By David Applebaum
Where the mountains are, there can you find the waters…
The leaves are changing colours and the mornings are crisp and cool. This is definitely one of my four favourite seasons. It is also a good time to remind yourself that you live in a country with onsens everywhere. What a shame it would be, were you to leave Japan and when asked about the famous hot-springs, you answered that you never went (wow…that was an interesting mix of tenses). In any case, onsens are as much a part of Japanese culture and identity as anime, manga and sushi. In fact, I would argue that onsens are more Japanese than most other things we associate with Japan… So, if you haven’t done the onsen-thing yet: finish reading this article, finish your cup of tea, get out of your pyjamas, and head to an onsen!
If you haven’t been to Oirase Gorge or Lake Towada yet, this is the time to go. Both are beautiful areas and well-worth a visit. Oirase is getting crowded these days, especially in the afternoons, but the reason it’s crowded is because it is stunning, and despite the crowds, there are lots of places where you can find tranquility in a water-fall or serenity in the green-green forest. Lake Towada has so many secret places; coves and such where you are the only one there. You can also take the Towada ferry tour (http://www.towada.or.jp/kankou/en/sightseeing/yuuransen.htm), or you can rent kayaks and go out exploring on your own (http://35fss.com/odr_tours/rec_on/lake_kayaking.php) .
After a day of trekking around Oirase and marveling at the crystal-clear waters gushing over the rocks, you might think that it is indeed time to try out some of the fantastic onsens around the Mt. Hakoda. There is, of course, the king of them all, Sukayu, which I have actually written about twice (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g298241-d1423651-Reviews-Sukayu_Onsen-Aomori_Aomori_Prefecture_Tohoku.html), but there are others too. In fact, there is a little onsen community along that twisty, curvy road that winds its way up through the forest, and then down. Incidentally, if you are thinking about climbing Mt. Hakoda, you might consider starting at Sukayu- it is a great place to start and finish.
One of the great onsens on the mountain is Tsuta Onsen (http://tsutaonsen.com/en/index_en.html). It is located in a beautiful building and has a calming Japanese garden. After your onsen, you can relax in padded reclining chairs overlooking the gardens. They provide complimentary water, cold tea, or apple-vinegar. Tsuta Onsen is not the cheapest of onsens, and this is something of a drawback. It is 800 yen for guest bathers, those who are not staying overnight. If you are interested in staying though, they have the whole range of accommodations, and fancy meals too.
The baths: Well, there are really only two baths. The men and women both have access to separate baths, but both look similar. There is a large room with a wooden bath in it. It is quite large, and can accommodate a hockey team, but not one of those big, big teams. It has a crazy high wooden ceiling with beautiful wooden rafters. The water is clear and non-sulphurous, meaning it doesn’t smell strongly, as opposed to the water at Sukayu. The water is non-softened, meaning that it has not come in contact with the outside air before it surfaces from the source. Initially, it will be a little prickly, but you will adjust very well your second or third time going in. It will leave your skin tingly and fresh. The water is not too, too hot either.
Tsuta Onsen also has another bath, which is divided between the sexes. Women can use it in the morning and evening, and men can use it in the afternoon- which seems somewhat unfair to me. The bath is hotter than the other one, and has a luxurious wood base to it. It just kinda sucks that if you are a male and female traveling together, that only one of you will get to experience that bath, especially considering the entry fee. Overall impression: great setting, great décor, great baths, great water, high entry fee and only one bath though.
Incidentally, the bus stops outside all the onsens on Mt. Hakoda.
For more information, check out these links: