By David The OnsenLoving Applebaum
I am unfortunately leaving Japan soon and as the days tick by, I find myself reflecting on the things I will miss the most about Japan, and of course the things I will miss the least about Japan. As you have probably surmised already, I will really miss onsens. Of course, I will miss Japanese food, but we can get pretty good Japanese food where I will be living. And it goes without saying that I will miss the convenience of conbinis…but an onsen cannot be found elsewhere. Yes, there are hot-springs all over the world, and I am sure that they are all wonderful in their own way, but Japanese onsens are unique to Japan, and they are ubiquitous. Sometimes, you are feeling blah, and you just want to have a shower, well in Japan, you will find an onsen soon enough and you can just pop in and get clean. How great is that?
Today, we go to Hirosaki and we explore one of the secret onsens of Hirosaki. If you haven’t been to Hirosaki, you should definitely spend an afternoon walking in the castle area… granted the castle is not quite a castle, but we will call it a castle to avoid hurting its feelings. Everyone talks about going to Hirosaki castle during the “sakura-season”, and it is definitely beautiful and Japanese-y, but the area around Hirosaki castle is so lush and green, it is worth visiting all through the summer as well. You could easily get lost in your thoughts sitting under a tree gazing up at Mt. Iwaki and imagining the castle grounds in days gone by…
Hirosaki actually has a lot going for it, not the least of which is the fact that it is apple-central. Chances are high that if you bite into an apple anywhere in Japan, it might have passed through Hirosaki. Everything is apple-themed there, and that is great if your last name happens to have the word apple in it.
The first onsen we are going to visit in this Hirosaki “series” is called Asunaro Onsen. It is located just outside of Hirosaki in a town called Itayanagi. This onsen is an abura-onsen, meaning oil-onsen, which is a very rare kind of onsen and a particularly unique onsen experience. The onsen is in kinda beat-up ryokan and not obviously advertised. The bath inside is looking a bit old, but the water is why you are there. The water is not oily, but has oil components in it, which makes your skin all tingly soft. The only catch is that the place really does not smell great- I learned afterward that the smell is actually a natural effect of an oil-onsen and it takes some getting used to. I talked to one onsen-aficianado and he told me that he prefers the smell of the oil-onsen to the smell of the sulfur onsen. I happen to love the smell of the sulfur onsen.
There is one biggish bath in the middle of the room and a washing-wall on the side. The water is hot, and takes a bit of getting used to. There is a sneaky rotenburo (outdoor bath), which is not marked. The doorway looks like it might go to a storeroom. You go through the doorway and then there is a dark hallway, and you wonder if perhaps you are going to walk into someone’s living room completely naked. Luckily you emerge on the other side to find the rotenburo. The rotenburo is quite simple, no fancy faux-exteriors here, but the oil-onsen smell is much less strong, and it is quite a nice bath.
It is definitely worth checking this onsen out, despite this review sounding somewhat “bimiyo”… Every onsen leaves your skin feeling a little different and every onsen has different health benefits. This one is one of the onsens that people-in-the-know go to. It may be old, but it definitely has character! (I hope people say the same thing about me! I am not as young as I used to be, but who is…?)
For more on Asunaro onsen, check out these links: