By David Applebaum
Imagine, if you will, a place somewhat off the beaten track, high in the mountains of the axe handle of Aomori. Imagine the green, green mountains and the clean, crisp air of the great outdoors. Imagine it is getting cold out there, and you are a little chilly. Imagine an onsen that is gorgeously hot and overlooks a stream… Too good to be true… well, in this case, this place is real, and definitely worth an exploration. This is one of the many great secrets of this forested prefecture, and well worth a trip.
Let’s say you have an urge to go to Oma, the most northern point in Honshu. They have fantastic maguro, some of the best in all Japan, or so it is said. I have partaken of their maguro, and it is indeed succulent, but I have a suspicion that fine tastes are wasted on me. I can’t tell the difference between cheap wine and fancy wine. I love maguro, and the maguro I get at a 100 yen sushi place is definitely not as tasty as the one from a more expensive place, but I don’t think I would know the difference between expensive, super-expensive and ridiculously expensive. Anyway, all that to say, that if you go to Oma, you should try the maguro. Once you look around the town, and take a picture in front of the Oma Cape monument, the two fists in the waves ready to fight the tuna, and after you have contemplated swimming to Hokkaido, you will be ready for an onsen.
Oma, itself, has an onsen, and it might be a fine onsen, but I didn’t get to stop there this particular visit. The reason being that I had heard great things about another onsen in the Shimokita area, and not too far from Oma. The onsen I was bee-lining for was Yagen Onsen.
Because of my love of camping, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is a giant campground right beside Yagen Onsen, and you can have a big campfire there. What is better than eating a bananaboat (http://allrecipes.com/recipe/18988/banana-boats/), sitting by a campfire, sleeping in a tent, and waking the next morning within view of a beautiful green mountain?
The onsen is tricky. Well, not really, but I am a bear of little brain, so I found it interesting. There is a fancy-shmancy hotel at Yagen Onsen where the front desk people speak a total of one English word, “NO”, and they are not the nicest of people. I have no doubt that their onsen is alright, especially given that the hotel is not cheap. BUT why use a hotel onsen, when just up the road are two fantastic onsens and a foot bath to boot (no pun intended). If you go up the road, you will find Kappa-no-yu. (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g1059452-d3397741-Reviews-Yagen_Onsen_Kappa_no_Yu-Mutsu_Aomori_Prefecture_Tohoku.html ). This is it. This is the reason you are here. It is a free onsen in a beautiful location overlooking a stream. One review says, “very peaceful but very hot”, I think it should say “very peaceful AND very hot”- hey, it’s an onsen, it is supposed to be hot. They are not called “lukewarm springs”, or “tepid springs”. Yes, the water is hot, it is about 46 degrees.
Kappa-no-yu has a statue of the kappa, and it is surrounded by forest. This onsen is over 1000 years old, or rather was discovered over 1000 years ago. The only negative is that there is only one bath, and the hours are divided between sexes, which means that if you are traveling with someone of the opposite sex, you will have to coordinate to arrive just at the switch-over. You could also just be sneaky and go there when nobody else is there and not worry about divided sexes- but you didn’t hear it from me. There is no sauna, no change room, just a good ol’ bath. People bring cucumbers to the kappa as an offering; it is thought that the cucumbers will distract the kappa from eating children. You can read more about the kappa story here if you would like… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kappa_(folklore)
After Kappa-no-yu, there is another wonderful onsen. This one you have to pay for, but it is well-worth the 200 yen or whatever it costs. You can also buy lunch there- they have a small restaurant and omiyage shop. The onsen-water is not as hot as the free onsen, but there is a pool for women and a pool for men. It has a great view as well. Check it out here- http://www.en-aomori.com/hotspring-007.html. Even the web-address has a 007 in it, that should intrigue you enough. There is a 4.4km walk through the woods that connects these two onsens. Just writing this is having a Pavlovian effect on me… I want to shut down my computer and go back there right now…
Just outside of that onsen, there is an onsen foot-bath. Quite a nice way to end a day, by sitting with your feet in the water and letting your worries and cares slip away.
Do it. Get out there. Go to Yagen Onsen. You’ll thank yourself. Your body will thank you. You will fall in love. It will change your life.