So this year I decided if I couldn’t do a family Christmas with my people in the UK, I’d go as far as possible in the other direction. I booked myself into a night at a mountain hotspring hotel, a Japanese Onsen Ryokan.
The one I picked had several appealing attributes, firstly a huge outdoor hot water swimming pool, I believe the only one of its kind in Japan, and secondly the fact that this Ryokan was inaccessible by car, you must hike the last 20 mins down into a secluded valley. Google maps hasn’t got the place marked so I could only go by the directions I found on-line. It was a long journey, after two hours on the Shinkasen (bullet train) I arrived at Kuroiso. I went over to the information desk to inquire about the bus up the mountain. Once I had convinced the very helpful woman behind the desk that yes I really did mean to go up there alone without a car, and that I would be fine walking an hour along a mountain road in late December she helped me with my ticket and, despite my protests, forced me to borrow an umbrella.
The bus took another hour, winding up and up away from the small town. As the houses thinned out people got off one by one until I was the last remaining person on the bus. At the last stop I disembarked and referring to the google earth picture the information woman had printed out for me (google maps don’t show the road I needed) I set off. The only sound was that of the freezing wind whipping up around my stupidly hatless head. It wasn’t snowing hard but small flakes soon settled onto my shoulders and sleeves, small but beautifully formed.
The walk really wasn’t that far, the distance of how far is a reasonable distance to walk to most Japanese (or perhaps Tokyo people) is much shorter then what I am happy to do, probably growing up in Cornwall where I regularly had to walk half an hour uphill to catch the bus has a lot to do with this. But it was very cold, with slippery patches of black ice to keep me alert, I was delighted when, on turning a rocky corner, I saw the sprawling wooden building beneath me.
Stepping in through the sliding doors I was greeted by the welcome sight of a black iron wood burning stove, glowing with orange light and lovely heat. I was greeted equally warmly by the proprietor and his wife and shown to my room. I was delighted to see that as I had expected I had no signal, and gratefully put my phone away. After a brief hike to see the nearby waterfall and really build up my appetite for a hot bath I changed into a clean yukata (a simple cotton kimono) and kimono coat provided by the hotel and headed off for my first bath.
The building is amazing, where ever you go you can hear the sound of running water as it pours into the baths, or as is emerges from a natural stone wall beneath a wooden walkway, or tumbles down the riber and waterfalls the almost go under one side of the building. It sort of felt like being lost in a strange, very rundown, museum, plenty of odd old items lined the corridors. There were small shrines dotted about to various kamis or buddist statues. Imagine Spirited Away, if Yubaba lost all her money and let the place slide gently into ruin. Parts of the building date back to the 19th century, the wood glows darkly with the polishing steps of samurai and their ladies.
I started off in the indoor woman bath, exclusively used by daughters of noblemen in the Edo period. The water was wonderfully hot, the kind of heat that I wouldn’t have been able to stand when I first started visiting onsen, the bath is designed so that the steaming water overflows the wooden side, which has been worn down to a driftwood softness, and washes over the slightly slopped floor, meaning even now in the dead of winter the stones were delightfully warm underfoot. I watched the light fade from the sky and night arrive in the mountains from the tub. Stripping down in the freezing air had been quite bracingly cold, but after a long scrub and soak I was so thoroughly hot, that getting out and drying off was only pleasantly refreshing.
I then proceeded to eat, usually in a ryokan food is served in your room, but here is was served in a handsome old Japanese style room, the kind with dark floorboards and a glowing square hearth in the center. It was there I saw the only other three guests using the inn with me, a stoic looking hiker who never spoke, and two chatty guys on a winter break. I had a wonderful evening talking with them, and the very friendly owner of the inn. After dinner and another bath to warm up we sat around the wood burning stove in the entrance drinking mug after mug of sake mixed with the hot onsen water.
I then spent the rest of the night visiting each bath in turn, including a full-moon lit swim in the outdoor onsen swimming pool. For my final bath of the night a made a large round icecube from snow to cool a cup of sake, savouring the sensation of the icey liquid running down my throat whilst I sat in the piping water. I stood, dressed only in the warmth of the water and the sake, on the edge of the bath listening to the running river below, with icy snow laden air whipping around me.
Of course I slept wonderfully, and woke to sip green tea whilst watching the sun rise between the two mountains that cradled the inn. a delicious breakfast, a few last baths, and then I reluctantly set off on the long journey back to Tokyo. All in all, a wonderful naked Christmas I’ll never forget.