By David Applebaum
Are you someone who loves old-fashioned wooden buildings? Does soaking in an onsen under the blue, blue sky, while a river runs by and makes that gurgling noise that rivers do appeal to you? Do you sometimes just need to get away from the paradise where you live and go to another world? Well, if it is the last one, I don’t think this particular onsen column will be quite what you are looking for. BUT if you are looking for a great (affordable) weekend away, I suggest you consider a visit to the land of the Stone Hand, also known as Iwate.
There are plenty of great places in Aomori, of course, and this column will continue to explore some of the great onsen in this part of Japan, but why let prefectural boundaries limit you? To paraphrase the late, great John Lennon: “Imagine there were no borders and people could go to whatever onsen they felt like.” And, since they have similar names, I will also paraphrase V.I. Lenin: “No amount of onsen-going freedom will satisfy the masses.”
Today, we are heading south. We arrive in Hanamaki, which incidentally was home to the venerable Kenji Miyazawa. Mr. Miyazawa was a prolific writer, and every Japanese person has at least heard of him, as have any readers of Japanese literature. I don’t know how he felt about onsen, but I would like to imagine that he was thinking about future visitors to Hanamaki’s onsen when he stated, “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey. She who loves roses must be patient and not cry out when she is pierced by thorns.”
The roses, of course, are the onsen, but the thorns, in this case, could be the downtown center of Hanamaki. It is so sad; there is nothing there. It is the same in so many small-to-medium-sized towns in Japan, and, indeed, the whole world. Most commerce now takes place in the big malls outside the city center. The mom and pop street-front shops are dwindling. Kinda makes me sad. I can’t blame Wal-Mart for this one, but I do blame all the other chains.
The tourist information lady at the train station in Hanamaki was very excited about a really tall (about 28 cm, or just under a foot if you are American) soft ice cream cone that you can buy on the top floor of a department store. The gimmick with the ice cream is that it is so tall, you have to start eating it with chopsticks. It was only 180 yen, but we didn’t try it. They told us it was a 30 minute wait to get one. WHAT?!! We tried to ask why it takes 30 minutes to get a soft ice cream cone, but there was no reasoning with them. We gave up. There is, however, a very good bakery in Hanamaki called Michel.
Despite the fact that I did not get to experience a foot-tall soft ice cream cone, Hanamaki does have an amazing “culinary” experience. It is called wanko soba (わんこ蕎麦). You sit at a table and the staff bring you bowl after bowl of single-serving soba noodles. Each time you get a bowl, you take a matchstick out of a box as a counting system. You are not allowed breaks, but you can keep going until you burst (or until you put the cap back on the bowl, which is the more likely scenario). I was able to eat 36 bowls. The record for that day was 60 bowls, and the record for that restaurant was 130 bowls. The record for Hanamaki was 218 bowls, but I am told that in competition, the bowls are 1/3 the size of what they were serving me. Competitive eating was never so much fun! Speaking of which, there is a city-wide wanko soba eating competition in February, which would be a beautiful time to go to the onsen as well. For more information, have a look at this site.
If you are interested in going to the original wanko soba restaurant, as the owners claim it to be, go to Kajiya Soba.
Okay, okay, okay. Get to the point, you say. This column is supposed to be about onsen, no? Yup. But I don’t want you to lose heart if you get to Hanamaki expecting great things from the town. There are some redeeming characteristics, and it is well worth the visit.
On to the onsen. There are plenty of onsen in the area, but due to time limitations, I was only able to visit two. The first one I went to was Namari Onsen. It sits inside a nice building where they filmed part of the Japanese movie Umimachi Diary (海街diary). Its claim to fame is that it has Japan’s deepest onsen. There is a mixed onsen where you can stand in the water up to your neck (assuming that your neck is higher than 125 cm). Unfortunately, I happened to visit during the women-only hours, but I would have liked to experience it. Sigh. They have a rotenburo though–very clear water, non-sulfuric, no smell. The bath looks over the brook and has a nice view. By the way, if you care, I try to go to the onsen that are 100 percent real deal. No recycled water, no reheated water. If you are curious about Namari Onsen, check out their website.
The jewel in the crown, so to speak, is Osawa Onsen. This is a nationally famous onsen. People who know onsen, know about this onsen. The water is alkaline, non-sulfuric, and is said to be effective in dealing with neuralgia, joint pain, bruises, digestive disorders, poor circulation, and more.
It is a step back through time… well, maybe that is going too far, but there is a really old building there. The onsen consists of 3 ryokan, each featuring different levels of price and comfort. If you travel classy, you can do the full service package… which is probably expensive-ish. If you are somewhere between backpacker and fancy, there is an option for you. The third deal is the one that I want to write about, though. We are talking about bare bones, but crazy cheap. The irony of this third option is that the building is the most beautiful. It is an old wooden building, parts of which are around 200 years old. No bathrooms in the room. No meals… BUT you can make your own meals in the huge kitchen. You are responsible for making your own bed and putting it away after. The building looks like a relic from an old movie set.
And, needless to say, you can bathe in all the onsen to your little heart’s desire.
Speaking of onsen, the onsen bearing the same name as the ryokan, Oosawa no yu (大沢の湯), is bathing in the nude at its finest. This one takes some guts (I was going to use another word for “guts,” but I changed my mind, given the context), especially if you are a woman. Oosawa no yu is wide open. The water is hot and the bath is quite big. Unlike some other mixed onsen, the water here offers you no cover. It is clear, clear water. It is a mixed outdoor onsen (混浴露天風呂), but there is no fence or wall protecting you from the gaze of the people passing over the bridge between the buildings. For those of us who wish the world were a little less hung up on hiding yourself, this is an ideal opportunity to stand naked and proud.
There are about 6 different baths you can immerse yourself in, and also one outdoor bath for women only. Nanbu no yu (南部の湯) is a beautiful wooden bath that is simple, yet wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
In case you weren’t aware of it yet, there are four seasons in Japan. There are very good reasons for visiting this onsen duringg any of the four seasons, although technically, you could count cherry blossom season as a fifth season, and it pretty much goes without saying that anywhere in Japan is beautiful during cherry blossom time!
For more information, check out the links below: