our yukatas and out onto the street to admire the night view (after padding ourselves with all the hotel’s gears).
Ginzan at night looked quite magical. now we’re talking. It was looking more like the inspiration for the Aburaya bathhouse.
Without doubt, the buildings took on a different sheen at night – if only we could capture that easily.
We would have stayed out as long as we could but it was too cold.
Dinner was as expected, scrumptious and elaborate. we’d usually start it off with an apertif – Kyoho grape wine or apple wine.
A menu listing all the dishes that would be served was tucked at the side; we made a show of studying it quite seriously (the calligraphy’s nice) but actually couldn’t quite make out what dishes would be toted out next.
Just when we thought that we were already done, more food started to arrive! I see we’d forgotten the tempura, the grill, the soup and the rice. And dessert!
There were no repeats on the second night.
Grilled beef was featured and they gave us a big piece of pink rock salt for us to grate. The whole time I was thinking, what a waste because how much salt could I eat? Finally, I grated too much salt (but the rock’s hardly shrunk) and there’s not enough grilled beef for it.
I’d gladly trade in the horse sashimi for more grilled beef but well, this was an omakase course so that’d be rude. The horse sashimi was to replace seafood so I dutifully munched through everything in the bowl. Even though it appeared a bit repugnant at first, it was actually delicious (though not as delicious as the one i had in Nozawa).
Verdict: horse sashimi is better than beef sashimi better than seafood sashimi.
There’s a dish of pork for me too, in place of stewed fish and there’s roast beef.
Roast beef … I thought that was quite English.
Breakfast was a simpler affair, I mean it was simpler than the dinner but certainly more elaborate than anything I’d eat at home.
While we had dinner in a private room, breakfast was served in a bigger, communal dinning room where you get to observe the other guests.
But there’s enough on our table to keep us occupied already. There’s simmered tofu, half-boiled egg (sitting on a customised ceramic dish), a wide selection of pickles, sashimi for the girls, sausage for me, miso soup and mixed vegetable rice. It was such a full meal we didn’t have to take lunch after that.
There’s a trail leading to the defunct silvermines but it was covered in thick snow so we couldn’t walk it. It would have been interesting because we would be directly above the Shirogane waterfall and the view from it should be dramatic. Instead, we went up to a vantage point opposite the falls (had to walk into and through a closed soba shop up the stairs to a cement road). From where we stood, we could see the red bridge above Shirogane clearly as well as part of the silvermines trail. Not a bad alternative, that.
Most visitors stayed only a night here; we stayed two nights. Which worked nicely for us because we wanted to take it easy and use the time to visit one or 2 other places (forgetting that in this part of japan, transportation wasn’t as frequent or convenient but we did manage to visit Yamadera). And of course, we wanted to pamper ourselves for another day. Because back in tokyo, we’d have to squeeze ourselves into a tiny 1k apartment (1 bedroom + kitchenette) again.
The service at Notoya was beautiful; the younger staff working the front desk could speak english and while the older folks were not as well versed, they went out of their way to make us feel welcomed and at home.
I was peeking into all the shops for that granny doll but couldn’t find it. I guess the photo that we took with the proprietress of the ryokan on our last day would have to do. She was a dignified obasan who would stand at the doorway every morning to greet all the guests.
Unfortunately, the photo wasn’t great so I can’t stick it here. But it’s part of our precious memories of Ginzan and Notoya.
Stayed in Notoya on 30-31 March 17
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