By Katsuo Kokaji / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterI wanted to see a snowy landscape, so I left Tokyo for the Nyuto Onsenkyo hot spring area in Senboku, Akita Prefecture. Just two days before I left, there was a heavy snowfall in Tokyo, which somewhat discouraged me. Even so, it was still nice to visit. Snowfall in daily life is just a distraction, but the snowfall I saw at my travel destination was simply beautiful.
I took a bus from Tazawako Station. The bus traveled on a mountain road with walls of snow on both sides — the snow walls were one or two meters high, and I felt as if I were on a bus traveling on a single channel that had been created by digging through snow.
The Nyuto Onsenkyo hot spring area is made up of seven ryokan inns scattered around beech forests. Each inn has its own hot spring, with the oldest one being the Tsurunoyu Onsen inn. According to the inn, it has records dating back to the 1680s. Since the hot spring was used by the lord of the Akita domain as a therapeutic bath, a headquarters called the Honjin, where samurai warriors serving as guards were stationed, was built.
Today, the original building is used as accommodations.
At a little past 5 p.m., night had completely fallen. In the darkness at Tsurunoyu Onsen inn, a light came on — it didn’t only come from the building, but also seemed to come from inside the snow, itself. In front of the Honjin headquarters building, candles were burning inside hollowed-out piles of snow. “They are snow lanterns created during winter,” said Daishi Sato, 44, president of the ryokan inn. In the dreamlike atmosphere, the night went on.
I stopped by the Tsurunoyu Onsen inn to see the ryokan, and moved on to stay at the Kyukamura Nyuto-Onsenkyo hotel, roughly in the center of the Nyuto Onsenkyo hot spring area. While it was equipped with modern facilities, the bathing room, which was built using the wood of akahiba trees, had the warmth of a mountain lodge. With a high ceiling, the room had a very calming atmosphere.
The hot spring has two sources, with two indoor baths and an open-air bath. I tried the open-air bath filled with milky water. It was snowing outside, and huge icicles hung from the roof. Snowflakes fell on my face, but I was submerged in hot water from the neck down.
On that day, the temperature was minus 13 C, while the temperature of the hot spring was about 41 C. The difference between the temperature felt by my face and that felt by my body was 54 C. But in the freezing atmosphere, it was so comfortable that I felt as if my body were melting.
The next morning, I went on a snowshoe hike organized by the hotel. Wearing snowshoes, which are like kanjiki (traditional Japanese snowshoes), I walked around the beech forest surrounding the hotel. Led by Masami Banba, 70, a staff member of the hotel and guide for walking in beech forests, we entered the forest, which is usually inaccessible because of bamboo grass bushes that cover the ground. As I walked, my leg got buried in knee-deep snow. “Such deep snow is quite unusual,” Banba said in a surprised tone.
Our footprints marked the snow, and Banba could also see a trail of prints between the trees.
“It must be the footprints of animals going back and forth between the trees,” Banba said. I heard a bird singing and the sound of a mountain stream — because of the deathly quiet world covered by the snow, such things made me feel the strong, natural power of life.
When the sunshine broke through the cloudy sky, the monotone landscape that had looked like an ink-brush painting turned into a vivid oil painting. The ever-changing landscape was interesting. The snow made me feel cold, but when I saw the large snowflakes falling, I felt unusually warm.
While Tokyo saw snowfall, it was not like the snowfall in Senboku. The dreamlike snow on this trip was just what I wanted to see.
Two hours and 50 minutes on the Akita Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Tazawako Station. Transfer to a Ugokotsu Co. bus for a ride of about 45 minutes to Nyuto Onsenkyo.
Telephone inquiry: Senboku City Tazawako Tourist Information Center (Folake) at 0187-43-2111. For info on snowshoe hiking, call Kyukamura Nyuto Onsenkyo at 0187-46-2244.
Bus tours to various hot springs
For people who want to enjoy bathing in as many hot springs in Nyuto Onsenkyo as possible, a bus called “Yumeguri-go” connects the ryokan inns. A ¥600 “Yumeguri Map” bus ticket is valid only for the day of purchase. Visitors using the bus pay bathing fees at each of the hot springs. An ¥1,800 “Yumeguri Cho” pass is available only for lodging guests. The price includes bathing fees for one time in each of the hot springs, and the pass is valid for one year.
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