Friday, April 29, 2016

Beautiful Views and Japanese Bath at the 雲海 Unkai ("Cloud Sea") Hotel

As the white-tipped mountains east of my home are being eclipsed by shades of greens and browns, I am reminiscing about a two-day trip to a Japanese onsen two months ago. I indulged in obsessive (for most people) bathing, studied environmental issues on a mountain with a nature guide, relished  gourmet Japanese vegetarian food, and marveled at the giant snow sculptures of the Tokamachi Snow Festival in Niigata.
When staying at a Japanese ryokan or a hotel with hot spring baths, I bathe immediately after checking in, take a walk,  bathe again, eat dinner, walk, read or play games, take an evening bath, sleep, wake up, bathe, eat, explore the nearby vicinity, have a final bath, and check out. If I am not distracted, I might soak five times within twenty-four hours. The result is that I become a very flexible and sated hot-spring addict, who is refreshed enough to deal with the stress of normal life. Hot springs are my antidote to the problems of contemporary living.
The photographs above show a small section of the bathing area at Unkai, a Tokamachi, Niigata, hotel with an outdoor bath that faces mountains, valleys, stars, and, when I visited, a full moon. 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 panaramic view of snowcapped peaks, snow-decorated villages, and ski resorts, and a nighttime sea of stars.                                             

The vegetarian meals we requested when making hotel reservations were exquisitely presented, prepared with fresh local ingredients, and as delicious to the tongue as they were impressive to the eyes. We were pleasantly surprised by the willingness of the staff to accommodate our special request.

Following breakfast, we met Tomotaka Koyama, who works as a local nature guide for the Shinano River Outdoor Tourism Promotion Association. Friendly, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about teaching others to appreciate and protect the nearby flora and fauna, he led us on an enjoyable trek through the lovely local woods. To learn more about his snowshoe and other ecotours, read this article.
The Tokamachi Snow Festival is one of the best winter festivals in the world, yet it is a relatively unknown event outside of Niigata. If visiting Japan in winter, you really should not miss this special festival that combines art, food, winter sports, and much more. Be sure to enjoy the nearby ski resorts, snowshoe trails, and (most importantly) Japanese hot springs!

Matsunoyama Onsen Ryokan Chitose is another excellent hotel with great baths in Tokamachi. If you have time, visit both!
Japanese hot spring addicts who want to combine bathing with snowshoeing and other winter sports, may want to read posts about Tainai, Myoko, Hokkaido, Tsukioka, Renge, Zao, and Jidokudani.

My recommendation of the hotel and festival above were not paid for. This blog reports my honest opinions.

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