[12th in a series of posts about a recent trip to Japan]
We were picked up at the train station in Kakunodate by our next takushii driver for the trip to the Niuto onsen area, near a large volcanic lake. Rising above Lake Tazawa, we wound up through buckwheat fields and birch forests to the Taeno-Yu, a traditional onsen. An onsen is a traditional Japanese inn built to take advantage of a natural hot springs. In the Niuto area (sometimes spelled Nyuto), seven onsens have a reciprocal agreement that allows guests to jump on the bus that circles the area to bathe at other inns with different tub configurations.
As we arrived, our shoes were whisked into a closet and we were given the padded slippers worn by all guests. A kind-faced woman, who I later learned was named Yuko Suzuki, showed us the location of the baths and then to our room. Before entering, we were shown to remove our slippers as even they can damage tatami mats. (The bathrooms are always provided with toilet shoes so one doesn’t dirty one’s feet – although the floors are so clean you could eat off of them.) She showed us the yukata (robes) that awaited us, and pointed out that an extra large size had been provided for 6′ 3″ Todd. Though she showed us a map of the seven hot baths featured at the inn, I admit to being confused. The baths had separate dressing areas for men and women, two baths that were reserved for one gender or the other, two that were mixed-gender and another that was private and used by reservation only. Of course the signs that indicated male or female were in Japanese characters. Oh, and the male and female sides were swapped daily (although pink and blue banners pretty clearly denoted the entrances for men or women).
I asked her to walk me back through the maze of the baths. She gently showed me where you remove your yukata (provided in the room) and where to cleanse before bathing. The cleansing area was semi-private, with partitions between the four low vanities. All of the Japanese cleansing areas were set up similarly: low stool, hot and cold water faucets, bowl, hand-held shower and large bottles of shampoo, conditioner and bath soap. The rule is to scrub off thoroughly from head to toe before entering the baths with the long washcloth provided for that purpose in the room.
She showed me the two women-only tubs. One had milky white water, which turned out to be a refreshingly active-feeling mineral bath, while the other was somewhat hot, but cooler than the mineral bath. The mineral bath was organically shaped, encircled by rocks, and open to the outdoors, with a constantly-running spigot of hot water. The cooler bath had a view of the outdoors on both sides, and was open to the air on one side. That one, a simple wooden square, had loose river pebbles on the bottom. The women’s side also had a sliding door to the outside, where you could discretely visit a small shrine or look at the waterfall without being seen.
What was really special about this onsen became clear when she showed me the private bath, which was not in use at that hour (as Japanese prefer to bathe just before and/or just after dinner). The private tub looked directly out over the three-tiered waterfall less than 50 feet away.
Finally, she showed me the two communal tubs, and gestured that women wear a towel wrapped around them when bathing there, afterwards dropping the wet towel in a bin provided for that purpose on the women’s side.
Relaxing back in the room, our pretty tatami mat floored room also looked out directly on to the waterfall, which was lit at night. Awaiting us was a hot water maker for tea along with some small sweets.
Given the choice of dinner at 6 or 6:30, we chose 6:30, and walked down the two flights of stairs to the small formal dining room. Although it featured western style tables, they were not meant for Todd’s size, and he banged immediately banged his knees.
With great show, the dining room attendant showed us an envelope with calligraphy on the outside, and then opened it up to reveal the menu – all in kanji, of course. Thom said he had no idea what she described, and he couldn’t read the kanji, as these were unfamiliar terms. No matter – it was fixed course, and it would unfold.
We first enjoyed a lemon aperitif, what might have been finely chopped fresh peas, pickled onion served as if it were sushi (on a cube of sticky rice), and cheese cubes done tempura-style. Thom and Todd had a locally bottled beer with a beautiful impressionistic label and name that had the word “forest” in it. While they received small bottles of beer, the dining staff unfortunately misunderstood my order and I received a giant bottle of Yebisu beer. I looked like the town lush.
A white fish sashimi came next with a small slice of pink fish, perhaps a cheek of something? Like everything that came that evening, it was delicately garnished: this time with a carrot curl, wasabi and a blossom. We then were served octopus in a spiky sea shell along with what may have been white asparagus and a very strongly flavored shellfish. A burner was lit on our table to heat a soup that included vegetables and pork. Then, in an electric blue shallow bowl, some kind of tangy green shoots with pieces of gelatin, followed by hot wild mushroom soup in a raku bowl. The last course, which seemed to be provided only to us, was caramel gelato. That was just one meal.
When we returned, our futons were laid out for us with fluffy brocaded duvets. Thom went to the onsen for a post-dinner bath, and did not cause an international incident despite having a tattoo, which is forbidden in public baths. (The Japanese rule stems from concern about yakuza, their version of the Mafia crime syndicate, who wear tattoos.) We slept blissfully.
Next: Lonely Mountain Trails in Nyuto