Since my first visit to Japan in 2008 I always had this (I thought) impossible dream of relaxing in an onsen while watching the snow falling. Little did I know dreams do come true and that our belated honeymoon would allow me to discover that reality can sometimes live up to dreams (I’m waiting for you flying car! You better deliver!)
After a bit of online research in December I decided to book us a room at a ryokan which, from the photos, did seem to have one of the most beautiful rotenburo I could hope for.
That rotenburo (an outdoor onsen or hot bath) contained a few mixed pools and one just for women. It’s their location that made them so special: in the middle of a forest, right next to the river, so I booked it hoping fortune might grant me a little bit of snow to make this stay a little more special.
The journey to the rotenburo:
Added to our schedule a little last minute (learn from my mistakes people, book your hotels early, this is not China or South-East Asia… ), I somehow managed to cram a trip to this place between Yamagata and Nagano. 2 trains later (One Express, and one not so much… ) and after countless times elbowing my other half while yelling “Snow! Oh wait it’s gone… wait no Snow!”, we finally got to the small town of Minakami where a shuttle bus would pick us up around 2pm. What we did not expect was the snow storm that had apparently followed us from the top of Zao Onsen, and forced us to seek refuge in the first small restaurant we encountered. Needless to say we did not see much of the town itself, and instead enjoyed the hospitality of the train station waiting room and its vending machines as the blizzard descended on Minakami itself.
Early (It’s Japan after all), the shuttle bus picked us up and carried us to our destination in the middle of nowhere. Our hasty decision to fill our backpacks with snacks and cheap beer beforehand turned out to be a master-stroke, there would be no nipping to the local seven-eleven from here.
Staying in a Ryokan.
While visiting Japan, staying in a Ryokan ( a traditional Japanese “hotel” ) is probably one of the must do activities, and thankfully said experience is fairly often paired with an onsen.
Lucky us in that case it was the all package. Our minimalist room, small balcony separated by a shyoji (sliding screen) and view on the river was happily coupled with a yukata to walk around the hotel and a kaiseki later brought to our room.
And you know what? After years of sleeping on Chinese beds (usually sporting matresses seemingly made from only the very softest variety of concrete), I’ve got to admit sleeping on the floor was pretty darn comfortable!
But who am I kidding? You didn’t come here to hear about the ryokan itself, we’ll get back on that in another article. You’re here for the same reason we came: the rotenburo.
The outdoor baths: scenery and relaxation.
Onsens are really popular in Japan, from a natural hot spring or simply filled with warm water, you’ll find them everywhere. Tokyo even has a giant theme park dedicated to its onsen. It’s a part of the Japanese culture and you’ll rarely end up in a room that hasn’t got at least a bath if not a public onsen nearby.
But those are usually indoors and rarely mixed so finding an outdoor one with mixed baths and the right view wasn’t easy.
Thankfully the Takaragawa had all of it and as soon as we got into our room we quickly changed to explore those baths. There is something strange about crossing an icy bridge and walking through a forest blanketed in over a metre of snow, when you’re wearing what amounts to a dressing gown. Even more so with the knowledge that in a few moments you’ll be casting aside your flimsy coverings to jump stark naked in to an open-air pool occupied by a few dozen, equally dis-robed Japanese people.
I’m not sure what made the experience so special, I’d probably say the atmosphere, the surroundings. The stunningly beautiful forested valley, the thick covering of fresh snow, and the columns of steam billowing from the natural hot springs that feed the onsens, all combine to give a gloriously ‘otherworldly’ feel. The ‘other world’ in this instance being, perhaps, Narnia. If Aslan had thought to include a few jacuzzis.
Overall, the experience was exactly how I’d always pictured the North of Japan in my fantasy, and in the evening, with the beautiful rotenboro all to ourselves, with the landscape illuminated by naught but starlight, and the snow falling all around us, there was only one problem; how does one top this? Surely it’s all downhill from here. . .
Enjoying a traditional meal in our room.
In between our hopping in and out of the baths to return to our rooms came the dinner we decided to get inside our quarters.
You might have heard of kaiseki before: it’s a traditional Japanese meal that consists of multiple courses. While it might be wildly different depending on where you are in the country, it’s probably one of the must-do for foodies visiting, and proved to be one of our top meals during our visit.
From what we heard the menu changes depending on the seasons. This one included sukiyaki, tempura and many other delicacies that left us full and begging for a break.
I’d tell you more about what we ate but I made the terrible mistake of using my limited Japanese in the presence of our host, at which point she gleefully abandoned her English commentary and proceeded to give us the full explanation of the meal entirely in Japanese. The upshot of which is, I can confirm that our meal consisted mainly of “food”, and furthermore, some of it was fish, and some of it was not fish.
It was however, delicious.
What made this stay so special.
The entire experience made the stay really special: the food was fantastic, the facility beautiful and of course the outdoor onsen. The white scenery also gave it something very dreamy. We’ve heard this place was popular in Autumn for the colours of the leaves but snow has got to be our absolute favourite.
Sure this is not a cheap experience and I don’t think we will visit again (this was, after all, for our honeymoon) but if you are looking for a little something as a couple visiting Japan and you’ve got a bit of time then you should probably book a night or two in the area.
Practical information about this rotenburo.
To get to the Takaragawa onsen from Tokyo you can easily get the train (if you’re planning on taking a few trains, a JR Pass might be a good idea. Check out Wapiti travel’s guide!) , use the shinkansen to Jomokogen or get a shinkansen and a slower train to Minakami.
We’d probably recommend opting for Minakami so you can spend a bit of time in this lovely town while waiting for your shuttle.
If you don’t want to show up naked to the outdoor bath then fear not: men are allowed to wear a towel and a sort of dress is offered for the ladies to use when bathing. Though nobody bothered with either when we were there.
Rooms are not cheap so if you still want to enjoy the rotenburo without having to book the ryokan itself, day tickets are also available. If you’ve booked a room though be aware that you’ll have 24hour access to the bath.