A Well-deserved Trip to Ginzan Onsen and the Totoro Tree

It’s been quite a while since my last update due to my new job (which I love) and moving to the center of Tokyo (which took almost an entire month), but Resurface to Reality is back! I plan on making more frequent updates now that I am fully situated with my new life style (more about that later). Life has been extremely kind to me recently which is why I plan to do more writing!

This weekend I finally found some time to travel up north and see two destinations on my bucket list that I’ve wanted to explore for quite some time: Ginzan Onsen & The Totoro Tree. This was my very first time in Yamagata Prefecture and I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but the Autumn weather was ideal for hiking. Due to the busyness of the Go To Travel Campaign, it was quite hard to book hotels so I opted for a day trip. One day was enough time for me to see everything that I had plan and also get lost on the way, but I recommend 2 – 3 days here if you have enough time.

Due to their strong Ghlibli resemblance, these are the two main places that I sought out:

The Totoro Tree

As a photographer who has traveled to various real-life anime locations including the Satsuki and Mei House and the Totoro Bus Stop, naturally this tree was high priority on my list of destinations. According to Yamagata Japan, the real name of this tree is “Kosugi no Ohsugi” which means “Giant Cedar Tree of Magarigawa”, but to the locals here it is simply referred to as “The Totoro Tree” because it looks like Totoro when viewed from a distance. At first I thought that perhaps someone had cut the hedges of the tree to look like Totoro, but upon my arrival I realized that it is far too large and remotely located for someone to do that. This tree naturally looks like Totoro and that’s why nature is awesome!

There is a viewing platform on the same road where you can see the tree from afar, but I recommend taking the walking trail adjacent to it so you can see it up close (it takes about 5 mins to reach the base of the tree). I brought my Totoro doll for size comparison. Not many people were there, but it was a hit with the children that had come with their families.

Address

〒999-5206 Yamagata, Mogami District, Sakegawa, Magarigawa, Unnamed Road

I rode from Tokyo Station to Shinjo Station which took 3.5 hours and cost 12,000 yen. Then I took a taxi from the station directly to the tree for around 10,000 yen (expensive, but also not the worst I’ve paid). Unfortunately without a car this area is difficult to access, but I was a woman on a mission so the experience was overall worth it to me. After living in Japan for over 5 years, I realize these are the kind of obscure places I most love to explore.

Ginzan Onsen

After getting tons of pictures of the Totoro Tree, I next made my way to a famous hot springs resort that is said to have influenced the Ghibli classic Spirited Away: Ginzan Onsen. This onsen is nestled in the mountains and features a hiking trail that will take you to a gorge, various shrines, and ruins of a silver ore mine. The traditional ryokan that are lined across the river from one another light up at night and present a very picturesque, movie-like scene. This onsen is most popular during the winter season, but I think it looks gorgeous year round! No matter what time of year you choose to go, you will be presented with beautiful scenery and a charming atmosphere.

I started my adventure out by getting some eggplant soba and soba soft cream from the nearby restaurant Izu no Hana. Pretty much all the restaurants in Ginzanso serve only soba and a few other dishes, but I was looking for something specifically vegetarian so I chose here. I did not make the wrong choice because their portion sizes were huge and the ingredients they used were very fresh. The soba soft serve ice cream is a must-try! The saltiness of it really balanced the otherwise sweet flavor.

After snapping some photos of the beautiful river and the free footbath (which I recommend using at night), I decided to make my way to the south of the town and climb the hiking trails. Some of them go up and give you an aerial view of the town, and some of them descend down toward the ruins of the silver mine. It is best to start before 4pm so it doesn’t get dark on your way back.

Within 5 mins of hiking you will stumble across a beautiful gorge:

This reminds me of Takachiho Gorge which I traveled to during the summer, but it was much smaller in scale. It still looked lovely with the vivid Autumn colors, however!

After about 25 mins of walking, I looped around the trail and discovered the cave to the silver mine ruins. This entrance is quite easy to walk passed so be sure to read the guideposts!

The caves only take around 5 mins to explore, but are definitely worth seeing for their cryptic skull-like design on the inside. What a sharp contrast to the beautiful village that I had visited before!

Overall I spent around an hour on this trail admiring the bright red leaves, wandering and getting lost with an old Japanese couple, and exploring the silver mine ruins. It was quite the fun adventure—one that my heart had yearned for quite a long time!

When I arrived back at the main hot springs village, it had already started getting dark so I relaxed by the footbath and did some night photography. What a long but fulfilling day this was!

Address

Ginzanshinhata, Obanazawa, Yamagata

This onsen is easily reachable via bus Oishida Station, which is only 19 mins from the nearest station to the Totoro Tree. The buses from Oishida Station run once per hour, cost 720 yen, and take around 40 mins. The last bus stops at 6:41 after the town starts to get quiet, so be sure to check the time table if you’re day tripping like me.

Final Thoughts

Besides Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma, no other hot springs resort comes close to how beautiful Ginzan is. What I liked most is that almost all of the attractions were accessible by foot, and you can take local buses to reach the onsen that were further out. Due to the corona influence, many of the bath houses were closed so I didn’t get to try any besides the free foot bath, but here is a full list for those who are interested.

Though I traveled nearly 8 hours combined with trains and buses, seeing a secluded part of Yamagata’s countryside was worth it because it inspired me to use my GoPro again after months of not using it. She’s back, baby!

As I made my way from Tokyo to Yamagata, various station attendants handed me postcards to commemorate my journey. It felt good to be backpacking again. I will be taking another trip to Kyoto this weekend in celebration of the three day consecutive holiday for the purpose of capturing the red leaves and trying cute cafes. Please look forward to my future (more frequent) updates!

Monet’s Pond: Just as Gorgeous as the Original Paintings (Gifu, Japan)

Over the weekend I decided to re-visit Gifu Prefecture and see if it’s famous water lily pond in Seki was worth the hype.  This originally nameless pond has been nicknamed “Monet’s Pond” (モネの池) by the locals because it closely resembles the Water Lilies art series painted by Claude Monet in the late 1800s.  Depending on the season and the weather, the scenery of the pond can vastly change.  Some online reviews have said that Monet’s Pond is a vibrant place that is a spitting image of the artwork, while others have dismissed it for appearing as murky and overrated.  It’s somewhat humorous to see the variety of scrutiny this place gets (both in English and Japanese).

My favorite review comes from “Kevin B” on Google:

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“It is nice, but professional photograph[s] ruined it for me.  My expectations were too high, don’t trust the pictures on the Internet.” – Kevin B

This could be true of any place, anywhere—don’t trust the pictures on the internet.  Kevin B’s review implies if you set your expectations too high, you will be undoubtedly disappointed.  Especially since the pond is located in a considerably remote location with infrequent transportation.  But as an adventurer, reading that description just made me want to travel here even more so I could see it for myself.

Fortunately I was not disappointed because the photos I captured look complementary to the artwork:

Fun Fact: I didn’t actually look at any of the Water Lilies paintings until after I went to the pond because I didn’t want my expectations to be warped.  I only looked at them for reference in order to accurately write this article.

Here is a gallery of photos that I took.  The pond is quite small in size, but depending on where you stand you can see an entirely different reflection in the water:

I was lucky because I got the chance to see Monet’s Pond in both sunny and cloudy weather in the hour that I was there.  During sunny weather the pond perfectly reflects the clouds in the sky giving it that dream-like oil painting aesthetic.  During cloudy weather it looks a lot darker, but with the floating water lilies it still appears beautiful.  Perhaps in the colder months it looks more bare and devoid of color, thus provoking the negative reviews.  Coming in June gave me the perfect experience though.  I was extremely satisfied with what I saw.

In this video the Koi look like they’re swimming through the clouds:

If you search for pictures of the pond online, you will see mixed results.  Some photos have been purposely edited with filters and textures to look more like the paintings.  However, the photos on the Official Gifu Tourism Website look pretty natural.  I used both my iPhone’s camera and my GoPro so I could closely compare the detail.  I only edited the lighting and shadows slightly in the photos I posted here because the sunlight was already optimal.  It is recommended to come in the summer and fall months for the best viewing but the pond is open year-round.

Even if we can’t trust the internet, one thing we all can agree on is that this cheesecake replica of Monet’s Pond is awesome:

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Monet’s Pond Cheesecake created by an anonymous pastry chef (posted on Grapee).

Not gonna lie, seeing this cake was another huge inspiration for my journey here.  Perhaps Gifu Prefecture will some day replicate this idea and create a cafe with food and souvenirs based on the pond like many other places in Japan.  Until then, enjoy this capitalist-free piece of nature.

Access

From Gifu Station take the N83 bus towards ほらどキウイプラザ行き (Horado Kiwi Plaza) and get off at the last stop.  I was a bit disappointed to see that there were no kiwis here (this is simply a parking lot on the side of a highway).  From the bus stop at the parking lot you will see a small van waiting adjacent to the bus.  The van’s time tables are aligned with the local buses so you can take it for free to Monet’s Pond.  The bus ride takes about 1.5 hours, and the van ride takes 15 mins, so the total travel time is around 1 hour and 45 mins.  Though this is a bit of a journey, the ride only costs 670 yen and the pond has no entrance fee making it one of the cheapest attractions in Gifu.

If you like seeing the country side of Japan and don’t mind riding the bus, then I would recommend this trip to you.  Just be sure to watch the weather and get there early so you have enough time to take pictures and return to the station.  Besides the pond, there’s really not a lot to do in Seki.  There’s a local shrine and a few places to eat, but most of the area is used for farming.  After seeing the pond I went to Nagoya to spend time with my friends because there’s much more to do there.  This was a great escape from reality though.  I was happy to confirm that the pond does indeed resemble the real artwork and is not just a hoax.

If you are interested in seeing more attractions in Gifu Prefecture, please check out my Your Name and Gero Onsen articles!

Visiting the Hot Spring Gods at Gero Onsen

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Gero Onsen during peak sakura season.

After making my pilgrimage to the real-life village from Your Name, I decided to take the Hida Express down to Gero Onsen; a popular hot springs town and resort destination in Gifu Prefecture.  I arrived at the perfect time in early April when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and nearly everything in nature looked picturesque.  The town is pretty straightforward to navigate with a river that surrounds a free public outdoor hot spring and several buildings with more hot springs and saunas available for day use.  There are more secluded resorts up in the mountains.  Even if you’re not interested in hot springs, there are still a number of parks and shrines that you can see.  I spent around three hours exploring Gero Onsen and it was very aesthetic day trip.

When I got off at Gero Onsen Station, I first walked to the Funsenchi outdoor hot spring so I could see the beautiful park next to it. This is the best place to view the sakura in Gero making it a wonderful spot for photography.  You can walk across the rocks that surround the hot spring to see the Hida River and mountains too.  Walking across the bridge will give you a great view of the town as well.

Funsenchi is free to use for all visitors as long as you wear a bathing suit but it’s quite small.  If you are here just for the day I recommend the following hot springs:

  • Sachi no Yu: My personal favorite that has an indoor hot tub, waterfall bath, and outdoor hot spring.  Entrance is only 350 yen.
  • Curegarden Open-air Bath: A large collection of outdoor hot springs with amazing views.  I wanted to go here, but it was sadly closed due to the COVID-19.  I will go again if I get the chance.  Entrance is 700 yen but likely worth it.
  • Shirasagi no Yu: This is a western-styled bath with no outdoor hot springs, but reviews say it’s good.  If you go, please tell me how it is.  Entrance is 360 yen.

*For a full list of resorts, please see the official Gero Onsen Guide.

After bathing for an hour at Sachi no Yu and feeling completely refreshed afterward, I decided to visit a temple called Onsenji and pray to the hot spring gods.  This was about a 15 minute walk on an incline but it was extremely fun because I got to see more of the town while listening to all of my favorite music.  When I reached the shrine, the sun was setting and I saw an amazing view of it behind the mountains:

Another thing I love about Gero is all of the frog motifs.  “Gero” is a noise that frogs  make (like ribbit in English) so obviously a frog was the ideal candidate for a mascot here.  I tried the Gero Manjuu from a local sweets shop and it was very delicious.  I also saw frog stuffed animals in a liquor store and frogs painted on the street.  This is truly a Frogger-themed onsen village and it’s kind of awesome.

After spending a good amount of time here, I decided to ride the express train down to Nagoya.  I debated about spending the night here because there are cheap hotels and guest houses, but I opted to go to the city instead so I could spend time doing photo editing at one of my favorite 200 yen bars called Moonwalk.  Gero Onsen is the ideal day trip but there isn’t much to do at night besides more hot springs.  The quality is definitely worth it though!

Access

From Nagoya Station, take the Hida Limited Express to Gero Onsen.  This takes around 2 hours and is 4700 yen one way.  

I combined this with my trip to Hida-Furukawa, so from there it only takes 1 hour and 2900 yen.  If you wake up early enough, you can experience Gero Onsen and the Your Name town in one day.  For me, that was the ideal choice.

Visiting Zao Fox Village in Miyagi, Japan

Since I recently wrote about my Ghibli Adventures in Yamagata, I figured I’d recount my tale of visiting Zao Fox Village (also called Kitsune Mura) in the neighboring Miyagi Prefecture in 2017. This is the largest outdoor fox sanctuary in Japan that is home to over 100 friendly foxes. Additionally, Zao Fox Village is currently the only place in Japan where you can have the unique experience of holding a baby fox. Though it’s been over 3 years since I first visited this place, I’ll never forget my time here! It was quite the long journey from Tokyo, but was definitely worth it.

Getting There/Expense

Address: Fukuokayatsumiya, Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture 989-0733, Japan

From Ueno Station, you can take the Tohoku-Hokkaido Shinkansen Yamabiko to Shiroishi-Zao Station for 10130 yen, then take a taxi for around 4000 yen or Castle Kun shuttle bus (that runs on Tuesdays and Fridays) for 200 yen to reach the village. This combined method of transportation takes about 2 hours total.

The entrance fee is 1000 yen, fox feed is 100 yen, and holding a baby fox cost 400 yen. The cost of getting here from Tokyo is a bit expensive, but the overall cost of the zoo is pretty affordable.

The Fox Experience

The system here is pretty easy to understand. You pay the entrance fee and are given specific instructions on how to safely interact with the foxes, then you are free to wander through their open-air village! They are quite entertaining to watch and you may even have the chance to see the rare silver fox roaming around. If you are afraid to get up close, there are several viewing platforms that you can stand at and observe them. Though some foxes enjoy sleeping through the day, they usually become most active when you offer them treats! The baby foxes are available for visitors to hold under supervision several times per day. Be sure to arrive before 4pm if you want to partake in this activity.

Here is a video I captured when one of the staff came out to feed them. As you can see, they show a lot of positive energy. This is even better seeing in person!

Animal Abuse Dispute

There are several articles and documentaries that claim Zao Fox Village is cruel for encasing animals in small spaces. While some of the cages used to transport the animals are small, I would argue that the sanctuary as a whole is quite wide and gives the animals enough room to relax and go about their usual business compared to usual zoos. As I personally observed the foxes here, I noticed they had enough space to exercise and seemed to be in good health. Though exposure to new people can make animals anxious, these foxes can fortunately retreat to their own plots of land away from visitors if they get tired.

Final Thoughts

Though this trip was quite the expense at the time, I thoroughly enjoyed my time seeing all of the foxes up close—especially since I got the chance to hold one! This was my first time seeing a Japanese silver fox as well. If you are interested in seeing a lesser-known fox village in Japan, please check out Kitakitsune Farm in Hokkaido! I have yet to visit, but it is definitely on my bucket list.

Lavender Fields Forever, Alpacas, and the Blue Pond!

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Lavender Fields Forever taken at Farm Tomita in Furano, Japan.

There’s nothing quite like backpacking through flower farms and eating lavender ice cream in the countryside of Japan.  During this time of year (late June – August), Hokkaido’s flowers are in full bloom and many people flock to Furano and Biei to enjoy the view.  There are a number of farms you can visit by taking the Lilac Express from Sapporo Station, and each of them have unique attractions and food!

I first started at Farm Tomita which is just walking distance from Lavender Farm Station (what a cute name)!  This is one of the most famous farms due to its large variety of flora, melon farm, and delicious lavender-flavored food.  The fields here are very large and you can easily spend over an hour here.  I highly recommend trying the tiny slices of lavender cheesecake and hiking to the top of the hill for a unforgettable view.  Here is a map of other lavender farms that you can visit in the area.

Afterwards I decided to take the express train from Lavender Farm Station to Biei Station and take a sightseeing bus to see the Blue Pond.  This miraculous pond was formed by aluminum and sulfur mixing in with the water during a landslide.  Groundwater washing in from the nearby Shirahige Falls and Shirogane Hot Spring also played a role in helping it obtain its color.  What makes it amazing is that trees are still growing from the bottom of it.  The color of the pond slightly changes over the course of the year and it has become an extremely popular tourist attraction.  It was a cloudy summer day when I arrived, so I was able to capture a wonderful blue hill:

Unbeknownst to me, the sightseeing bus next stopped at a flower farm called Shikisai-no-oka, where you can rent vehicles to ride through the fields and also see alpacas!  I was absolutely exhausted from backpacking, so I spent the majority of my time with the alpacas.  They were fluffy and adorable–definitely a sight for sore eyes!

Overall, Furano and Biei make for a wonderful day trip in Hokkaido!  They are fairly secluded areas in a valley of mountains so this trip was the perfect escape from the city.  These areas are quite crowded during the summer seasons by tourists who come to see the flowers, so be sure to come early and “be careful about saliva”.