The road less travelled to Tsubame Onsen

Posted by in Mike's blog

We went to great lengths to experience some traditional ancient Japanese culture during our recent vacation.

As I mentioned in my previous post about our trip to Nagano, I found information small secluded onsen (read: What is an “onsen?”) in the mountains close enough to the cottage to make a visit worth our while.  It’s just past a little one-road village called Tsubame Onsen in Niigata prefecture.

Natural hot springs are common in Japan, and they exist in many forms.  In cities, there are little onsens all over the place.  In Fukui there might be as many opportunities to bathe in public as there are to eat fast food.  Some argue that these city onsens are far removed from the real thing.  Japanese people have been relaxing at onsens for centuries.  Before the country turned into a bunch of closely connected commercial and industrial metropolises, natural onsens were to be found in the woods or mountains.  Somewhere in between, some small towns have been built on high-quality hot spring water sources, and the spa/hotel/bathing industry drives their economies.  There’s a town like that just north of Fukui city called Awara.  To illustrate how important hot springs are to that town, their JR train station is called “Awara Onsen”.

We learned how relaxing onsens are and to use them properly soon after we moved here.  Etiquette rules include washing thoroughly before entering the baths, no tattoos, no clothes or bathing suits, and making sure that the little “privacy towels” don’t touch bath water.  Most onsens are gender-segregated, which for us means that Mary gets to chase the Bunny around the women’s baths while I relax in the men’s ones.

Tsubame Onsen has some hotels, a couple of souvenir shops and a restaurant on its one road.  We went there because I read that if we walk 15 minutes further up the mountain past the village we could find a small onsen on the mountain like in old Japan.  It was free, and it wasn’t gender-segregated – that means Mary and I were able to share Bunny duty.  This onsen was called Kawara-no-yu (河原の温).  Unfortunately, the path to get there was more adventure than we had bargained for…

First and foremost: There are two roads that lead to Tsubame Onsen, both are number 39.  We took the south one, because we were coming from the south.  DON’T DO THAT.  Tsubame Onsen is high up in the mountains, and we passed both the bottom and top of a chairlift (for skiing) on the way.  The road, like most roads in the area was steep, curvy, and lacked guard rails.  After we had been driving for a while without passing any cars in either direction I was beginning to wonder if we were going into near-uncharted lands – we weren’t.  Instead, we came across a sign written entirely in kanji (Japanese characters that we don’t understand) that was blocking the entrance to a tunnel that we needed to drive through to keep going.  I imagine the sign may have said “ROAD CLOSED, HAHA YOU LOSE”.  The may have been another one before we drive up the ski hill, but driving in Japan always involves certain risks.

This explains the road closure.

Without knowing why the road was closed or how far we had left to go before arriving at the village, we continued on foot.  We were hoping that the tunnel wasn’t the reason for the road closing, so we quietly tiptoed through it.  Thankfully we were reassured by some evidence of a rock slide or two ahead.

The walk continued for a total of 1.6km before we reached the village, all uphill.  We knew it wouldn’t be too far away because we were able to see it from across a valley after about 10 minutes.  The Bunny had recently become interested in the wonderful world of rock collecting, but she hadn’t learned that some rocks are cooler than others.  For her, EVERY ROCK was interesting.  It may have taken us an hour to walk what an Algerian could have done in 3:34:08 (though he had flat ground and no rock-collecting Bunny).

The village has a few hotels, a restaurant and a couple of souvenir shops. Both of the souvenir shops had much-needed ice cream.

On the way to the village we noticed that there was another road we could have taken (the other 39 from the north), and there was also ample parking for everyone who knew that the south road was out.  When we reached Tsubame Onsen we took a short break to enjoy ice cream and juice from one of the souvenir shops, then we continued toward Kawara-no-yu.  At the top of the village there was a fork in the road.  Our onsen was to the right, to the left there was a gender-segregated one.  The walk from this point was supposed to be 15 minutes, but again, there were some rocks that needed to be collected.  Gravel was the worst!

A major landmark on the way is the suspension bridge that we had to cross.  As soon as we stepped off the bridge we went left and followed something that almost looked like a path, it led us down and under the bridge on the other side of a river.  We walked along the river for a short time, and then we found our prize!  The sweet smell of victory was accompanied by the hideous stench of sulfur – we were in the right place.

Major landmark: New suspension bridge – possibly the newest one I have walked across ever (2005!)

The water was nice.  It wasn’t too hot, it was just bearable considering the hot weather.  Nobody seemed to mind breaking the “no privacy towels touching the water” rule, so everybody who cared to was able to stay as decent as could be in the conditions.  A group of old people arrived as we were leaving, and they didn’t care to.  Onsens atmospheres turn a lot of Japanese social norms upside down.

The walk back was much quicker, and we left with some pictures of our journey, and a feeling of satisfaction that we braved a potentially dangerous closed road that was prone to rock slides and hiked up a mountain to get a sulphuric taste of old Japan that few foreigners get a chance to experience.