Posts Tagged ‘onsen’

first winter

March 3, 2009


This is my first REAL winter.

It was a 12 day trip to Tohoku (Northern Japan) and Hokkaido planned by W. We went to really obscure but beautiful places, usually patronised by the local Japanese. It often involves multiple train transfers and shuttle buses but it was worth it. Coincidentally, we chanced upon 2 Japanese ladies and an old Japanese guy onsen hopping with us, taking the same trains and buses.

I had wanted to chat with them, to know where they come from, why they are there and where their next destination would be. But we ended up taking photos for each other due to our limited vocabulary. Haha.

I have NO IDEA how W found these places.

I only see Winter on television. Maybe i was fortunate and came to the right place at the right time. As we stood still surrounded by trees, mountains and falling snow, the world stopped too. It was quiet, peaceful and it was just the 2 of us.

Tsurunoyu Onsen


W told me Tsurunoyu was actually a Samurai Honjin or inn for the samurai (tatched roof structure on the left). Legend has it that a crane healed its injured leg in the sulphurous hot spring and hence the beginning of hot spring baths and ryokans.

Reservation 6 months in advance is advised. Fortunately for us, we managed to secure 2 nights. However, we would have to switch from the big to a small room and you would have to go to the communal dining hall for dinner and share the same rice pot, which I preferred. It is there I see Japanese ladies kneel and eat for an hour. Truly amazing.


A little stream runs through the Ryokan seperating the sleep areas and the beautiful hot baths. We truly appreciate the hot baths. It was SO COLD my feet hurts. The hot pools are the only ways to relieve the pain. Although there was an open bath for women only. The most beautiful spot was the mixed bath area. After dinner, we soaked in the hot bath under falling snow and stars. It was magical.


The hotpot is their specialty with homemade yam balls and mountain vegetables. Oishi.

Aoni Onsen


Aoni Onsen was more secluded than Tsurunoyu and situated at the bottom of the valley of Mt Hakkoda. It is the only onsen in the area unlike Tsurunoyu Onsen and was founded by a handicapped poet in 1931, patronised by artists and poets. If you look closely, you would be able to see the onsen at the base. The 1st picture was taken on the day we arrived and 2nd (right) was taken on the day we left after it had snowed heavily the night before. Beautiful isn’t it.


A little stream cuts through the ryokan as well. The women’s bath is beautiful. There is an elevated cypress tub you can sit into which looks out to the river.


We were provided a room on the 2nd floor in the new wing. On the ground floors were indoor hot baths paired with beautifully landscaped outdoor baths that look out to the waterfall behind.


One interesting thing. Aoni Onsen started off with kerosene lamps as electricity was not easily available then. It still uses kerosene lamps and heaters for the hot baths, garden walkways, rooms, dining hall and waiting areas today. The light from the kerosene lamps definitely added charm to the space.


Most ryokans would have private minibuses that would bring you to the public bus terminal to transfer to the train station. The 2nd picture was the interior of the train we took. We were quite amused to see a fan on the ceiling. I believe this is used in the older trains in summer.


From Tohoku region, we travelled to Hakodate (Hokkaido) via the underwater Seikan Tunnel (1 hr distance) which took 40 years to build! Hakodate is a seaside town and one of the 1st to open its doors to the West. W told me it felt like San Francisco with the sloped roads and trams fronting the sea. It was pretty touristy with warehouses converted to souvenir shops. However I noticed something esle. Hakodate seemed to have many niche cafes scattered along the sloped roads away from the touristy bay area. I found one – PeacePiece.


PeacePiece. It doesn’t have a shop front. Only a door and a sign. We were apprehensive at first but it was SO COLD we decided to give it a shot. The cafe was empty except for the owner. But we were glad we stepped in. We entertained ourselves with his interesting book collection. I peeped behind the books and observed him as he made each cup of coffee. Each step was focused and carefully executed like a craftsman at work. A rare find. In his blog, he had hoped that coffee can be appreciated like sake and sochu. This guy truly LOVES his coffee.


Hakodate-Mura. One day, I want to run an inn like that too but surrounded with woods, mountains and rivers. Hehe.

During our stay, the innkeeper introduced a family restaurant ‘wano’ to us. It was the kind of restaurant with lots of regulars (looking at the numerous tagged sake bottles), no English menu and manned by an elderly husband and wife team who spoke no English. We wanted them to recommend their specialties. After several failed attempts, we went ‘oishi?’ and fell back on sign language. They understood us immediately. Haha.

Everything was right. The oden tofu that sat on a light tasty broth had amazing texture and when paired with mustard it completely blew us away. It was so simple. The last picture was simmered eel with no hint of fishiness. We also had squid tempura, fried octopus, chutoro sashimi, roe (given to us for free coz they were happy we liked their food).


No amount of words can describe the comforting food and the friendly old couple. If you need more information, just mail me. I’ve got it marked out on the map.