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Tohoku's Hinabita Onsen
The Tohoku region has some 650 onsen (thermal spas) that are mostly located or "hidden" in remote mountain villages. Traveling here (particularly in winter) is not always easy, but soaking in a relaxing onsen while you are surrounded by snow will remind you why it was worth the trouble to visit.
When you hear Japanese talk about Tohoku's onsen, there is one word you cannot miss: hinabita. The word means rustic, and for many, it's this simple charm that makes the onsen here so enjoyable. Tohoku's hinabita onsen are a magnet for connoisseurs. To enjoy it fully, an overnight stay is recommended. Nearly all onsen have adjoining lodgings, and most will pick you up at a nearby train station or bus stop. Many ryokan in the region welcome not only visitors but also long-term guests, who stay for months for touji (therapeutic purposes) in spartan quarters where they do their own cooking and make their own beds. Touji has been practiced since the 17th century and is still popular, particularly among cancer patients as an alternative medicine.
How to Onsen
Sit on a small stool and scrub thoroughly with liquid soap from head to toe as if you haven't bathed for years. This is no joke. Just as taking your shoes off at the door prevents dirt from coming into a house, bathing first helps keep the onsen clean. This isn't as much about meticulous hygiene (though the Japanese are known to be obsessive in that regard), but about keeping dirt and bacteria out of the onsen.
Sukayu Onsen. Milky, highly acidic water floods into the large cedar bathhouse known as a sennin-buro, a 1,000-person bath. Designated as a national health resort, Sukayu draws many touji travelers to its curative waters. It has a reputation for the best mix-bathing in the nation. If you are a rather modest woman, though, take advantage of the hours that are reserved for women only. The trip from Aomori takes 70 minutes, or one hour from Oirase. From JR Aomori Station, take the JR bus bound for Towada-ko; from Oirase Gorge, take the bus bound for JR Aomori Station, but get off at the Sukayu Onsen stop. www.sukayu.jp..
Hanamaki Onsenkyo. Among 14 onsen that collectively make up this district, Osawa and Namari stand out for their quality and well-kept ryokans offering comfort and long-cherished histories. Osawa is known as poet Miyazawa Kenji's favorite, and Namari is famous for Japan's 600-year-old deepest standing bath. Osawa is 40 minutes by bus from Iwate's Hanamaki Airport, Namari 50 minutes. From Morioka, Osawa is 70 minutes, Namari 80 minutes. Arrange for a shuttle from the bus station to your ryokan. From Iwate Hanamaki Airport, take the "Airport liner" bus bound for Hanamaki Minami Onsenkyo Houmen. From JR Morioka Station, take the Iwatekoutsu bus bound for Shin-Namari Onsen to save time and money. If you arrive either at JR Hanamaki Station or Shin-Hanamaki Station, take a bus or free shuttle. www.kanko-hanamaki.ne.jp/en/spa/index.html..
Nyuto. A mecca for onsen buffs, Nyuto actually consists of seven different onsen and represents the most charming hinabita onsen in Tohoku. Each onsen has well-managed ryokan, and guests can purchase a pass (¥1,500) that allows them to ride free shuttles operating among the seven and to use almost all facilities. Nyuto is 47 minutes from Tazawa-ko, 35 minutes from Tsurunoyu. From JR Tazawa-ko Station or Tazawa Lake, take the Ugokoutsu bus bound for Nyuto Onsen. From Tsurunoyu, get off at Alpa Komakusa Station, where you can get a free pickup or walk 5 km (3 mi). www.nyuto-onsenkyo.com/english/eng_qkamura.html..
Tamagawa Onsen. The highlight is the strong, acidic water (which has a minor amount of radium) gushing out almost 2,400 gallons per minute, making it Japan's swiftest flow from a single spring. In the vicinity is another geothermal area in a national park where many enjoy a hot-rock bath. Take your worn-out T-shirts and towels. The bus here from Tazawa-ko takes 80 minutes. From JR Tazawa-ko Station in Akita, take Ugokotsu bus bound for Tamagawa Onsen. www.tamagawa-onsen.jp..
Ginzan. Ginzan is known its unique landscape and distinguished Taisho-era (1912-26) architectural design. A flood once destroyed the village in the valley, but it sprung back up with 14 ryokans. A magnificent wooden four-story ryokan is depicted in Miyazaki's animated film Spirited Away. Hanagasa dance shows take place Saturday evenings from May to October. Ginzan is 45 minutes from Oishida, a bit over two hours from Sendai. From JR Oishida Station, take the Hanagagsa-go bus bound for Ginzan Onsen. From Sendai, hop on the Yamako bus leaving Platform 22 for Shinjyo and get off at Obanazawa Machiaijyo Station, where you switch to the Hanagasa-go bus to Ginzan Onsen stop. www.ginzanonsen.jp.
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