While in Japan we wanted to try a traditional onsen and we chose to stay two nights at Hatcho no Yu, a traditional ryokan onsen in the mountains north west of Nikko. The word yu means hot water and therefore also refers to the hot springs. The ryokan offers accommodation with an evening meal and breakfast each day but, at request, can also provide lunch. Sleeping is in traditional tatami mat rooms and bedding futons are folded away in a closet during the day. The cost is not low but they do offer good value. Their web site is http://www.8tyo-no-yu.co.jp/ it is only in Japanese but Google translations will give you a reasonable and sometimes amusing translation. If you want to book with them it is best to have a Japanese speaking person do it for you. We did find that staff did have a small understanding of English and with good will, sign language and a few Japanese words you will be able to manage. When we were there there was also a lady who speaks Portuguese. A good idea is to take some small items from your home area to use as gifts. The Japanese have a tradition of giving gifts and some small item will be more appreciated than a monetary tip.
To get to Hatcho no Yu is not easy as it is a long way from the rail station but it is possible to use public transport. Firstly you must go by train to Kinugawa-onsen station on the privately owned Tobu line (http://www.tobu.co.jp/foreign/index.html). You will not be able to use a JR pass on the Tobu line. At the Kinugawa-onsen station there is a tourist office where you can buy a return ticket to the parking area at Meotobuchi. Ask them to indicate where the bus stop is; it is visible from the tourist office and on the left of the piazza. Make sure to ask the driver of any bus that is at the stop at the departure time because we were told the bus would be at the second position and it was actually at the first. The bus, with a ten minute stop at the half way point, takes a little over one and a half hours working its way up the mountains past unending picturesque scenery and small villages. When you arrive at Meotobuchi, the end of the run, the mini bus from the onsen will meet you. You can recognise the minibus by the onsen name written in kanji 八丁湯. The Hatcho no Yu onsen is situated in a national park and private vehicles are not allowed beyond the parking area. I would suggest you have your hotel call Hatcho no Yu to tell them which bus you will be on. Timetables for the buses are on the Hatcho no Yu web site.
What to do at Hatcho no Yu? Well, apart from having a really relaxing stay (no cell phone or computer) and the obvious pleasures of enjoying the hot baths, there are several possibilities for short or long walks in the forest, taking a walk to and trying other nearby onsens or, if you have time, you can take a walk to the Oze marshland, an incredible marsh located at an altitude of about 2000 meters.
When we arrived we were greeted by the man at reception and shown to our room. Our shoes were deposited on shelves near the entrance and we were given slippers to wear on the wooden floors. A search had to be conducted to find a pair big enough for my size eleven feet. We had opted for a room in the main building and had to share a bathroom. This was not a huge problem as we seemed to have the place almost to ourselves. The room had an entrance foyer where we left our slippers. On any tatami floor, such as your room or the dining room, you must go in socks or barefoot. When entering the bathroom and toilet area in a ryokan you will find special plastic slippers near the door. You slip into these and change back into your normal slippers as you leave. The same applies when leaving the wooden floor to enter the pool areas.
The room was large enough to accommodate four at a squeeze but it was adequate for three. In the centre of the room was a low table with water, a thermos of hot water, glasses cups and tea together with four wrapped pastries. We found futons and quilts in the closet and fresh sheets and towels were in a basket at the side of the room. We were given a cotton dressing gown called a yukata and woollen jackets to wear. These items would become our clothing for the rest of the time we were at the onsen. I believe that in onsen villages it is not unusual to see people taking a walk in the evening wearing their yukata and jacket. We were then shown the facilities and importantly the “first bath rooms” where we would wash and clean ourselves before entering the water.
Naturally we wasted no time and having deposited out bags in an alcove in the room rapidly changed into our yukata and headed for the first bathroom. There we discovered the washing facilities, liquid soap and shampoo, basins to dip up hot water and two small baths in concrete and stone. Piping hot water was being fed continually from the hot springs and after washing I slowly eased myself into the bath. The water had a slight odour of sulphur but it was not enough to be unpleasant. I think I managed to stay in that bath for about five minutes. It was without a doubt the hottest of the baths available.
I then slipped on the yukata, joined Alis and Francesca outside, and we proceeded to explore the outside pools. In all there are five outside pools all feed by constantly running hot water. The largest, not so attractive, situated behind the building is also the coolest and we only used it once. There are then two between the building and the waterfall and stream. The first of these close to the change room is rectangular and reasonably hot, though not as hot as the pool in the “first bath room”. The second is much more attractive and more natural looking as it is constructed with large rocks cemented together. It is situated on the opposite side of the stream from the waterfall and has a fantastic view. The water temperature was also quite hot and we found it necessary to sit on the rocks in the centre of the pool from time to time to cool off. Our favourite was a small pool half way up the cliff and right beside the waterfall. The temperature is moderate and it is possible to relax for a soak of at least 15 minutes if not a half hour. One evening Alis and I took a bottle of sake and stayed in the pool under the rain for a good 45 minutes. I must say that I am not sure about the wisdom of taking glass into any pool area but we were extremely careful. It really was something of a magic moment and sitting in the hot pool drinking cold sake and with the waterfall at our shoulders and the rain tumbling down was an unforgettable experience.
The fifth outside pool was the women only pool and although small is probably the nicest. It is shielded from the public gaze but still has a view of the waterfall and the stream. It too is built up with natural rocks and cement and has its own change room.
Dinner that evening was served in the dinning room. I have trouble sitting on the floor due to my bad leg and I was offered a chair but I managed by stretching one leg out to the side. The meal comprised of a number of small and delicious dishes. I think a photo is the best description! Click on the photo for a better view.
The next morning breakfast was an equal confection of delights with the exception of a Japanese delicacy nuta which very few westerners find palatable.
The day was warm but rainy and Alis and I enjoyed a long walk beside the river that flowed in front of the onsen. In the afternoon we went, with a free voucher provided by Hatcho no Yu to try another nearby onsen. Kani no Yu is situated a 20 minute walk from Hatcho no Yu. It is a completely different style of of accommodation and is more like a hotel. It has a wide selection of baths including shared, women only, men only, and private baths. Private baths or family baths may be reserved at some onsens or may be associated with particular, and undoubtedly expensive, rooms. Despite the more modern appearance of the hotel itself the outside baths (rotenburo) are quite attractive and afford a good view of the forest and the hillside. Kani no Yu has an interesting room set up as a small exhibition of an ancient Japanese house with cooking implements, weapons, armour and bear skins etc.
We returned to the onsen to discover that our solitude was interrupted by a group of about 15 Japanese business men and women plus some older people. The business group were fascinating as they clattered around at a frenetic pace on what was no doubt supposed to be a relaxing bonding session. After dinner they would disappear for the night only to re-appear at the crack of dawn to make a quick soak in the pools before breakfast and the long return to Tokyo. Given that they spent as much time travelling in the two days as they spent at the onsen it could not have been all that relaxing. We found the older women particularly charming and they certainly enjoyed their stay. They are probably still talking about the foreigners (gaijin) that they met at the onsen.
We delayed our departure as long as we could but after taking a final bath we got dressed packed our things and went to wait for the minibus. Francesca really liked the yukata and when Alis asked to buy one they gave it to her as a gift.
Hatcho no Yu has become a very special place for us and we can not wait to return.