Thursday, January 10, 2013

Hot Springs for Swallows:Tsubame Onsen (燕温泉)

To remove ice from the slippery, ice-encrusted road, the locals were shooting jets of hot-spring water onto the road at the front of the village. Trying not to fall or get soaked, we walked carefully up the only road that leads to and through the sloping village of Tsubame Onsen (燕温泉).  We wanted to bathe surrounded by snow and trees under a blue winter sky. Perched at an elevation of 1,190 meters (3,904 feet) on the edge of a mountain cliff, the tiny village is aptly named. Tsubame () is the Japanese word for the bird that English speakers call the swallow. Tsubame Onsen is appreciated by hot spring fanatics who seek free outdoor hot springs in natural settings. This special Japanese hot spring is located in the Myoko Highlands of Niigata.
Hotel Hot Spring Bath
Road to Tsubame

The Japanese outdoor hot spring baths, called Ougon-no-yu (黄金の湯) are on a hill above Tsubame Onsen, which consists of approximately twenty buildings. Mixed sex bathing, called konyokuburo (混浴風呂), is acceptable within the free baths, but to our disappointment we had arrived just thirty minutes after the baths had been closed for winter in late November. A spunky Japanese man in his seventies who was shoveling snow off the sidewalk explained that keeping the baths open and running at an elevation of 1,190 meters is just too difficult and dangerous in winter. Avalanches are not are uncommon.In fact, we heard and saw an avalanche on a nearby mountain that very day.

We walked on snowshoes through the glistening snow above the town to take a look at one of the empty outdoor baths. Then we saw a trail leading up the mountain, and we impulsively followed it. It lead to a fork. We turned right and walked to the edge of a cliff. On the other side, we could hear and see a waterfall pulsing cold water through a trough in the snow at the bottom of the valley between the mountain we were climbing and the one opposite it. Suddenly we heard a loud rumble that lasted for about a minute. An avalanche was rushing from crag to crag on the opposite slope.  Anyone underneath that torrent of tons of descending snow would have suffocated. The avalanche was a reminder of  the deadly power and the natural beauty of winter in the mountains of Japan. Carrying a sense of awe within us, we continued back to the yet unexplored trail at the other end of the forked path to see more cold mountain vistas.
Japanese irori

Our hardworking muscles deserved a hot spring after the walk in the snow. Not knowing where to go, we followed the recommendation of another elderly man (There only seemed to be senior citizens living in the village.), and sought out Hotel Iwadoya (岩戸屋).This hotel, like many old hotels in the Japanese mountains, was like a small museum. You can see stuffed animals, Buddhist artifacts, irori (an open hearth used for cooking and heating) and other objects representative of past eras. The kindly proprietor requested that I wait a short while for an earlier group of visitors to finish bathing, and she offered an aromatic cup of tea made from roasted green tea leaves. Sipping the tea, I strolled through the old ryokan and savored the decor.

The hotel had an indoor bath that was very hot and steamy. The small outdoor bath was close to the edge of the mountain. Sitting in the grayish white mineral water, one could easily see the sky and a mountain across the valley. The smell of sulphur was strong, and the water was full of mineral elements. Hot running water poured from a bamboo tube onto my back. My senses were stimulated while my body relaxed. All in all, it was another great foray into a new Japanese hot spring. 

I loved my time in Tsubame Onsen so much that I returned to enjoy the free outdoor hot springs in early autumn. They were wonderful.  To read about a different hot spring in Myoko, one with black mineral water, follow the link here.

 Look Carefully to See Avalanche

Snowy Mountain in Japan