From the delightfully urban Kanazawa we were off to Yamanaka Onsen for an onsen experience. With its active volcanoes, Japan has thousands of natural hot springs or “onsens” scattered around the country and Japanese love sitting around soaking up the natural minerals. These onsens – some indoor, some outdoor, mostly sex-segregated but some mixed – have become a major part of tourism here as towns and inns and restaurants and all that have developed around the best of them. And as we’ve learned from previous trips to Japan, the tourist towns with great onsens often have it right in the name, thus Yamanaka Onsen.
Onsens have a lot of cultural rules you need to learn before using them. First and foremost, you must shower and clean up before getting in; it’s completely unacceptable to just hop in the same water that others are soaking in. Clothes are explicitly prohibited. Most onsens ban people with tattoos, oddly. But once you have that all figured out they can be wonderfully relaxing.
Along with onsen towns you’ll often find ryokans as well. Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns typically featuring tatami mats on the floor, communal onsens, and breakfast and dinner served on small tables in your room. After dinner the staff remove the dishes, move the table aside, and roll out the futons to sleep in. In the morning, then, they roll the futons back up, store them away, and bring the table back for breakfast. It’s a fun was to live for a couple days, but one of the implications of all that is that during the day there’s no bed in your room to relax or nap on. They have a couple modest chairs, but that’s all.
The meals are a big thing in a ryokan. The style is called “kaiseki,” roughly equivalent to the Western notion of haute cuisine. Dinner will consist of multiple courses – in our case, nine courses for dinner – and each course can have three or even four different dishes. You sit at the table – a table that’s about 12 or 14 inches off the ground, meaning you’re sitting on the floor the whole time; I discovered that that’s getting harder and harder to do as I age – and the woman comes in wearing her beautiful kimono, kneels down, serves the course, and leaves. You eat, she comes back, kneels to clean the dishes, serves the next course, and leaves. You eat, she comes back in, kneels, etc., etc. It’s quite the production.
The two mysteries for me are how she can keep kneeling down and getting back up over and over and over again (and yes, it’s always a she), presumably for other guests in their own rooms as well. I’d be utterly exhausted by it. The other mystery is how big the storage area in the ryokan must be to keep all the dishes they use. Like I said, nine courses, multiple dishes for each course, and we never saw the same dishes twice in the two days we stayed there. That’s a lot of dishes.
For our onsen experience we chose Yamanaka Onsen, a beautiful little town on the Daishoji River in western Japan. The river ran right next to our ryokan and at night, with the window open just a little to let the cold night air in, the sound of the river was like a sleeping pill. The town has developed a wonderful little parkway along the banks of the river with a path that runs maybe a three-quarters of a mile or so. Cherry trees, picturesque bridges, colorful flowers, pretty much the image of Japan in the spring you’ve always dreamt of. Our ryokan had its own lovely and private outdoor onsen on the top floor of the hotel so that’s where we would soak after our walks around the town.
To be sure, there’s not a lot to do in these onsen towns beyond little walks, eating, and soaking. On the other hand there’s a lot to be said for days of little walks, eating, and soaking, particularly when it’s all done in a beautiful town up in the Japanese Alps. Unfortunately, the ryokan/onsen experience is also really expensive, so we limited this to a two-day splurge. Amazing food, beautiful environment, lots of cherry blossoms, but then it was time to move on. We have one more stop on our own in Japan, in Nagoya, and then we join a Grasshopper Adventures bicycle tour for 13 days on Shikoku Island.