Friday, October 23, 2020

Waterfalls, Autumn Leaves, and the Beautiful Baths of Oigami Onsen, Gunma

 
We are entering the season of fiery colors, powerful waterfalls, and hot baths with spectacular views. Grab your towel and make travel plans for the gorgeous mountains if you're in Japan. Those outside Japan will have to wait and salivate.

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.     

Walking and hiking trails of various difficulty levels (nothing particularly strenuous) and a small bridge take visitors to numerous breathtaking viewpoints. The river changes color depending on the angle of your view, sunlight, and water depth.
The path to the the trail heading to the falls leads through a small market evocative of Japan's countryside fifty years or so ago. The aromas of roasted salted and bamboo-skewered river fish, baked sweet potatoes, and hot amazake waft along the walkway. Traditional woven baskets, wooden dolls, and antiques are on sale, as are various wild mushrooms that might have been gathered that morning in the nearby mountains.

 


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.



 
During one of our walks through the small town, we discovered a 108.22 m (355 ft) snake. It was holding bottles of local sake in its mouth. This snake is the one that the Guinness Book of World Records had certified as the longest festival snake in the world.



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

Free Public Outdoor Hot Springs in Myoko, Niigata

Kawaranoyu in Tsubame Onsen, Myoko, NiigataAdd caption
 My wife and I, with another couple, bathed in a free outdoor hot spring at night. Rain clouds and the sun setting on the other sides of craggy peaks were darkening the walking path to Ougonnoyu (name of the bath) as we arrived in the mountainous village of Tsubame Onsen. Rockslides had closed one of the winding roads on the way, so we had to detour. My friends were ready to turn back: thick fog and heavy rains were discouraging, but having experienced the incredible hot springs in the past, I assured them that they would be pleased and astounded. In the dark, we found the walking path leading uphill from the backside of the village.


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:

Return to the Hot Springs for Swallows

Hot Springs for Swallows:Tsubame Onsen (燕温泉)

 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Bathing in a Japanese Onsen and Car Camping During a Pandemic

To bathe or not to bathe in an onsen these days, that is the question.  After Japan's state of emergency was lifted, I decided I would soak if I could find an environment that seemed safe. For several months, this hot spring addict abstained from entering the sacred waters of Japanese onsens out of fear of contracting COVID-19. Finally, though, the beautiful Arctic-blue mineral water of Manza Onsen in Gunma lured me into a bath—an outdoor one with a view of alpine greenery.
Gokuraku, the name of this bath, is also the Japanese word for the Buddhist heaven
As I stepped naked from the rustic wooden building housing the changing room, the beauty of the bath named Gokurakuyu and the surroundings caused me to take a deep breath and stand motionless. I saw the sky and bushes reflected on the still water. A jigoku, or "hot spring hell," appeared on the other side of the valley in front. Thermal water from deep underground was rising to the earth's surface. The steam, heat, and minerals prevented plants from growing on the slope near the jigoku. Above me, clouds lazily swam across the sky. The aroma of sulfur touched my nose. Manza's thermal springs reportedly have the highest concentration of sulfur of all Japanese hot springs.


For several months, fear of contracting CORVID-19 had me forsaking my most relaxing pleasure, which is melting within Japanese onsens. But I decided in June that I would bathe if I could find a facility in a location that was unique and appeared safe. Along the way, I would camp, maintain social distancing, wear masks when near others, spray and wash frequently. (If you are considering traveling in Japan now, you should study the Japan COVID-19 Coronavirus Tracker.)

Morning coffee after a night of car camping with the hot spring addict.
In search of a famous-among-Japan-based-hot-spring-nuts onsen named Manza Onsen, my wife and I drove our van from our home in Niigata into the neighboring mountainous prefecture of Gunma. While driving, we passed many shuttered hotels, restaurants, ryokan, victims of pandemic economics. We kept climbing, trusting the Google navigation system, which screwed up big time. 

Late at night, we came to a four-way intersection in the middle of a forest near the top of a remote mountain. A metal gate blocked us from descending a road leading to Manza Onsen. Signage indicated that the road was closed because of a landslide. Leaf debris and plants bending over the road meant the road had been closed for a long time. One alternative was to return the way we had come and drive in the dark for several hours.

Instead, we decided to park our van under trees, heat up a package of instant Japanese curry with a gas stove, and sleep in the back. A breeze carrying sweet vanilla-like aroma cooled us. The Big Dipper and other constellations watched over us. A stream soothed us to a deep and pleasant sleep. After savoring our outdoor breakfast of cereal, fruit, fresh coffee, and a seemingly endless view, we washed with towels that we soaked in a tiny waterfall slipping down a nearby cliff, a superb way to start a day. Then we called a hotel in Manza and asked for directions. 

The correct route led us on roads that curved by serene green and blue ponds and waterfalls as high as skyscrapers.
Tiny hot springs, like Hotaru Onsen, which was puffing thick clouds of mineral-thick steam, diverted my attention, causing me to pull over, gape in wonder, and take a ridiculous number of photographs.
Steam naturally issues from the earth.

The hot spring addict taking a steam bath.

One of the most photographed spots along the route known as Shiga-Kusatsu Kogen Route Kokudo 292 is where a rock sculpture informs passersby that they are at the highest peak on the highest road in  Japan. Though the view at an elevation of 2,172 meters was breathtaking, I gave in to my impulse to climb the monument for a better vantage point. 
From there, the road spiraled downward into the tiny, quiet village of Manza Onsen (elevation 1,800 meters). Few cars were on the streets of the quiet hamlet. Hotels and ryokan were separated by plenty of space. Some of the few hotels and ryokan were closed. I stopped to ask a walker dressed in hiking garb for a recommendation. She said that the outdoor bath (rotenburo in Japanese) at the Nishinkan Hotel (also called Manza Hotel) had a spectacular view. The location on the edge of a hill and next to a forest was promising. I decided to enter the hotel and scope out the hygiene. If I felt uncomfortable, I would go somewhere else. 

Bottles of hand spray were at the doors and in the hallways and at the front desk. The few guests that I saw were wearing facemasks. I peaked into the dining room, which I noticed had a buffet. The staff in the dining room and at the hotel check-in area wore masks and plastic face covers. A front desk clerk asked if I would mind if he took my temperature. If I had a fever, I would have to leave. These precautions comforted me. I said to my wife, "Wow, these people are as cautious or as paranoid as I am. I can bathe here, but let's eat lunch first."
    

The healthy Japanese buffet lunch was delicious, hygienic, and only 1,000 yen (around US $9). Management asked the guests to wear disposable plastic gloves when taking food from the buffet. The dining room was spacious, so we could distance ourselves from others. Through opened windows, I could see tall trees and hear bird cries. Comfortably full, it was time for a bath. 

Day-trippers can partake of the pleasures of both the indoor and outdoor bathing facilities, also for just 1,000 yen. The indoor bathing area named Choujunoyu has five different varieties of baths containing various herbs and mineral concentrations. Be sure to click on the link and read the descriptions. 

Perhaps, I was overly cautious, but I reasoned that if any guests were positive for COVID-19, the outdoor bath would be the safest because of the exposure to breezes. So I decided to save Choujunoyu for a return trip after the pandemic. 

Bathing in Gokurakunoyu, the outdoor bath, was such a splendid experience. Most of the time, I was alone. Two other bathers came for a short time. The bath was big enough for us to separate ourselves by several meters. Being extra-cautious, I  moved upwind from the others. My wife was alone in a bath in the women's section on the other side of a fence. 
Looking down on Manza Onsen

We lazed in our healthy environments for almost two hours. Sitting in the bath, I could look down on the jigoku. Walking trails and small shrines were alongside the hells. The trails around the hells take around an hour for physically fit people who are likely to stop and take many photographs.
After bathing, we found hiking trails leading up into nearby mountains. We ended up enjoying several hours of walking along streams, through patches of snow, and up ridges with views that encompassed great distances. While walking, we surprised two rabbits that hopped away at an amazingly fast pace. The next morning, we strolled around Ushike Pond. Reflections of green trees, blue sky, and white clouds lay on the surface of the clear water.
.
The hiking hot spring addict crossing a field of snow in June.
As night approached, we slept  in our van under trees off to the side of a road in Manza Onsen. In the morning, we visited the Manza Onsen Nature Center, which has educational exhibits and information about the local ecosystem, including hot springs and local wildlife. As we were driving away, we spotted one tanuki (raccoon dog) and several deer. The nature center staff has a map showing the dates and locations of recent bear sightings.
Ushike Pond with its incredibly clear water and reflections. The water is too acidic for fish.

Information for car campers: Be sure to bring enough food and water. When we visited, we did not see any convenience stores or supermarkets. Also, fill your car with fuel way before heading up. There are no gas stations within or close to Manza Onsen.

Caution: Follow the advice on signs around hot spring areas, especially jigoku. A few hot springs release poisonous gases in addition to thermal water. Bathe and hike safely!

