Snowbound in Japan
It was after a three-hour train ride north from Tokyo, heading for Tsurunoyu Onsen, that I learned Tsurunoyu isn’t an onsen at all. “It’s really more of a hitou,” Moto, my guide, delicately pointed out. We were in Honshu Island’s far-north prefecture of Akita, winding our way up the unpaved road to the 300-year-old mountain lodge, and Moto seemed especially intent on setting me straight. An onsen, he explained, is a natural hot spring. A hitou is a natural hot spring that is hidden. Ah. Hiddenness being perhaps the most prized characteristic in Japanese culture — second only to a love of drawing precise distinctions on a minute scale — I understood this was a critical difference.
Tsurunoyu finally emerged from a gulch in the hills. It seemed tiny. The original lodge is flanked by a handful of low thatch-and-wood structures added over the decades, all backed by a sheer, massive wall of coniferous green. In the middle of the compound is a stream that runs down the hillside and alongside a shallow, oblong pool of hot, ice-blue water that bubbles up from the ground, where people soak for hours at a stretch. Until World War II, Tsurunoyu was something like a sanitarium; the ill and injured came here to recoup with the help of the water’s healing minerals. It’s the oldest and most picturesque of seven hot-spring inns in the immediate area, known collectively as the Nyuto onsens. In a 20-mile radius, there are some dozen more — but those are not really hitous and, according to Japanese logic, draw fewer visitors.
Although Tsurunoyu is mainly a destination for the Japanese, foreign travelers are starting to make the trek here. The man who served us dinner one night said he gets as many as three international visitors a week. A few days before we arrived, he’d had a German diplomat. The onsen gets plenty of Germans, he said, as well as Austrians, Canadians, Australians, Italians and Taiwanese. They come in part for the area’s alpine pleasures — Nyuto is contained within the Towada-Hachimantai National Park. A mountain trail connects all seven Nyuto onsens, and you can hike the whole thing in about two hours, stopping for a dip in each bath and taking in the particular properties of the various waters. (Each pool is said to confer a unique benefit.) There are also ski slopes nearby, as well as gorgeous Lake Tazawa, the country’s deepest, with clear blue water and boats for rent. A few miles away, the town of Kakunodate, known for its well-preserved samurai houses and cherry-blossom festival, is a kind of Japanese Colonial Williamsburg.
We drove there one afternoon and visited a half dozen of its house museums, where seemingly every stray possession left from previous owners has been thrown behind glass: fascinating displays of 17th-century armor, a puzzling assortment of 1950s vinyl LPs. Afterward we followed a group of Japanese businessmen to an udon restaurant; the area is famous for the purity of its water and therefore also its noodles.
Most people, however, come to this part of Akita simply to soak and eat. Dinner at Tsurunoyu is an elaborate, delicious, 12-course marathon of soba, soups, pickles, mushrooms, mountain vegetables and freshwater fish fried, sashimi-ed and roasted whole. Breakfast is the same, along with an egg. (By the third meal, you’d kill for a sandwich.) And bath time is the bridge between meals. Moto, who’d been here before, said it’s common to arrive at Tsurunoyu and not leave once in a three-day stay, especially in winter, when Akita’s heavy snows turn everything into sculpture. There’s something about living in a kimono, sitting in primordial waters, and eating food prepared and served according to ancient ritual that makes you feel serenely outside time. For many Japanese, Moto told me, this is a particular treat, an escape from the chaos of city life and a chance to reconnect with their collective past. One night the dining room was filled with a rowdy group of married couples in their 50s having a lavish meal with many bottles of beer and sake. High, whiny violin music played on a stereo while powdered wives in bustled kimonos danced for their husbands, who smoked heavily. Their exhuberance was so deep that for a moment I wished I were Japanese.
Which is not to say that the joys of the onsen are lost in translation — the staff doesn’t actually speak any English. Our server said he knew the word “dinner,” and that was enough to connect with the foreign guests. Hardly anyone speaks at Tsurunoyu, anyway. When you’re naked in mixed company, as you are in the baths, there just isn’t much to say. No forced camaraderie, no spiritual communion, just the savoring of hitou. When the reservationist learned that I’d come all the way from New York City, that gleaming Xanadu that usually elicits a response the world over, he barely registered the fact. It was wonderful.
Getting There And Around:
Take the JR railroad’s Shinkansen line from Tokyo station to Tazawako (three hours; about $270 round trip). From the station, you can take a taxi to Tsurunoyu Onsen ($50). If you plan on exploring the area, rent a car. (Note: you’ll need an international driving permit, available at www.aaa.com for $15.) JR operates a rental office at the station (call 011-81-187-43-1081 to reserve; from $60 a day). There is a tourist office at the station, with maps and area information in English.
Tsurunoyu Onsen: Rooms at this atmospheric inn are basic and traditional in the Japanese style (futons on the floor), and most share a toilet. Rates, from $60 per person, include breakfast and dinner and unlimited use of the baths. Reserve through www.japaneseguesthouses.com (the site also books other Nyuto onsens and traditional inns around the country).
Lake Tazawa: Explore this beautiful crater lake by paddle boat, rowboat or pleasure cruiser; you can pick any of these up in front of the Tazawako Lodge on the northeast shore. Sights worth seeing around the lake include Gozanoishi Shrine (north shore), with its striking red gate, and Katamae Mountain Forest (western shore), which has a spectacular lookout point.
Kakunodate: This historic town is about 40 minutes from the Nyuto area by car. Follow signs to the samurai district, which consists of 12 house museums in several blocks. Bukeyashiki Street has the headlining houses, including the terrific Aoyagi Samurai Manor. Stop at Satoku Garden (26 Higashi-katsurakucho) for Kakunodate’s other specialty: boxes and trays made from cherry bark, as well as silk scarves dyed with cherry-blossom petals. (From late April to early May, the town holds its renowned cherry-blossom festival.) Get lunch at Sakura Tei (18 Yokomachi; entrees $10 to $18), which serves excellent parent-and-child udon chicken and egg over noodles.