Friday, November 1, 2013

Return to the Hot Springs for Swallows

Last winter, I arrived at the mountainous Japanese onsen village of Tsubame Onsen (燕温泉)just thirty minutes after members of the onsen association had closed the free outdoor hot springs. But this October, we made it there in time. The exquisite outdoor hot springs in the midst of nature are renowned among Japanese onsen connoisseurs. So before the baths closed this year, I made the trip up the steep curving mountain roads to experience what I had only read about.

We Finally Got Here - Happiness, or Shiawase (幸せ)
There are two outdoor baths:Kawaranoyu (川原の湯) is by the side of a stream in a small valley. Ferns and moss line the rock walls of the bath. You can see and hear the gurgling flowing stream in front while you are soothed in hot water. The other bath, Ougonnoyu (黄金の湯), is at the edge of a knoll.  Nude mixed-sex bathing, or konyokuburo (混浴風呂), is normal. A pleasant ten-minute walk along mountain paths from the village is necessary to reach each spring. Darkness came much too quickly when the sun descended on the other side of the mountains, and I spent so much time in the former that it was too dark for photographing the latter. This place is fantastic. Tsubame is one of those rare hot spring areas that make you want to visit repeatedly.
The Path to the Kawaranoyu (川原の湯)
Every year, the threat of avalanches is the reason for the early-winter closure. The village, on the edge of a cliff at an elevation of 1,190 meters (3,904 feet) receives an annual average of 14 meters (approximately the height of a four-story building) of snow. 

The village's excellent hot springs, clean air, wide panoramic views of valleys and mountain peaks, and access to splendid hiking trails should make it a very popular location, but the village is dying. Young people  do not want to live in such locations and the heavy snowfall requires lots of work. Several hotels are now unoccupied and falling apart. Most of the residents are past sixty. Modern Japanese people seem more interested in traveling overseas and shopping in malls than experiencing nature in Japan. 

The local onsen association members work hard to keep the village clean and to maintain the free onsen and foot bath. I love the views, the quality of the bluish white sulfurous hot spring, and the serenity of Tsubame, so I hope that more people will visit and support the local economy. To see photographs of one very pleasant Japanese ryokan in Tsubame click here.

Tsubame Onsen in Early Fall

Tsubame Onsen in Early Winter

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