5 onsen districts nestled in the nature amidst the mountains of the alpine region: Hirayu Onsen, Fukuji , Shin Hirayu, Tocchio and Shin Hotaka, together, boast the most open air hot springs baths than anywhere else in Japan. With more than 140 open air baths, the amazing thing is that each of the districts has their own distinct spring water, and each hot spring even within the same district is unique in its source and mineral properties that’s supposed to do wondrous things to your skin. So for onsen lovers this is like an onsen pilgrimage, you can literally jump from onsen to onsen in all the 5 towns!
Public open air natural hot springs are so popular and in abundance here, there is an onsen or a foot bath at almost every corner of the street. Some are free, some has a box outside it where you put in a small fee and help yourself to the facilities. They are mostly unmanned, but facilities are very clean and in very good condition, with excellent views of the snowy mountains or snow falling onto your face as you dip your body into the steaming hot onsen. Some are hidden within the big mountains of snow, sometimes we accidentally stumble upon one while exploring the villages. Everyone carries a towel around everywhere they go, just for this purpose. 😉
Shin Hotaka Onsen
Shin Hotaka Ropeway, the biggest attraction of Okuhida, was unfortunately closed at the time we were there. So we have to modify our plan, and decided to explore all the other districts instead. Onsen district hopping. 😉 There was a Tourist Information Centre with nobody who could speak a word of English and zero English literature or maps. Hmmm……. So I guessed we’d have to make do with Japanese maps and brochures instead.
Shin Hirayu Onsen
Taruma Kanekori Illumination, Taruma Woodlands
As my command of Japanese is rather limited, I could only interepret on the brochure that there was a winter night illumination event here in the Woodlands, so we decided to come and check out the place in the daytime first to prevent getting lost in the dark forest at night. I was under the impression that the illumination was at a waterfall.
So we did find a waterfall, amidst pathways closed off due to the thick snow. Next to the waterfall there was a flight of stairs covered in slippery ice leading down into an eerie dark tunnel. Feeling adventurous, I decided to brave the slippery stairs and entered the tunnel, which lit up in blinking colourful LED lights like a spaceship simulator. I looked around in surprise. Weren’t we in the middle of the woods?? There were lit up framed artworks on the walls with literature. It was an art gallery, directly behind the waterfall, which I could hear the raging water falling as I walked to the end of the tunnel. Along the way there were thick plastic curtains where you could flip open and actually see the falling waters of the waterfall in front of it. Ice stalagmites were formed behind the curtains. It was kinda cool 🙂
So I thought that was about all here and we were ready to walk back into town, or walk to the next location of the winter illumination. But I desperately needed to pee, and we were in the middle of the forest. I looked around and found a toilet partially buried in snow up in the hill. So I went happily to the surprisingly clean mountain toilet. As I stood in front of the toilet, I looked up in the uphill direction, and suddenly saw something rather unusual. It was the brightest blue shining amidst the dark green trees. I could not make out what it was, but curiosity got the better of me and I decided to find a way uphill through the thick snow.
There was a path uphill after all, which I’ve missed earlier, gotten distracted by the waterfall. A short climb uphill and we found out the source of the blue glimmer.
It was huge, wide, and jaw-droppingly beautiful. Those marvellous turquoise-blue ice formations amidst the still green trees, makes for a truly extraordinary sight. Walking further up, we found an ice bar in between the ice formations, and a big igloo with chairs and candles inside it.
Thanks to the uphill toilet trip, we discovered this marvel by pure accidental luck, which we otherwise would have missed completely due to ignorance. Seeing that there was not another soul around us, I guess most other tourist have actually missed it because it was not even mentioned in any of the brochures. The only thing they promoted about this woodlands was the Winter Night Illumination which was only a night event, so nobody bothered to come here in the day.
I didn’t want to leave this place so soon, it was so peaceful here, with the white mountain scenery in the background of the amazing blue ice wall and the waterfall next to us and a higher, semi-frozen waterfall behind us. It was so idyllic, like a scene taken out from a fantasy storybook. So we took out our lunch packs and sat right in front of the blue ice wall and had our freezing lunch in the chilly winds. It was extremely cold, albeit the seemingly bright sunlight! I think it was -6oC on that day. With the winds, it felt like -15oC!! Brrrrr…..!!! But I couldn’t help smiling at the scene all around us, as I chowed down my frozen shrimp croquette,…. it was such a wonderful place to be! 😀
Back to Taruma Woodlands at night for the Winter Illumination. It was beautiful with the colourful lights, but nothing comparable to the natural turquoise-blue with the clear grains of the icy stalactites glimmering under the sunlight we saw during the day. I was so glad we came here in the day. (Thanks again, mountain toilet! 😉 )
More happening now, with tourists trickling in, and the ice bar was opened for business. Drank a cold icy beer Smirnoff Ice while sitting at the same spot we sat during our freezing lunch, enjoying the colourful scenery now.
Fukuji Aodaru, Fukuji Onsen – this seems like a more popular attraction with tourist, though it is nowhere near as pretty nor as big as the one in Taruma. Perhaps because it is located right along the main road, so it is rather convenient to visit. No need to hike into the dark forest at night. There was also a hiking route into the forest, which leads all the way to Mt. Fukujiyama. The trek was heavily covered in snow in winter.
We decided to walk all the way to Tocchio from Shin Hirayu, just to enjoy the cold stroll while slowly taking in the sights. We accidentally stumbled upon a pretty open air onsen with a panoramic view of the alps in the distance. Oh well, since we have 10 minutes to spare while waiting for the next bus, figured a hot foot bath was rather appropriate after a tired day’s walk. 🙂
The oldest village in the Okuhida region, where the main bus station is located. Most famous for its Hirayu Ootaki great waterfall, 64 metres tall, 6 meter wide, and completely freezes over in mid-February every year, creating a giant pillar of ice which is the centre of one of the main winter festivals in Okuhida. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to witness this great event. 🙁
Okada Ryokan Warakutei, Hirayu Onsen
Although almost every hotel and ryokan here has at least one in-house onsen, the sources and mineral properties are all different and unique in each of them. In Okada Ryokan where we stayed (the most expensive night of our entire Japan trip, but well worth the price with 2 luxurious meals and 4 onsens both indoor and outdoor), the onsens draw water from 4 different sources in Hirayu that have slightly different mineral properties. So it was a good choice of ryokan for us first timers.
Dinner at Okada Ryokan. Almost missed the special bus to the Winter Illuminations because of this dinner. Haha. Well nobody told us it was a 5-course dinner! 😉 😀 😛
Breakfast – typical hoba miso style breakfast.
Onsen facilities in Okada Ryokan – It was a good thing that we came from Takayama and already familiar with all the onsen rules before we arrived here. The facility was huge, several rooms, 2 levels with elevators, and no English instructions at all. It was assumed that everybody here naturally knows what to do in a public onsen. A first time foreign onsen goer would have a little trouble here knowing what to do and what not to do.
Shower space, towel room and lockers, indoor onsens.
Outdoor tub onsen and powder room.
Outdoor onsen pool. This is my favourite of the 4. Walking out from the hot indoors into the cold chilly winds and snow outside stark naked and shivering, then quickly jumped into the hot steaming onsen pool surrounded by piles of snow all around it. Whole body gets hot immediately but the strong winds kept blowing off snow from the rooftops onto my freezing cold face……brrrr……!!! It was hot and cold at the same time, such fun! 😀 Pity daylight already gone before 6pm, or we would be able to see the beautiful snowy mountains in the distance while onsening.
Honooki Daira Ski Resort – One of the two ski resorts around this area.
Well too bad we didn’t have enough time to ski,…. but we did have a little fun time with a cat snowman! 😉
Some random snow sculptures found all around the town. If these were in my country, they would probably grow some horns or lose a limb or decapitated entirely, with all accessories gone in a day (sad to say but true 🙁 ). Fortunately, this is in Japan, where civic mindedness is rather evolved, so no worries about vandalism; the snow sculptures could safely be there until winter ends, all accessories intact. The only thing that will probably deface or destroy them is the heavy snowfall itself.