By David Applebaum
Winter. Yup. It is here. You know it is winter in Aomori when it is already dark and you are just finishing the last period of the day. You know it is winter in Aomori when people start leaving their windshield wipers up at night. You know it is winter in Aomori when it is dark when you leave your house and dark when you get home… sigh. How many months till summer? The good news is that, as the saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em… and in this case, that means embracing winter. So go out there and give winter a hug. Don’t grumble about winter being cold and dark… marvel at the fact that you live in an incredible part of an incredible country!
At the Skills Development Conference last year, an ALT stood up and asked the gathered crowd how many people actually liked winter. One person answered that they liked winter because they could go skiing and snowboarding. The first ALT then countered, “No, those are coping mechanisms, not actually liking winter”. So, this one is for all those out there who are either truly winter people, or are just coping/ tolerating winter.
I like winter sports. I haven’t gone skiing in ages, but I rarely get to write a word with a double “i” in it, so I decided to give it a mention. In Canada, I used to love the “après-ski” feeling of sitting by the wood-fire and putting your frozen feet near the fire, so that your “so-cold-you-can’t-feel-them-anymore” toes have a chance to thaw out. Oh, and of course, we would have the traditional poutine, which was initially delicious but by the time you get to the end, you swear you will never eat another poutine.
Here in Japan, I don’t think they have poutine after they go skiing (there it is again!). There are fireplaces with woodstoves though, but as we all know, the real reason for engaging in winter sports, especially of the mountain variety… is the chance to fall in love. I mean, to fall head over heels in love. Of course, I am referring to the love you have to feel for the post-ski onsen. How great is it to hit the slopes all day, and then immerse yourself in the luxuriant waters of an onsen, letting your muscles relax, allowing all the troubles of the world to just disappear, if only for a moment.
Today, we are heading south to Sendai, specifically to Zao Onsen (http://www.zao-spa.or.jp/english/ ). Zao Onsen is technically in Yamagata, not Sendai, but most people would get there through Sendai, especially if you are overnight busing or Shinkansen’ing there( http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e7928.html ). Zao Onsen is fantastic. It is a ski-resort located at 880 meters above sea level (so pretty unlikely to be affected by a tsunami), an onsen-town, and a romantic getaway all in one. This place is so romantic in fact, that you don’t even need to be with another person. In fact, it is probably even better without anyone else. That way you can spend as long as you want in the onsens, and you don’t have to feel bad because someone is waiting for you. Oh, and another benefit of being alone is that you can sit in the onsen waters, and not have to talk to anyone- unless, of course, a kindly “really means well” おじいさん or おばあさん sits beside you and wants to talk to you about life in “your country”, or what you like about Japan.
There are plenty of places one can stay at Zao Onsen and there are plenty of onsens to choose from, including quite a few public baths. According to the Japan Guide, “Zao Onsen’s sulfuric waters are among the most acidic in the entire country with a PH value of close to 1.” I am not sure why that is a good thing, but it must be good because they say it on their website. Personally, when I hear that something is really acidic, I tend to stay away from it, but let me assure you there is no reason to stay away from Zao Onsen. The best onsen, the big outdoor onsen (the Zao Dai-Rotemburo) is apparently closed in the wintertime, but there are plenty of other great onsens to choose from, including at least 3 public onsens.
Go for the weekend! Or go during your winter break. But you should, at some point, go to Zao Onsen.
How to get there: from Sendai
By train and bus
Take the JR Senzan Line from Sendai to Yamagata (70-90 minutes, 1140 yen, one train per hour) and transfer to a bus to Zao Onsen (40 minutes, 1000 yen, one bus per hour). The train ride is covered by the Japan Rail Pass, JR East Tohoku Area Pass and JR East South Hokkaido Pass, but the bus ride is not.
By direct bus (winter only)
During the winter months, there is one round trip per day between Sendai and Zao Onsen. The one way journey takes 100 minutes, costs 1600 yen and is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass. Seat reservations are mandatory.