To read more posts about Japanese onsen in Gunma, click the links below:

Music, Singing and Kusatsu Onsen

Sainokawara Onsen, One of the Best Japanese Hot Springs


If you love Japanese hot springs or have questions, please leave comments.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Japanese Hot Spring Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Japanese Onsens?

Thinking deeply about hot springs
Choose the best answer for each question. Scroll to the bottom to read the correct answers. Click on the links to read informative posts and boost your knowledge of Japanese 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


 Answers and Links to Related Posts: 
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







Sunday, December 29, 2019

Enjoy Yoga or Stretch Pole Exercises Before Bathing in a Japanese Hot Spring

Japanese hot springs promote mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Add yoga exercises or stretch pole exercises to double the health benefits. The folks at Senami Onsen in Murakami, Niigata, have a plan to help you lose stress and loosen up your body with healthful stretching.
 From the right angle, the thermal mineral and ocean waters merge. This is one of the baths at Taiseisou.
One-hour yoga or stretch pole sessions start at 2:00 and end at 3:00 on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month. Stretch pole events are almost always on the second Saturday. The teachers are professionals hired by the Senami Onsen Association. Although the yoga teacher did speak English, the two Israeli tourists and the one American who joined her session participated by following her movements. The two Israelis said that they had a fantastic time and felt wonderful! One added that doing yoga in such a beautiful location was so far the highlight of her trip. Our yoga and bathing healing session took place at Senami Onsen Resort-Hotel Taiseisou. The kanji for Taiseisou is 大清荘。

The views from the baths and the yoga room were almost identical:  panoramic perspectives of light blue sky, dark blue water, and relaxed, smiling faces.
These events happen at various hotels within Senami Onsen. Check the schedule to learn specific details. Unfortunately, the plan is in Japanese only.  Contact me in advance if you need help. Yoga mats are free. The rates are the following: 600 yen for Senami hotel guests, 600 yen for members of the association, 1,000 yen for day participants with reservations, and 1,100 for participants who drop in. Hotels will charge for towels. We brought our own. The fees above include access to fantastic baths.
I met him after yoga and a bath. Look how calm he is.
Senami Onsen is a walkable hot spring village along the Sea of Japan on the northern end of Niigata Prefecture. Trains run from Niigata City to Murakami. Murakami has a long history of fishing, salt-making, agriculture, and cooking with seafood, especially salmon.  Very few foreigners visit Murakami. Local festivals are unique. Most hot spring baths face the sea, and the sunsets are legendary. For those reasons, I recommend visiting Murakami and bathing in Senami Onsen.

Hotels and ryokans range in price from 6,000 to just over 50,000 yen a person per night. Breakfasts and dinners are usually included in the price. Three other recommended Senami bathing spots are Taikanso Senaminoyu  (大観荘せなみの湯), Shiomiso Inn, and Haginoya.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Onsen Hotel with Hellishly Good Hot Spring Hell Images

The Japanese use the word hell (地獄, pronounced jigoku) for both the mythical area where humans suffer for their sins and an area where enormous quantities of hot water and steam issue from Earth.

Shiraike Jigoku

Situated on one of the most active regions of the Ring of Fire, Japan has its share of large hells. On Mt. Unzen and in other locations, samurai boiled Christians and other criminals to death in those hells. But that was long ago. Today, many are tourist attractions. Beppu, Oita, has seven hells. It was a hell of a surprise to discover that Seikaisou, a reasonably-priced hotel in Beppu, gave me a room with its own hell. It was hellishly good, and I slept like an angel

Hot Spring Addict relaxing after relaxing
Seikaisou is unusual for installing lovely hell images in rooms but also for having tatami (woven-straw- mat flooring) in the rooms with baths. Another guest told me that the tatami flooring is soft, so she feels good about bringing her children there. If they fall, they won't bang their heads on hard surfaces.

Seikaisou's rare bathing area with tatami
From the baths, one sees and smells the sea and hears seabirds singing. This is partly what Japanese bathing is about. As I soaked, I noticed a lone fishing boat moving across the horizon. I looked to the right and discovered Mt. Takasaki, which is famous for a monkey park.
Mt. Takasaki on the right
I recommend Seikaisou for its cleanliness, location, service, and delicious meals. We ate dinner out, but our breakfast was delicious. And from our table, we also saw the ocean. Our simple room was less than $100.00 for two people. Prices vary depending on room location and type. The most expensive rooms come with private onsen baths on the balconies.

If you are looking for a  super lunch experience or a luxury hotel in Beppu, read about this fantastic location. Want to know more about other Beppu hot springs and ones across Japan? Write Beppu in the search field.




Hotspringaddict.com did not receive any discounts or preferential treatment. I wrote this positive blog post because the hotel impressed me.