By David Applebaum
I love sushi.
Who doesn’t? Well, I guess there are probably people out there who don’t love sushi, but there are also people out there who walk on hot coals. I mean, there are exceptions to every rule (especially when teaching English), so there must be people out there who just don’t like sushi. Anyway, for those of you who do love eating sushi, you will hopefully understand what I am referring to in the next sentence or two. You know when you’ve got an urge for sushi, and you go to your local sushi place and every bite is delectable? You eat and you eat, well past the “I’m nicely satisfied” level (腹八分目), until that magical moment when you just can’t bring yourself to take another bite of sushi. You’re done. As much as you love sushi, you have maxed out your sushi quotient. You walk away from the sushi place, holding your belly. You get home and about an hour later, you find yourself reflecting that the sushi was pretty darn good, and you kinda feel like you should go for sushi again. Soon. That is often my issue with onsen.
I love onsen. If I had an apartment just next door to an onsen, I would go every day. I would buy a yearlong membership and the shower at my apartment would never get used. I think that despite my external appearance as a foreigner, I am really an old Japanese man (親父). I even tell old Japanese man jokes, so I am halfway there. I often have the urge to go to an onsen, and lucky for me, I live in Aomori-ken, home to some of the greatest onsen.
When I do go to the onsen, I wish time did not advance, because I never seem to have enough of it. I soak, and I soak. And I soak again. Then comes the point when I either leave the onsen or start to cook in the bath. So I leave the onsen, and reflect on my way home how great that onsen was. By the time I reach my home, I am usually already looking forward to the next time I can go. I wonder if this is an addiction… I mean, what if my body becomes dependent on the soothing waters of the hot spring?
All this to say that if you get the chance to stay overnight at an onsen, I highly recommend it. You can have a good long soak in the evening, take a break for dinner, and then get back in the water before bed. Needless to say, you sleep soundly, onsen (yes, it can be a verb) when you wake, and onsen after breakfast (if I keep this up, I might turn into a variation of Kevin Costner from Waterworld, but with softer skin).
For this week’s column, we are going back to Aomori’s gem, Sukayu Onsen (酸ヶ湯). “Why,” you might ask, “are you writing about Sukayu Onsen again? There are so many great onsen in Aomori, and over 3000* in Japan. Why spend so much time on one onsen?” Well, dear reader, you are correct, there are many wonderful onsen yet to be written about, but going back to the sushi analogy, have you ever eaten such good sushi that you can’t stop thinking about how good it was and keep bringing it up in conversation? That is how I feel about Sukayu. On top of that, I have some additional information to share with you.
If you are going by car to Sukayu Onsen and take the road through Oirase Gorge (and you really should, because it is a beautiful area), stop in at the Kissa Himehouse on your way. It’s a beautiful old wooden A-frame building with a wood stove in the middle of the room, great artwork and photos on the walls, jazz playing on the speakers, and a really cozy atmosphere.
Okay, book yourself a room at Sukayu Onsen. You will need to book at least a month in advance; it’s crazy popular. The rates are really decent. If you don’t get the dinner, its 5,600 yen per person for all-you-can-bathe, a good night’s sleep, and an impressive all-you-can-eat breakfast. If you don’t want the breakfast, it’s only 4,500 yen.
I gave you some misinformation last time. Well, maybe not misinformation, but simply information lacking in accuracy. Sukayu is well known for its mixed-bath onsen, but there are also separate baths for men and women. The men’s bath is a simple soaping station and small-ish bath in a nice wooden area, but I have been told that the women’s bath is wonderful. It is a big bath and very beautiful. Sigh…
If you are female and are interested in experiencing the giant mixed-bathing room, but also a little shy about appearing in the nude, not to worry; there is an area sectioned off on the women’s side of the room where you don’t have to be in the open bath. As mentioned before, the water is very cloudy, so nothing can be seen below the neck when you are bathing.
Lastly, if you happen to be passing through Towada or Shichinohe on your way back home, make a special effort to stop at Namiki Gelato. It is a very impressive little gelato place. They make their own gelato from the milk of their own cows. They have a huge green field in front of the store, horses that can be ridden, and colourful tractors you can sit on to have your picture taken.
How to get to Sukayu if you don’t have a car:
From JR Aomori Station or JR Shin-Aomori Station
Take the JR Bus Mizuumi-go. It is an 80-minute ride (¥1,340).
Get off at Sukayu Onsen Mae Stop, or hitchhike up the road from Oirase Gorge.