|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|