Monday, January 25, 2021
Sunday, December 27, 2020
|Snow Macaques of Jigokudani Onsen live in the moment. Photo by Peter Locke.|
My recommendations for hot springs surrounded by snow
Fukiage Onsen in Tokachidake, Hokkaido, is one of my favorite outdoor hot springs in Japan. Disrobe by the snowbanks. Men and women bathe together in the two mixed-sex, konyokuburo, stone baths on the side of a mountainous forest. Meters of snow surround the small baths in winter. The air is crisp and clean. In spring, summer, and fall, sunlight filters through layers of colorful leaves. Distant vistas appear between gaps in branches or spaces between trees. Breezes carry earthy forest aromas.
Though the water in the outdoor bath is 40℃, icicles descend within inches of the iron-rich mineral water in this bath on the side of a mountain inn. At an elevation of approximately 1,300 meters above sea level, Ryuounkaku is a ryokan for addicts of extreme winter sports. This Japanese inn has many positive points: The family that owns the hotel is friendly, and the Japanese meals are hearty and delicious. The windows from each room and the outdoor hot springs offer unbeatable winter vistas. Almost immediately after exiting, you can feel isolated in nature. The downside was that the rooms were not as clean as those of most Japanese ryokans. But the guests are usually not fastidious travelers; they're winter enthusiasts. For more information, read this article. Fukiage Onsen, mentioned above, is a short drive away.
The photograph above shows a small section of the bathing area at Unkai, a hotel with an outdoor bath that faces mountains,
valleys, and the stars above Tokamachi, Niigata. Unkai, written 雲海 in
kanji, means cloud sea. When weather conditions are just right,
the hotel seemingly floats on a sea of clouds (click on the link above
to see photographs). When I visited, the sky was cloudless; instead, I
was treated to a daytime panoramic view of snow-capped peaks,
snow-decorated villages, and ski resorts, and a nighttime sea of stars.
Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma Prefecture is consistently ranked as one of Japan's top traditional hot spring areas. Within this hot spring village, my favorite outdoor bath is at Sainokawara Onsen. The hair on your head freezes while you are comfortably soaking in the natural thermal waters. The sensation is amazing. Temperatures were close to ten below zero Celsius during my last winter visit.
Bone-white is the color of the hot thermal water, and White Bone Hot Spring is the translation of Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉), one of Japan's best small hot spring villages. Located
deep in a ravine that cuts through the Japanese Alps, Shirahone
requires high-level driving skills to reach in mid-winter, when the one
snakelike route from Matsumoto, Nagano, is slick with ice and snow. But,
God, is it ever worth it.
|Outdoor bathing with friends|
When people learn that I have bathed in about 600 hot springs in Japan,
they usually ask about my favorites. At the end of March, 2019, I stayed at Aoni Onsen.
Now, my answer is that this onsen is one of Japan's most unique. It has
everything that I want in an onsen. Significantly, it also lacks something that
almost all hotels provide and that most people cannot imagine being
without. A part of the allure of Aoni Onsen is that guest rooms lack electricity and WiFi. Disconnection from SNS, email, and other internet options elicits a calmness you may have forgotten that you once knew.
|Photograph courtesy of Aomori prefecture|
Everyone should bathe at Sukayu Onsen at least once in their lives. The
experience is an interactive history and culture lesson that leaves your
body feeling as relaxed as a noodle. Sukayu Onsen is a hot and wet time
machine. You'll float back to an era when people were more comfortable
with their bodies. Staying in this onsen hotel, I remembered what I had
learned about Japanese customs in the years before indoor plumbing became ubiquitous. Neighbors would bathe together, and vacations in Japan
used to center around trips to hot springs with distinctive
characteristics. Like Aoni Inn (above), Sukayu is located in Aomori prefecture. Although the bath in the photograph is indoors, the snow depth outside was around seven meters. One can snowshoe out the front door, or ski at the nearby Hakkoda Ski Resort.
|Safe and Warm Mixed-Sex Bathing in Japan Photograph Courtesy of Sukayu Onsen|
Friday, October 23, 2020
A friend told me that he wanted to enjoy fall in a relaxing and rustic area of Japan, where mass tourism had not changed the locals. I recommended Oigami Onsen in Numata, Gunma. Even before the pandemic, Oigami did not get much traffic despite the presence of one of the most unique and graceful waterfalls in Japan, small markets where you can meet the artists and vegetable growers, and rare festivals.
Fukiware Falls is the name of this unusual waterfall. Ware means crack in Japanese. The river suddenly plunges into a 7-meter-deep and 30-meter-wide crack in the riverbed. This river, bursting with colors in fall, was designated as a natural heritage spot for its beauty, and the waterfall is listed as one of Japan's one hundred top waterfalls.
The main street (it is tiny) with hotels and ryokans in Oigami Onsen is a six-minute drive from Fukiware Falls. One can walk, as well. The accommodations in Oigami tend to be along the side of the river. Some are closed. Sleepy Oigami Onsen is far off the golden route of tourism in Japan. Walking along the small-town streets and the riverside are cures for stress. You'll discover another small market, tiny shrines and temples, and a mischievous supernatural being with a giant nose. His name is Tengu.
During our short sojourn in Oigami, we stayed at the mid-range Yamaguchiya Hotel. Built on the rim of a high riverbank, views from the public hot bath and most of the rooms were picturesque. Ingredients for dinner and breakfast meals were mostly locally procured fish, mushrooms, pickles, and vegetables. The building could use a bit more maintenance, but since this area of Japan does not get many tourists, probably a large number of businesses in the area are just holding on. The hotel's highlights were soaking in the bath while enjoying a wide view of rivers, cliffs, and autumn leaves. And the service provided in this mid-range hotel was as fine as that shown to guests at first-class hotels.
Legend has it that the waterfall was discovered by someone who saw a giant snake in the river. One of Nemuta city's webpages gives the following information:
"On May 3rd, a giant snake float weighing two tons and stretching to a length of 108 meters is brought out from its holding place at the Akagi shrine. On the 7th and 8th, 200 participants in the festival hoist the snake into the air and parade it around the streets. Adventurous souls are always welcome to join in."
I recommend Oigami Onsen to all readers seeking a relaxing time in a sleepy town surrounded by the earthy fiery colors of the Japanese autumn.
Saturday, September 12, 2020
|Kawaranoyu in Tsubame Onsen, Myoko, Niigata||Add caption|
Several years beforehand, Ogonoyu had been a mixed-sex bath. But since my last visit, the local community expanded the bathing area and created a male and a female section. I found the separation of sexes disturbing. Japanese social mores are changing for the worse. Why should humans be afraid of or embarrassed about our bodies?
Ogonoyu was still beautiful in the darkness. In our flashlights' beams, we saw huge stones arranged to form concave walls surrounding the rock-lined soaking areas. Steam with a slight odor of sulfur wafted off the surface of the thermal water. Tall trees stood over the baths. Though the rains had stopped, the cloudy sky was blocking starlight and moonlight.
|Hot Spring Addict bathing in the stream near Kawaranoyu|
Hearing no sounds of conversation and seeing no shoes at the entrance, we assumed that we were alone and decided to bathe together in the male section, which was straight ahead. We have been friends for many years and have bathed together in locations from Tohoku to Kagoshima.
With the flashlights off, all we could see was the essence of a pitch-black night. The hot mineral water's heat embracing my body was a perfect match for the cold air. The tight muscles in my body were melting like ice cream in the sun. In the night's silence, I recalled soaking in an isolation chamber in the early 1990s, when they were trendy. That night's experience was similar until an owl hooted, and my mind returned to the present forested environment.
Ten minutes later, we heard the voices of two men speaking and saw the beams of their light shining. The ladies decided to move into the female bathing area. The two men politely greeted us. My friend, who does not soak for as long as I do, decided he had reached his limit. I chose to join my wife and my friend's wife in the female section. Usually, I would have remained. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, I don't want to risk inhaling the exhalations of strangers. No one wears a mask in a hot spring.
We had a fantastic fifteen minutes or so of privacy and relaxation until a lady called to us from the bath entrance. She said that she was afraid to bathe alone in the dark and wished to bathe in the female section with her husband instead of soaking apart. By that time, we were satisfied, so we departed, allowing them to enjoy the privacy of a private bath.
The next day, we returned to enjoy another free outdoor bath called Kawaranoyu. Getting there requires a ten-minute walk on a path above a deep gorge where a mighty river churns, jumps, swirls, and pushes boulders and fallen trees downstream.
After crossing a footbridge, the trail turns and travels along the edge of a smaller stream cutting through mountain greenery. Insect sounds and frog calls stopped as we came close and continued after our passing.
|Walking bridge to Kawaranoyu|
The trail ends at one of the prettiest little hot springs imaginable. The water is blueish white. It continuously enters from the side of a fern-covered slope and exits through cracks in the rocks, flowing into the stream below. The only building is a rustic hut in which men and women leave their clothing before entering the same-sex bath.
The air holds the aroma of a fresh forest mixed with a tinge of sulfur. The spring provides relaxing music. And, often, dragonflies hover in the air. Kawanoyu is one of my favorite outdoor springs in Myoko, Niigata. After heating up, I like to carefully climb down the short slippery cliff to a spring pool to submerge myself in the mountain's coldness. Then, I climb up and repeat this heavenly healing process
To read more about Tsubame Onsen, click on the following stories:
Monday, July 13, 2020
|Gokuraku, the name of this bath, is also the Japanese word for the Buddhist heaven|
|Morning coffee after a night of car camping with the hot spring addict.|
|Steam naturally issues from the earth.|
|The hot spring addict taking a steam bath.|
|Looking down on Manza Onsen|
|The hiking hot spring addict crossing a field of snow in June.|
|Ushike Pond with its incredibly clear water and reflections. The water is too acidic for fish.|
Sunday, May 3, 2020
|Thinking deeply about hot springs|
1. What do city officials in Beppu, Japan, award to bathers who soak in 88 different hot springs?
a. A black belt b. A black towel c. A black T-shirt d. A black bar of soap
2. What is special about Hirauchikaisen Onsen on the island of Yakushima, Kagoshima?
a. It is only accessible at high tide b. It is next to a live volcano c. Monkeys bathe there d The water is dark red
3. The famous bathing "hot spring monkeys" of Nagano, Japan, are ...
a. Japanese macaques b. Japanese squirrel monkeys c. Japanese gibbons d. Japanese marmoset
|Searching the sea for the answers|
4. Which healthy substance has been added to just a few hot spring baths in Japan? Perhaps the best example of this can be found at a hot spring ryokan in Ureshino, Kyushu.
a. citrus fruits b. vitamins c. green tea d. protein powder
5. Which Japanese city made a promotional video that showed amusement park rides turned into hot spring baths?
a. Hakone b. Sapporo c. Kyoto d. Beppu
6. Taking a sand bath (sunayu in Japanese) means ...
a. Rubbing sand on one's skin b. Being buried in hot steamy sand c. Experiencing a dirty bath d. Soaking in a bath that has a sandy bottom
7. Which type of Japanese bath is connected with the story of a thief who was boiled to death?
a. Goemonburo b. Uchiyu c. Rotenburu d. Kazokuburu
8. Some hot springs were reportedly discovered after hunters noticed animals such as cranes and ___________ bathing and healing injuries.
a. Rabbits b. Eagles c. Deer d. Turtles
9. The thermal water in hot springs is sometimes ...
a. Clear b. White c. Black d. Green d. Tea-brown e. Red f. All of these are correct
10. Yunohana are substances that are collected from some hot springs. Yunohana are often sold as souvenirs.What are these?
a. healthful bacteria b. soap c. algae d. mineral deposits
|Hotel hot spring in autumn|
Question 1 B. A black towel
Question 2 A. It is only accessible at high tide
Question 3 A. Japanese macaques
Question 4 C. Green tea
Question 5 D. Beppu
Question 6 B. Being buried in hot steamy sand
Question 7 A. Goemonburo
Question 8 C. Deer
Question 9 F. All of these
Question 10 D. Mineral deposits