If you’re planning a trip to Japan and would like to get more out of your trip than the predictable Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka – Tokyo route, make sure to check out the Journeys in Japan TV series made by NHK World for ideas.
The two episodes I highlighted below go into Chichibu and the 34 Kannon Temple Pilgrimage around Chichibu, recommended viewing if you’re interested in travels in Japan!
We went on the Kawasaki Factory Night bus tour as operated by Hato Bus from Tokyo Station, recommended as it clearly is something off the beaten tourist-track for things to do in Tokyo! But you need to reserve in good time as it is a really popular bus tour. The bus tour only operates from autumn till spring, when it is dark enough in the evenings to enjoy the sights. Fun detail: the bus tour starts with a stop at a yakiniku restaurant which is included in the trip and ends with the tourist guide singing a bit of karaoke while the bus drives back through the night over the motorways around Tokyo. 🙂
The section on the way back over the motorway to Tokyo Station along the petrochemical factories is dreamy!
Treat it as a unique photo-walk and you cannot go wrong, but bring a tripod! See here for details about the tour.
Kojima Ryokan (嶽温泉 小島旅館) in Dake Onsen is one of those little treasures we came across during our road trip of Aomori onsen and we had the best of times. Dake Onsen is located just next to the entrance of the Iwaki-san Skyway road winding up towards the summit of Mount Iwaki so there are plenty of reasons to visit.
The ryokan has the feel of a Shōwa period building and it is run like a family-style place: very friendly, very homely.
The baths are nice and hot and the food was the best we had during our trip. By this time I really was getting used to the hot onsen waters that are common in Aomori and really enjoyed it. As for the food, I can still taste the rice we had, cooked with mushrooms and vegetables, so delicious! Dinner came with a choice of the local sake too, it really was great.
Everything considered, of all the onsen we visited during our road trip of Aomori onsen, I liked the hearty food of Kojima Ryokan best. Nothing fancy, nothing special, just really, really good food!
Among the secret onsen I listed, this one ranks among the top!
(I liked the way they used the hot onsen water to clean the area in front of the ryokan building of ice and snow by just leading a hose of hot water through a pipe with some holes in that cleaned the ice nicely. Have a look again at the first photo to see what I mean. Everywhere else was ice and snow, the front of the Kojima Ryokan was snow free. 🙂 )
Eventually we came down from the mountains and out of the snow at the end of our road trip along the onsen of Aomori in Northern Tōhoku and made our way to the Sea of Japan.
Koganezakifurōfushi Hot Spring (黄金崎不老ふ死温泉) in Fukaura-machi is famous for its bath right at the edge of the Sea of Japan. At high-tide and with a bit of wind, the waves lap into the bath.
The hotel has several baths but the one that sets this onsen apart is the one at the sea side. The right side of the bath is women-only, the other bath is mixed and lots of people, mostly couples, gather in the bath in the evening to watch the sunset together. If you visit and it is a nice day, check on the local time of the sunset as we just could watch the spectacle of the sun setting in the Sea of Japan before we had to be at the restaurant for our dinner.
This is not an old-style Japanese ryokan but a normal hotel, the rooms are likewise western. Our room overlooked the Sea of Japan with the famous bath below the room; nice for photography. 🙂 Dinner and breakfast were more than fine, nothing exceptional, but you have to take into account that we were at the end of a long road trip along the best onsen of Northern Tōhoku and had gorged on the best food a ryokan can offer, we were spoiled.
In the evening somebody played the shamisen in the hotel lobby, but with extraordinary gusto; I never heard the shamisen played like this, really enjoyable!
I don’t remember how many times I soaked in that bath, but way too many times! 🙂
Located almost at the top of the Shimokita Peninsula (下北半島) sticking up from Aomori Prefecture towards Hokkaido, Maruhon ryokan (まるほん旅館) in Shimofuro (下風呂) is a bit out of the way for some tourists, but certainly worth the visit which we did as part of our road trip through Aomori.
Reservations are only taken via their website and not via Booking.com or Rakuten Travels or similar sites, no English language option is available on the site but with the on-the-fly translations these days, this isn’t really necessary. Like so many Japanese locations catering mainly to the Japanese, the ryokan is cash-only.
When you check their website, you find that there are different options for the food and we went for the anglerfish (アンコウ目) plan; this was totally worth the extra expense. When you have to drive a few hours to get to a special location, there is no point in skimping out, right? Depending on the season there are different plans available.
Right next to the ryokan is plenty of free parking. Shimofuro is a tiny village with a harbour with lots of fishing boats for nice photographs and a tiny park on the side of the harbour with some nice views. Overlooking the village is a Shinto shrine on the hill.
The water in the onsen is very milky and hot. If you just read my review and looked at the photos of an old building, nothing gorgeous, you might not be convinced that this ryokan is worth a few hours drive, let me then tell you that this is one of the secret onsen of Japan normally just shared between insiders. I won’t say more.
Opposite the ryokan is a public bath and up the road is another one, both of them are mostly frequented by the locals every day, you buy a token at the machine outside and hand the token to the person sitting at the entrance inside. We used both of them and it was a lot of fun to mingle around the people of the village. One thing you have to know, the water in those baths is hot, scaldingly hot! There are two baths, one is a little colder and the other is almost boiling. It took a long time before I got used to the hot water enough to enjoy the hottest of them. I was very proud of myself and told one of the local fishermen that the water was so hot yet felt so good, and he told me with a straight face that it was just tepid. After a night out at sea, I bet I would be frozen to the core too. 🙂
Yet another picturesque onsen that we visited during our road trip around the different onsen of Northern Tōhoku was Yachi Onsen (谷地温泉) in Hōryō, Towada-shi, Aomori-ken.
At Yachi Onsen, you’re truly in the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain with Mt. Takada-Odake looming on the side: No TV, no mobile reception or Internet, it is bliss!
When you turn the corner and get your first glimpse of the building, it looks like a collection of sheds and you might feel a bit of a worry. But after checking in and finding your room, you can relax as the room was new, spacious and clean. The onsen is interesting: a series of similar baths in a row with different temperatures, and at the end you can climb down to enter a space where the water drips over you. Interesting! As the water was rather “strong” it burned my skin a bit and during my subsequent soaks, I washed myself with the shower after bathing; there were signs on the wall suggesting to do exactly this as clearly I was not the first person with a bit of a sensitive skin.
Dinner was iwana fish (岩魚) as sashimi, tempura and grilled with salt among the other usual ryokan delicacies. Breakfast was more of the same type of fish. I could eat this fish everyday of my life!
We visited in March and there were still meters of snow outside. Apart from the onsen, one of the attractions was that a lot of Japanese marten, ten (貂), would come out at night and roam the area around the buildings just waiting for an alert photographer to capture them in a great pose. Several of the visitors had come with long lenses and flash units to attempt exactly this. In the morning we could see the tracks in the fresh snow and knew that loads of ten had come out to play that night.
Otherwise, it looked like most people were visiting for hiking and skiing the Mt. Takada-Odake area while enjoying a relaxing bath after the day’s activities and the great food; next time I’ll stay longer to be able to enjoy the outdoor sports myself.
Notable thing: signs everywhere to keep doors closed or snake would sneak in. Good thing we visited in Spring in the cold. 🙂
Another great onsen that we visited during our road trip around the different onsen of Northern Tōhoku was Sukayu Onsen (酸ヶ湯温泉) on top of a mountain in Aomori Province. It is very popular with outdoor people and a lot of people took the cable car from Sanroku Station (山麓駅) to Sancho Park Station (山頂公園駅) and skied down to Sukayu Onsen to stay and to relax in the baths.
The major attraction of Sukayu Onsen is the awesome bath around the lobby area: it is a very large mixed bath but the men and women area is split down the middle (watch the signs) and a part on the women’s side is shielded off. If that still sounds like a show-stopper to use this bath, if modesty is still an issue: early morning the bath is women-only and at any time of the day women who don’t feel like being nude with the male visitors can use a yugi (湯着) which is a piece of clothing that covers everything up perfectly and which can be bought in the shop, if you didn’t bring one. The reason for insisting on this is that this is a great bath and should be enjoyed by all, Sukayu Onsen did everything to make it enjoyable for all.
There is another bath, gender separated, certainly worth the visit too but concentrate on that main bath, you’ll be telling stories about that one to the people who stayed at home!
Self-catering is an option but we had selected the dinner in the restaurant. The dinner was pretty standard ryokan but it tasted excellent, probably because of the exercise we had had that day. Breakfast was buffet-style and loads of people were already queuing up before the restaurant opened in the morning to get out and have fun as soon as they could. I love it when there is curry and spicy pickles for breakfast and plenty more!
Our room was new, spacious, non-smoking and clean, but there are different options and price-classes available. I’m still amazed how big this ryokan is as there were corridors shooting off left and right.
We took a 45 minutes massage that night and left very relaxed.
This was the one onsen that had the most tourists visiting of our road trip. There is a direct bus from Aomori Station to this ryokan and it was very busy with Japanese and non-Japanese tourists alike, However, at no point it felt that Sukayu Onsen was too popular with the tourists during our stay. We had rented a car (recommended!) and were lucky to time our arrival differently from the arrival of the bus so check-in was easy, but the lobby was very busy each time a bus arrived. If that happens to you, relax and park yourself in front of the TV and await your name being called to wrap up the check-in process and being shown to your room. A very well organised ryokan.
Immediately next door is a soba restaurant and a ski rental, basically, it is a place you don’t want to leave, ever.
In the spring of 2013 we visited Taiyō-ji for a temple stay (shukubo) and loved it, we visited again in the winter of 2014-2015 and confirmed that Taiyō-ji does give the best shukubo in Japan. After those visits I had collected quite a number of photos and compiled that into a book and we sent a copy to the temple. Last week, friends of us visited the temple, and behold, our book was there and well read.
I am very happy that the book was well received by the monk of Taiyō-ji and all the visitors. We had not asked our friends to check on the book, suddenly we were happily surprised with photos of it on Facebook. 🙂