By David AppleOnsenBaum
I am not a spiritual person, but I respect the onsen culture, and I think I understand how it can be seen as a spiritual experience. Onsens are not the same as baths. A bath you take at home is where you get clean, but with onsens, you need to fully wash yourself before you get in the onsen. The onsen cleanses the spirit, or you may go so far as to say that the onsen cleanses the soul. I can spend hours at an onsen (fun fact: my longest time at an onsen was just over 3 hours), and when I emerge, I have had plenty of time to think about everything and anything. For me, the onsen is one of the few places where you have to think. You are there to think, or perhaps you are there to clear your mind of whatever is weighing you down.
I recently had the opportunity to go to a very special onsen and a very special place. I am referring to Osorezan mountain, or “the mountain of dread” as it roughly translates to. If you haven’t been there, I highly recommend that you make it one of your “must-dos” before you leave Aomori. Aomori has many fantastic places and many places that are unique. The slogan on the license plate of Ontario, the province where I am from in Canada, is “Yours to Discover”, and I really feel that Aomori should use that too. Unlike Tokyo or Yokohama, where it is all conveniently located a few train stops away, in Aomori you have to really make an effort to get to these places, but for the most part they are definitely rewarding.
I have been to Sukayu many times, and every time I go there, I am amazed at how beautiful and majestic it is. The fact that they built this whole wooden structure high in the mountains after a long and windy road that passes through Oirase gorge, makes the place that much more alluring. Furofushi Onsen on the west coast is such a unique experience and I want to tell everyone that they should go there at least once. Kappa no Yu Onsen in the Shimokita peninsula is special too in its own way, surrounded by nature and unattended by anybody, you feel like you are taking part in some kind of secret ritual. And of course, all those old, beaten-up onsens in Aomori where the old folk go daily to immerse themselves in the purifying waters bubbling up from deep under the surface.
Today, I will add the 1200 year old temple at Osorezan to the list of places that “must be discovered”. Osorezan will make the most unspiritual person take a step back and appreciate the weight of the place. It has been nicknamed the anti-Disneyland.
It is a 30 minute drive from Mutsu to Osorezan up a winding forest road which is closed all winter. When you arrive there, there is a large parking lot and you can see a temple and a lake. There are a group of huge Buddha statues standing off to the side, and when you see them, you will already know you are not just visiting “another temple”. It is 500yen to enter the grounds, and that covers the cost of using the onsens, which will be discussed later.
Once you are inside the grounds, there is a long approach to the temple, a very beautiful structure that is all the more powerful due to the remoteness of the mountain. Once you have paid your respects at the temple, you then enter “地獄”, which is an Earthly representation of hell. What hasn’t been mentioned yet, is that Osorezan is actually located in the caldera of an active volcano, thus the abundance of steaming, hot-springs all over- some of which are literally boiling to the surface. The lake is highly acidic, as you’d expect a volcanic lake to be, and when seen from above is ironically heart shaped (ironic because you wouldn’t associate hell to have a heart shaped lake…). The lake is home to only one fish species strong enough to live in acidic waters. According to Japanese lore, this is one of three entrances to hell.
This is one of the places where the recently deceased go after dying. If everything checks out, they will cross the river to heaven, but if not they will be stuck in hell. With the smell of sulphur in the air, and the knowledge that the spirits of the dead are said to be hovering nearby, you can’t not feel awed. There are small piles of rocks all over the place and there are many little pebbles with people’s names written on them in prayer. There are also colourful plastic pinwheels everywhere, brought there by families who have lost a child. It takes about 45 minutes to walk along the path that has been laid out, but it is worth doing.
As I mentioned earlier, this is not just your average temple. This is a very special place.
Now, you may be thinking, why would anyone want to have an onsen in such a place? I imagine that this is especially true for those people who have been to GokurakuYu and are used to watching baseball games on TV while sweating in a Sauna and then having a chat with a friend while sitting in the rotenburo. The onsen here though is nothing like those spa-onsens. This is a very simple bath located in a wooden building. There are in fact 4 baths; 2 for women, and 1 for men, as well as a 4th which is a mixed bath. There is no shower, no cold water bath, and no sauna. There is no rotenburo, and no fake rocks to pretend it is “natural”. It IS natural. After you have walked through “hell” and you have seen some of the memorials to people who have passed away, this is a bath where you can process it all. It is cleansing water, and trust me, I am the least “spiritual” person in the world, but this place is spiritual. Even I felt it!
The onsen water is hot, and you might need to take a few minutes between immersions, but it is an important part of the visit to Osorezan. I highly recommend it- and while there is a pamphlet available in English, go with someone who speaks Japanese if yours is not particularly brilliant, because there is a lot to learn. A lot to learn.
If you think you have seen all that Aomori has to offer, but you haven’t been to Osorezan, then you absolutely must head over there before you leave Aomori- and if you are not an onsen person, then don’t have an onsen, but definitely go! … and don’t wait too long because it is closed all through the winter months.
For more information on Osorezan, check out these links: