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.

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. 🙂

Yuyado Daiichi Onsen

We didn’t stay at Yuyado Daiichi Onsen but drove by and stopped for a soak, most onsen allow day spa access for a few hours a day for a modest price. It is a great way to enjoy the famous onsen although some of these places have great rooms and cuisine that you don’t get to enjoy. At Yuyado Daiichi Onsen we paid ¥600 which was a very fair price considering the many baths.

Fireplace

There were so many rotenburo to enjoy; we were lucky to have arrived early as it did take time to explore all the baths. As I was the only one in the baths for some time, I shot the following video:

Wakoto Onsen

Close to Kotan Onsen and also on Lake Kussharo is Wakoto Onsen which is located on that tiny peninsula that is so recognizable for Lake Kussaro. This rotenburo is a bit more secluded and even though it was just as cold when we visited Kotan Onsen, the windchill was a lot less and we didn’t feel like we were freezing.

The view was excellent but the water was a bit dirty with clumps of algae that floated around and occasionally stuck to our bodies. All in all, it was a great experience and both Wakoto and Kotan rotenburo are recommended!

Kotan Onsen

Along Lake Kussharo in the tiny town of Kotan, the locals have created a rotenburo (outdoor hotspring) bordering the lake. We visted this December with a temperature of -5 C in a gale that must have had a windchill factor of -20, or so.

Disregarding the outside temperature, I got into the bath and enjoyed a nice soak as the water had a great temperature. However, getting back into my clothes was freezing cold but I wouln’t liked to have missed this experience for the world!

Access to the rotenburo is free of charge.

Koshikawa Onsen

The other day we visited Koshikawa Onsen, a tiny, old building along the 244 leading to the south-east out of Shari, Hokkaido. It is an unmanned onsen and you pay the 200 yen fee by putting the coins in a box. It seems the be mainly frequented by locals and travellers who have heard of the place. The building looks a bit run-down but the bath is nice and the water is hot.

Koshikawa Onsen

I do treasure these tiny onsen as anybody can go to the big baths of Yufuin or Hakone, but in my romantic view this is much closer to the way onsen were used in the past before it was all about the souvenirs or the drinks. There are still the leftovers of a much older Japan out there for those who bother to look.

Seni Onsen Iwanoyu

If you know us, you know that we like to visit onsen on our trips to Japan. Our favourite onsen resorts include Naruko Onsen, Nyuutou Onsen and of course Hanamaki. We’re clearly more into the rustic and smaller onsen of Northern Honshu than the larger pools in the south.

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And this year we can add Seni Onsen to this list. Iwanoyu at Seni Onsen is keeping a bit of a low profile on the Internet without an own home page but regardless of that, it is doing very well as you need to make reservations months in advance, often long before you are able to buy a ticket for your trip.  Robert Neff, in his book Japan’s Hidden Hot Springs has it listed as the best onsen in Japan. We booked late and only the best rooms were available so we decided to splurge and enjoy the full luxury that this ryokan has to offer which was a lot!

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Normally, at a ryokan you have a tatami room in which at night the futons are spread to sleep in. This time we had several rooms “en suite” and a private garden. The dinner was a long series of delicious courses often made of local produce, breakfast was pretty good too.

Dinner menu from the day we visited, delicious!
Dinner menu from the day we visited, delicious!

But the most impressive thing were the baths. The main bath is a cave dug into the rock that meanders left and right and you have to climb up for waterfalls to get to the depths of it. It has a bit of an Indiana Jones feeling to it. At the same entrance there are several other baths including an outside bath. These are the baths that you share with the other guests. Some are gender separated but the cave bath is mixed and you had to wear special shorts and a cover for modesty. Furthermore there are several private baths with an inside bath with jacuzzi and an outside bath. When you get in, you lock the door so you and your family can enjoy the bath in private.

The service, everything was immaculate and we’re already planning our next visit in two years time 🙂