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7 Onsen Villages In Tohoku That Are Stunning In Winter

Tohoku onsen villages

Tohoku is the northernmost tip of Japan’s main island, right beneath Hokkaido. Home to half of Japan’s 10 largest prefectures, Tohoku offers dramatic landscapes from mountains to lakes to hilly countrysides, and history-rich towns in-between. This guide will take you through hidden treasures in Tohoku – its onsen villages that warm you up with traditional hospitality and breathtaking sceneries in winter.

1. Ginzan Onsen – Yamagata Prefecture

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Ginzan Onsen
Image adapted from: @ginzanonsen

Originally a silver mine more than 500 years ago, Ginzan Onsen is now known as one of Japan’s prettiest onsen towns. It looks magical in the evenings when the traditional ryokan lights up along the river. Gas lights illuminate the pathways and bridges, echoing a bygone era.

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Ginzan Onsen in winter snow
Image adapted from: @ginzanonsen, @ginzanonsen

In winter, heavy snow falls upon the roofs, elevating its historic charm. It’s no wonder that this town is featured in so many romance dramas and served as an inspiration for Yubaba’s bathhouse in Spirited Away

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Ginzan Onsen inspired Spirited Away
Image credit: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

Ginza Onsen’s 3- and 4-storey Taisho-era buildings feature exposed woodwork and white plaster walls that evoke a sense of nostalgia. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Ginzan Onsen's public foot bath
(Left to right) Relaxing baths at Warashiyu and Takimikan.
Image adapted from: TISORY, Asian Wanderlust

The town centre houses 2 public baths – Shiroganeyu and Takimikan – and Warashiyu, a free foot bath. Many ryokan also welcome non-staying guests to dip in their historic indoor baths during the daytime. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Shirogane Park waterfall and mining tunnel
Image adapted from: Asian Wanderlust, @c_in_london

If you venture further out for a scenic walk at Shirogane Park, you’ll catch the 22-metre Shirogane-no-Taki, which feeds into the waterways of the town. Visitors can also explore 20 metres into a well-lit tunnel – a legacy of Ginzan Onsen’s mining past. 

2. Zaō Onsen – Yamagata Prefecture

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Zaō Onsen skill village
Image credit: Japan Airlines

Zaō Onsen is located 880m above sea level on the slopes of the volcanic Mount Zaō, a range of volcanic mountains spanning across Miyagi and Yamagata Prefecture with emerald crater lakes.

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Mount Zaō's emerald crater lake
Image credit: @y.u.k.i.n.y.a.n

The steep snowy inclines boast one of Japan’s most popular ski resorts, and are visited by hoards of “snow monsters” in winter. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - "snow monsters" on Mount Zaō
Image adapted from: @hide353535, @hide353535

But fear not – these “snow monsters” are just trees cloaked in ice and frozen fog on the mountains, forming a unique landscape. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - traditional bathhouses in Zaō Onsen
Image credit: Japan Airlines

After a day of skiing, take a peaceful dip at one of Zaō Onsen’s many public bathhouses. You’ll be spoilt for choice from traditional community baths – Kamiyu, Shimoyu, and Kawarayu – to modern establishments with various pools both indoors and outdoors. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Zaō Onsen open-air bath
Image credit: Zao Onsen Ski Resort

With a pH value close to 1, the sulfuric waters of Zaō Onsen are among the most acidic in Japan. This acidic quality is said to rejuvenate the skin and blood vessels, and that’s why the onsen here are also called the “Springs of Beauty”.

That said, we do not recommend soaking in this onsen for too long. For context, the pH value of lemon juice hovers around 2 and stomach acid is around pH1, which gives you a rough idea of how acidic the hot spring can be. 

3. Higashiyama Onsen – Fukushima Prefecture

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Higashiyama Onsen
Image credit: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

According to legends, Higashiyama Onsen was discovered 1,300 years ago by Buddhist priest Gyoki while he was following a 3-legged bird, which is an auspicious omen. The waters here are smooth, colourless, and odourless, making for a tranquil dip. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Mukaitaki's snow lanterns
Image credit: Kingdom of Winter Trip Tohoku

The most iconic guesthouse is Mukaitaki, a registered tangible cultural property that’s been in operation since the Edo period. 24 guest rooms, each with a unique design, are housed in a traditional wooden building that is surrounded by enchanting snow lanterns in winter. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - historic front of samurai city Aizu-wakamatsu
Image credit: Samurai city Aizuwakamatsu

This hot spring has been favoured throughout the ages by famous figures including Toshizo Hijikata, the Vice Captain of the Shinsengumi; Hirobumi Ito, the 1st Prime Minister of Japan; and Akiko Yosano, Meiji era’s pioneering feminist poet. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Tsuruga Castle in the snow
Image adapted from: iamdoctoregg

Higashiyama Onsen is located in Aizu-Wakamatsu City, which was one of the last strongholds of the samurai at the end of the 19th century. Connected by the Aizu Loop Bus are numerous sights that recall the days of the Shinsengumi, the most famous being the Tsuruga Castle. In winter, it stands proudly and serenely amongst the snow.

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Aizu Erosoku Festival light-ups
Image credit: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

During the Aizu Erosoku Festival, stunning displays of hand-painted lanterns illuminate the castle’s grounds. You’ll find these snow lanterns at similar culturally significant places, including Higashiyama Onsen and Amidaji Temple.

Aizu Erosoku Festival - light-ups at Higashiyama Onsen and Amidaji Temple
Image adapted from: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization, Kingdom of Winter Trip Tohoku

Till this day, Aizu-Wakamatsu City retains its historical touch thanks to well-preserved Taisho period streets such as Nanukamachi-dori

4. Naruko Onsenkyō – Miyagi Prefecture

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Naruko Onsenkyō
Image credit: Naruko Onsen Tourism Association

As the meeting point of 400 different mineral-rich water sources, Naruko Onsenkyō has been a hot spring destination for more than a century since its discovery in 837.

Tohoku Onsen Villages - streets of Naruko Onsenkyō
Image credit: Naruko Onsen Tourism Association

Naruko Onsenkyō has welcomed famous historical figures such as Matsuo Basho, one of Japan’s most renowned haiku poets, and retains its old town vibes till today. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - bathhouse at Naruko Onsenkyō
Image credit: Japan National Tourism Organization

There are 5 hot springs: Naruko Onsen, Higashi Naruko Onsen, Kawatabi Onsen, Nakayamadaira Onsen, Onikobe Onsen. Each offers different views of the village and unique bath experiences.

Tohoku Onsen Villages - kokeshi dolls everywhere
Image adapted from: ANA, COKOGURI, @welcome.naruko

There are lots of woodcraft and lacquerware specific to Naruko. Of these, you’ll find Naruko’s emblematic kokeshi (こけし; simple Japanese wooden dolls) everywhere: in souvenir shops, as child-size statues, and even as walking mascots.

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Japan Kokeshi Museum
Image credit: Kokeshi Museum

They’re also displayed in the Japan Kokeshi Museum, which showcases regional differences in the dolls’ shapes and designs. Naruko’s kokeshi dolls are still handmade by about 50 dedicated craftsmen and you can try your hand at designing your own at the museum. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Ofukazawa Bridge at Naruko Gorge
Image credit: Japan National Tourism Organization

If you’re here at the tail-end of autumn, head over to the Naruko Gorge for one of Miyagi Prefecture’s best momiji-gari (紅葉狩り; autumn leaf-hunting) spots. From the Ofukazawa Bridge, you’ll see mountains ablaze with the warm colours of fall. The bridge also marks the beginning of the Naruko Gorge Walking Trail.

5. Akiu Onsen – Miyagi Prefecture

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Akiu Onsen
Image credit: Agoda Company Pte. Ltd.

Akiu Onsen is a historical village that has served numerous feudal lords, including Data Masamune. It’s also well-loved by the imperial family.

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture is known for their onsen
Image credit: City of Sendai

Legend has it that the waters here cured Emperor Kinmei’s skin cancer in the 6th century, and Emperor Juntoku bestowed the title of Nihon San Miyu (日本三御湯; the three honorable onsen) to Akiu Onsen in the 13th century. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Akiu Otaki Falls
Image credit: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

Just a 20-minute bus ride from the information centre, you’ll find the 55m-high, 6m-wide Akiu Otaki Falls. It remains spectacular in winter, when the waters freeze to a dramatic stop in the air. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - walk along the river trail
Image credit: @hotelkiyomizu

You can even admire the waterfall up close by walking along the trail to its base. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Rairai Gorge
Image credit: @nori_oyoshi

20 minutes away from the village by foot is the Rairai Gorge, which features a 1km-long walkway amidst peculiar rock formations.

Tohoku Onsen Villages - heart-shaped rocks at Lover's Sanctuary
Image adapted from: hiroki t

You’ll arrive at the Nozoki Bridge, where you’ll gain a bird’s eye view of an iconic heart-shaped hole in the rocks that’s nicknamed the Lover’s Sanctuary

6. Nyūto Onsenkyō – Akita Prefecture

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Nyūto Onsenkyō
Image credit: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

Interspersed in the forests of Akita’s Towada-Hachimantai National Park is an assortment of 7 onsen that make up Nyūto Onsenkyō.

This rustic village lies in the secluded valley of the Sendachi River and is guarded by Mount Komagatake and Mount Nyūto. While bathing in the milky waters, you can enjoy unique views surrounded by nature.

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Tsurunoyu Onsen
Image credit: RYOKAN STORIES

Tsurunoyu Onsen is the oldest and most historically significant onsen. It preserves the thatched mansion of the samurai honjin (本陣; inn for government officials) from the late Edo period. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Tsurunoyu Onsen's snow mounds at night
Image credit: Agoda Company Pte. Ltd. 

Guests have to cross a suspended bridge to enter the traditional thatch-roofed buildings, outside which a corridor of snow mounds light up beautifully at night. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Magoroku Onsen
Image credit: RYOKAN STORIES

Another onsen that looks magical at night is Magoroku Onsen, which boasts several baths lining a small stream. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Kuroyu Onsen
Image adapted from: RYOKAN STORIES

Kuroyu Onsen is situated slightly further uphill from the other onsen. It’s an open-air bath surrounded by groves of Japanese beech as far as the eyes can see. Its name translates to “black bath” because onsen eggs that are boiled here turn black on the outside. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - explore Nyūto Onsenkyō's deep snow with the Yumeguri Bus Pass
Image adapted from: @saschiharu, 広希

Nyūto Onsenkyō is truly a sight to behold in winter as it lies under a heavy blanket of snow. Stay for a night or 2 to try out all the hot springs and take an unlimited number of rides in the area using the Yumeguri Bus Pass

7. Hanamaki Onsenkyō – Iwate Prefecture

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Hanamaki Onsenkyō

Hanamaki Onsenkyō wraps up our list with the largest group of onsen. Located in Hanamaki City, it sits by the Dai River and Toyosawa River, which flow between mountains to create a wealth of different onsen experiences. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Hanamaki Onsen's rose gardens
Image credit: Hanamaki Tourism Association

Each of the Hanamaki 12 Hot Springs offer an assortment of accommodation and bath facilities so you’ll be spoilt for choice here. The eponymous Hanamaki Onsen is the luxurious grand resort variation of an onsen village and even comes with a rose garden. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Kashoen
Image credit: @hanamaki_onsen

Come winter, the landscape turns into a world of white. While Hanamaki Onsen boasts the most modern high-rise lodgings, it also hosts Kashoen, a traditional single-storey complex with expansive windows. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Osawa Onsen
Image credit: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

Osawa Onsen is a dual-concept onsen. It houses Sansuikaku, a modern Japanese-style inn, and Tojiya, a more traditional one.

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Osawa Onsen's river-facing open-air bath

Osawa Onsen is well-known for its open-air bath that provides front-row seats to the river and the natural elements. 

Tohoku Onsen Villages - Wanwankan for dog visitors
Image adapted from: Shidodaira Onsen Co., Ltd., Shidodaira Onsen Co., Ltd.

Not only does Shidodaira Onsen serve magnificent views right out of one’s private bath, it also serves canine visitors. Dog owners can now revel in the delight of watching their beloved pups splash it out in the Wanwankan

Visit onsen villages in Tohoku this winter

With winter just around the corner, the numerous onsen villages in Tohoku will soon be transformed into snow-capped living history amidst breathtaking landscapes. A dip in these hot springs will not only soothe your soul, but also take you one level up in your knowledge of Japanese culture. 

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Cover image adapted from: Japan National Tourism Organization, Zao Onsen Tourism Association, Travel Blog Indonesia, Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization