When was the last time you did something for the first time?
I’ve thought about this for some time before I made a conscious decision to do one thing I have never done before. And this recent trip to Japan was my window of opportunity: try out an onsen.
Onsen is a natural hot spring bath. Japan has lots of these. Dipping into an onsen is said to relax the body and has benefits for the skin. It had never beem something that appealed to me though, as what’s daunting for me is that most onsens that I know of are communal, and one has to totally strip naked to be able to take a dip. In these public onsens, males and females are separated – but I don’t think I can still do an all naked stint in front of total strangers, even for the purpose of relaxation.
Until I booked our trip to the Japan alps. I intentionally included in our itinerary an overnight stay at one of the onsen towns, Hirayu Onsen because it is located halfway across Takayama and our ultimate hiking destination, Kamikochi. I figured D and I would need an onsen bath after a tiring day of trekking.
Hirayu Onsen is the oldest of five onsen towns on Okuhida valley. It was discovered in the 1560s, and is now basically the hub to Kamikochi and Shinhotaka (where the famous double decker gondola, the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway, leading up to the highest point where tourists can view the mountains is found).
I honestly did not know what to expect – from what I showed in the map it’s a little speck compared to Takayama. I was also a bit nervous as I only had a few thousand yens on hand, so I made a mental note to look for the ATM as soon as we got off the bus.
When we arrived at the bus station I was awestruck by the surrounding mountains and the view of the alps at a distance. The climate was cooler compared to the first cities we visited, and there were still several cherry blossom trees that added color to the already picturesque town. True to its onsen name, there is a footbath at the waiting area of the bus station. On the second floor is a window view of the peaks of the Japan Alps, and Hida’s largest sarubobo doll is displayed.
Our B&B, Tsuyukusa, was a 3 minute walk from the station. On the way to the B&B we could hear the constant flow of water. There were several establishments that we passed by that had steaming water fountains in front of their property.
The Tsuyukusa staff were very warm, and they gave us a simple welcome gift. Our room was Japanese-style, with tatami mats, wooden floor and sliding doors. There were 3 private onsen baths in the B&B: 2 indoor and 1 outdoor. Guess which one D and I used?
What we learned from using the onsen is that we had to take a shower first before dipping in. There were small stools and basins next to the tub. The towels had to be left at the lounge, and there were reminders not to run around and make loud noises in the onsen area.
The outdoor onsen gave us a view of the mountains, and the hot water was indeed relaxing. We enjoyed the hot spring bath for only for about ten minutes as hot baths tend to increase blood pressure. Later as we went to bed and all througout our stay, the constant sound of gushing water could be heard – it’s almost like sleeping on the beach where the sound of the waves is nonstop.
There was no ATM at Hirayu Onsen, and there were no restaurants that accepted credit cards. Luckily the souvenir shop at the train station accepted credit card payments. Other than this hiccup, I’d say our overnight stay in Hirayu Onsen was a unique, surreal experience, and will definitely be something I’d always remember Japan for.
And since this blog is all about my first time doing something I haven’t done before, this is a perfect song to cap it off.