By John Penisten
Perhaps none of Japan’s numerous cultural icons are more endearing or significant to the Japanese people, and visitors as well, than the famed onsen (hot springs resorts/hotels and spas) located throughout the island country.
A big part of the Japanese lifestyle is enjoying the numerous onsen, or hot springs resorts, year around on a quick weekend getaway or a longer indulgent vacation. For local folks, relaxing in the invigorating thermal baths while enjoying exotic and traditional onsen cuisine and related activities is part of their natural lifestyle. For the Japanese, a dip in a hot spring bath contributes to the renewal and rejuvenation of body and soul and affords a cultural experience like few others.
Japan’s Hot Springs – A National Obsession
To say that the onsen are Japan’s national obsession is something of an understatement. Japan probably has more natural hot springs baths per capita than any other country in the world. An onsen stay will add a relaxing and adventurous dimension to any Japan visit. The following is a sampler of good onsens from around Japan.
Honshu-The Main Island
A good place to begin your onsen tour of Japan is the main island of Honshu. Nikko, about two hours north of Tokyo via high speed train is in Nikko National Park, amidst a panorama of forest, mountains, lakes and gushing streams. Nikko is famed for the lavish Toshogu Shrine complex built in 1636 that serves as the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603. Visiting Toshogu Shrine is a solemn and spiritual experience as one strolls through the temples and buildings of the complex. While Nikko boasts several onsen, Senhime Monogatari Inn is one of the best. Senhime features comfortable Japanese-style rooms and traditional cuisine served in intimate private dining rooms. The cuisine emphasizes the freshest of local produce, seafood and more. The onsen baths are inviting and invigorating with separate facilities for both men and women. For details, see: http://www.japaneseguesthouses.com/db/nikko/senhime.htm For information on Nikko, see: http://www.nikko-jp.org/english/index.html
South of Tokyo is the popular hot springs resort town of Hakone which lies near Mount Fuji in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Hakone is an area of high mountains and features the beautiful Lake Ashi with winding roads and railways that connect the towns and villages of the region. The area’s volcanic origins account for the numerous onsen. Visitors enjoy ferry boat rides across the lake and then a ropeway (cable car lift) ride across the still steaming spectacular Owakudani Gorge. On clear days, Mount Fuji appears through the clouds. Hakone, the main town, is small and compact and situated in a deep valley surrounded by high peaks. Hotellerie Maille Coeur Shougetsu is a boutique-style hotel with comforting onsen baths to soothe away a hard day’s travel. The baths switch genders each day so everyone can enjoy the variety of each. A full-service restaurant provides creative Japanese inspired cuisine with a set dinner menu and traditional buffet breakfast. For details, see: http://www.shougetsu.com For information on Hakone, see: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/kanagawa/hakone.html
Snuggled along the Sea of Japan coast northwest of Kyoto is one of Japan’s top scenic spots, the quiet fishing village of Amanohashidate. The “Bridge to Heaven,” a narrow 2.2 mile sand spit reaching across Miyazu Bay is the main attraction. Japanese mythology has it that Amanohashidate is where the gods conceived the islands of Japan. View the “Bridge” from a lookout atop Kasamatsu Park across the bay (accessible by ferry boat-or walk across the sand spit) by bending over and looking upside down between your legs, making the sand spit appear to be floating in air. The Taikyourou Inn is centrally located near the sand spit bridge and offers traditional onsen rooms, soothing baths, and cuisine with the emphasis on fresh local seafood. For details, see: http://www.japanican.com/hotels/shisetsudetail.aspx?st=6310008&ref=JNTO For information on Amanohashidate, see: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/kyoto/amanohashidate.html
The venerable old samurai town of Kakunodate is in north central Honshu. Known as “Little Kyoto,” Kakunodate was founded as a castle town in 1620, and is noted for its collection of original samurai houses, some of which are living museums of Japan’s feudal era. Kakunodate’s other attraction is the numerous weeping cherry trees that originated in Kyoto. The sakura are the main attraction of the town’s springtime cherry blossom festival. Just a couple of miles outside of town is Kukunodate Onsen Kayokan, a superb modern low-rise hotel that features spacious traditional rooms, buffet breakfast and dinner, and both indoor and outdoor baths with separate gender facilities. For details, see: http://www.japanican.com/hotels/shisetsudetail.aspx?ar=05&st=2221003 For information on Kakunodate, see: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/akita/kakunodate.html
The popular visitor town of Takayama located in the mountainous Hida region of Honshu is noted for its traditional culture. One of its main features is the twice-yearly yatai (float) festival when colorful floats are pulled through the streets during the spring and autumn events. The yatai are decorated with detailed carvings, exquisite lacquerwork, gilded woodwork and intricate metalwork of cultural icons and symbols. Much fanfare, chants and cheers accompany the yatai along the parade route through town.
Another of Takayama’s attractions is the Hida Folk Village where several authentic houses and buildings have been relocated. These include homes, storehouses, mills, stables, and more. The village interprets the early lifestyle and activities of this rural region of Japan and features traditional arts and crafts. In town, Oyado Koto no Yume provides comfortable and onsen lodging conveniently located near the train station and walking distance to restaurants, the old town area, and Takayama’s famed morning street markets. For details on accommodations, see: http://www.kotoyume.com/english/
Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, is predominately rural and boasts several national parks and geothermal hot springs areas and the ubiquitous onsen. Situated in the middle of Hokkaido is the resort town of Sounkyo. The resort is of part of Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan’s largest, and sits in the spectacular Sounkyo Gorge. The park offers year around outdoor activities from hiking and backpacking to biking and cable car lifts. Scenic nature abounds with beautiful valleys, rock formations, and plunging waterfalls. The small resort town provides shops, coffee houses, restaurants and several onsen as well. Sounkaku Grand Hotel is a full-service hotel that pampers guests with traditional Japanese guest rooms, a large buffet dining room combining western and Japanese dishes, and a large complex of indoor and outdoor hot springs baths. After a day of hiking or exploring the park, a soak in the onsen baths will quickly relieve the day’s stress and strain. For details, see: http://www.sounkaku.co.jp/en/index.html For information on Sounkyo, see: http://www.sounkyo.net/english/
Located in eastern Hokkaido is Akan National Park, a preserve of dense forest, clearwater streams and lakes, and volcanic mountains with hot springs areas. Lake Akan-ko is a major attraction in all seasons with outdoor activities to match. The lakeside town of Akan Kohan is a visitor center with several onsen lodgings, restaurants, shops, activity vendors and more. This region of Hokkaido is noted for the indigenous Ainu people and culture. Ainu arts and crafts shops provide fine woodcrafts, artworks, jewelry and more produced by local artisans. The Akan Tsuruga Besso Hinanoza Resort in Akan Kohan features fine Hokkaido-style cuisine creatively prepared using fresh local seafood and produce. Some rooms feature a private in room rotenburo, hot tub. The hotel has separate gender indoor/outdoor baths and a rooftop outdoor bath provides nice lake views while soaking up the ambiance. For details, see: http://www.tsuruga-g.com/english/02hinanoza/index.html For information on Lake Akan, see: http://www.lake-akan.com/en/index.html
Down South on Shikoku
On Japan’s western inland seaside of Shikoku Island lies the bustling city of Matsuyama and its famed Dogo Onsen, recognized as Japan’s oldest. Since the 8th. century, the onsen has provided relaxation and refuge to emperors, feudal lords and commoners alike. Today, Dogo Onsen is a popular destination for travelers seeking a rejuvenating plunge in its numerous hot springs and resort baths. The Dogo Onsen Honkan is perhaps the oldest and best known public bathhouse in all Japan where even day visitors can luxuriate in a comforting hot spring.
Among the onsen resorts, the Hotel Bettei Oborotsukiyo stands out as one of the most luxurious. This small 19-suite hotel is located near the commercial center of Dogo Onsen, and provides first-class accommodations and service. A spacious Japanese-style guestroom includes its own private rotenburo hot tub and provides the ultimate in personal luxury and comfort. The hotel’s separate men’s and women’s bathing facilities are also top notch. A hotel stay usually includes both breakfast and dinner, both being served in individual private dining rooms by the gracious staff. Guests can choose a traditional Japanese or western breakfast but dinner is strictly local Japanese cuisine with an emphasis on fresh seafood that can include varied fish, shrimp, lobster, scallops, octopus, squid and others. Regardless of the menu specifics, guests are guaranteed a wonderful, satisfying and adventurous meal.
Also, be sure to try the local fresh oranges and other citrus fruits. Matsuyama’s year around semi-tropical climate allows local farmers to produce incredible sweet and luscious oranges, grapefruit and more. You’ll be hard pressed to find oranges that are sweeter and tastier than those found here. Also, don’t miss seeing Matsuyama Castle, prominently located on Katsuyama Hill in the middle of Matsuyama. The castle dates from the 1600’s and is considered one of Japan’s best preserved feudal castles.
For information on Hotel Bettei Oborotsukiyo, see: Web: http://web.travel.rakuten.co.jp/portal/my/info_page_e.Eng?f_no=80530 For information on Matsuyama, see: Web: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5500.html
For more information on visiting Japan and staying at onsen resorts, check the Japan-Guide.com site: http://www.japan-guide.com/ and the Japan National Tourism Office site: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/index.html
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