Kojima Ryokan (嶽温泉 小島旅館) in Dake Onsen

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. 🙂 )

Koganezakifurōfushi Hot Spring (黄金崎不老ふ死温泉)

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! 🙂

Maruhon ryokan (まるほん旅館) in Shimofuro

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. 🙂

Yachi Onsen (谷地温泉) in Hōryō, Aomori Province

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. 🙂

Sukayu Onsen (酸ヶ湯温泉), Aomori-ken

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.

Our Taiyo-ji Temple book at Taiyo-ji Temple

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. 🙂

Fujisan ryokan (鉛温泉 藤三旅館) in Hanamaki, Iwate

The first onsen that we visited during our road trip around the different onsen of Northern Tōhoku was already a whopper: Fujisan ryokan (鉛温泉 藤三旅館) in Hanamaki (Namari area), Iwate. The ryokan has two parts: a more shabby area for long-stay visitors who can cook for themselves if they desire and a newly renovated area for guests who come to enjoy the food and the larger and better rooms. Both parts have their appeal but it is certainly worth staying at the more stylish area and pick the option with the excellent, traditional food in the restaurant area.

But what makes this ryokan almost unique in Japan is the large bath where you not sit in, but need to stand, even as a tall person. There are other baths too including a rotenburo, very enjoyable baths, but the standing bath is quite the experience: You enter through one of the doors to immediately decent about 20 stone steps to enter an area to undress. On the other side is another door with similar steps. In between is a large stone oval bath with a small ridge about 50 centimetres in to help you get in and out of the bath. When you get into the bath, the hot water is excellent. As the bath is quite far down in the building, when you look up, the church-like view of the tall roof with the tiny window at the top is unexpected for a building in Japan..
It is a mixed bath with women only access for an hour every day and open 24 hours a day.

Road trip: An onsen tour of Northern Tōhoku

We just got back from a trip to Japan where we spent 10 days on a road trip along the fabulous onsen in the north of Japan. It is probably a good thing that most tourists have split Japan into a just a handful of areas where you are supposed to go for certain activities, and ignore better locations elsewhere: For example, most tourists are convinced that for a temple stay you go to Koyasan, for the countryside you visit Takayama and for an onsen you visit Hakone or Yufuin. If things were only this simple… 🙂
Although I would like to see more people get more out of their trip to Japan, frankly I’m also glad that they spend their time between Shinjuku and Kyōto and don’t bother taking a shinkansen north. I guess I’m selfish that way

We rented a car to get to these places. After a certain number of visits to Japan, you realise that a JR Japan Rail Pass, a great bargain, only gets you to a limited number of locations and at that time you book a rental car and explore the areas only served by the occasional train or bus service and beyond and start to enjoy a lot more of Japan.

These are the places in Iwate, Aomori and Akita that we visited and we stayed at most of these ryokan. Very recommended!

Look forward to more detailed descriptions of all of these in a few weeks. I do have to point out that onsen in northern Japan are hot! Scaldingly hot! That’s how the locals like it. 🙂

From the outside, looking in through the window

Introduction

I contribute regularly to the different forums dedicated to travel to Japan, like the Japan Guide which has been around forever. Regularly you come across questions from people who have travelled to Japan before, visited the typical locations like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Takayama, Kanazawa, etc. and are struggling to take their upcoming trip to Japan to the next level and are scouting for suggestions.

I noticed that Japanese tourists in their own country and Japanese locals do a lot of activities, interesting things, that do not immediately occur to non-Japanese tourists and they hesitate to join in. Often there is no reason for not doing the same other than being unfamiliar with it. Bringing your trip to Japan to the next level means that you should really try to experience Japan as a Japanese tourist, in my opinion, therefore not staying on the outside of Japan and just looking in through the window, but instead enter and become Japanese.

Off the beaten tourist track

Assuming that you have visited Kyoto, Nara, etc. during previous visits, the first thing I would like to recommend to repeat visitors to Japan is not to automatically turn west from Tokyo and stay between Tokyo and Hiroshima but maybe explore Tohoku, Hokkaido, Shikoku or Kyushu, or cross Japan and travel along the Sea of Japan coast. Seek out the countryside and get out of the big cities for a while and do not automatically make it Takayama, so many more towns to choose from!

Onsen

A visit to an onsen seems to be on everybody’s wishlist which really makes me happy, I love visiting onsen especially the rural ones in Tohoku. See here for some blog posts of remarkable onsen that I visited. A great way to enjoy an onsen is to stay at a ryokan but this is definitely not the only way to get a good soak. In onsen towns like Naruko Onsen, for example, you can buy a “Spring Tour” ticket that allows you to visit different onsen in the town. In the more isolated areas of Japan you can often find onsen that are not more than a shed with a box to put the fee in and the best water imaginable. These are the onsen I now prefer.
Often the foreign tourists seek out onsen with private baths to avoid getting nude in front of strangers. Ryokans do sometimes offer this option but frankly I would recommend to do as the Japanese do and just enjoy the soak, nobody is looking and you’ll have all the onsen to pick from, not just a few.

Food

Japanese tourists will travel far to sample some special cuisine. If you have watched Japanese TV, you must have seen the many programmes about food and visits to little towns and exploring the local specialities there. By now you know that Japanese food is much more than sushi, make sure that you know the local specialities of the areas that you visit and dig up the best restaurants. A great way to sample the local food is to stay at a ryokan.
Surprisingly, it seems that breakfast at a ryokan sometimes is a problem for tourists being used to something sweet or light at that time of the day. Breakfast at a ryokan is often made up of fish, miso, pickles and rice and everybody eats the same unless there is a breakfast buffet; I can wholeheartedly recommend trying the Japanese breakfast.

If you’re in a bind finding a restaurant in a town you know little about, a safe option is an izakaya style restaurant where you can try your pick from an extensive menu.

Temples

All the tourists visit Buddhist temples and enjoy the architecture and the temple grounds, I’m sure, but at the bigger Buddhist temples it is common for people to join in with the morning ceremonies and only few tourists do this. We did this at Zenkō-ji in Nagano; it really is quite the experience. You do have to get up early but this is where jet-lag can really help you out. 🙂
If you’re flying home via Narita and decide to stay at the town of Narita for your last night in Japan (recommended!) you will stop at the big temple complex of Narita-san, no doubt. At Narita-san, every hour there is a Goma fire ritual held that lots of Japanese people join. You can enter too, you’ll be surprised how few of us tourists do but it is so worth it.
Opportunities like this you can find almost everywhere in Japan, stop by the local tourist information and ask about it.

Temple stays

Temple stays or shukubo, as they are called in Japanese, are growing in popularity with the foreign tourists. There seems to be a misconception and a lot of people think that shukubo are limited to Mt. Koya, but that is not true, many Buddhist temples in Japan offer this option and the best shukubo I did was at Taiyoji Temple near Chichibu near Tokyo.
At a good temple stay you eat the vegetarian food (shojin ryori), copy sutra, do zazen meditation and join in with the evening and morning ceremonies, chanting the sutra, etc.. Some people mentioned that they had done a temple stay but had declined to join in with any of the activities, that is just silly to me.

Pilgrimages

Buddhist pilgrimages are probably not the first thing you think of to do as a tourist but the interest is certainly growing. The most famous pilgrimage in Japan is the Shikoku Pilgrimage of 88 temples which is 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) long and can take anywhere from 30 to 60 days to complete on foot. A shorter, more manageable pilgrimage for a tourist is the Chichibu Pilgrimage in and around the town of Chichibu close to Tokyo. This pilgrimage is about 100 kilometres long and can be walked or done by public transport in a few days. There are many other pilgrimages around Japan, you probably already visited some of the temples of the Tokyo 33-Kannon Pilgrimage without you being aware.

Festivals

Festivals (or matsuri as they are called in Japan) are fun and diverse; if you have a chance, book your visit to an town or an area around a festival.

New Year

The New Year holiday, like Obon in August, is maybe not the best period to visit Japan as transportation is packed beyond capacity and almost everything is closed on New Year’s Day, but it gives you the chance to do hatsumode on New Year’s Day or shortly thereafter like virtually all Japanese people do. Hatsumode is the first shrine or temple visit of the New Year, you typically buy good luck charms and drink sweet sake. It also includes queuing up for an hour or so to get to the front of the shrine to say your prayers, but that is all part of the fun. I’ve now spent New Year in Japan twice and each time doing hatsumode was a unique experience and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world.

What else?

Above are just my suggestions to make more of a trip to Japan. Let me know your ideas in the comments.