Tohoku, Japan’s onsen (hot spring) paradise


There are few things as relaxing and pleasurable than taking a bath–Japanese style–in natural hot spring water. For those of you who have yet to experience the joys of the onsen (the Japanese term for hot springs and baths using their waters), you have no idea what you are missing. I, myself, didn’t until a few years ago. For most of my life, I’ve been a shower person. I truly didn’t see the point of and never appreciated baths. But then, for a consultancy gig I had undertaken for a hotel collections company, I spent two and half weeks visiting some of Japan’s most beautiful and unique boutique hotels and inns, several of which boasted onsens among their main selling points. 

That trip was a revelation. I came back home wishing I had built a large, Japanese style, overflowing bathtub in my own home. Onsen waters are quite amazing. Hot, of course, but also therapeutic and healing (different onsens, because of distinct mineral content, may have different healing properties). After soaking in an onsen, you feel remarkably better. Use them repeatedly and you feel pretty darned amazing. Also, there’s no better way to get ready for a great night’s sleep than lounging in piping hot onsen waters for a few minutes.

Japanese style bathing is very different from bathing, well, almost anywhere else. You don’t go into a public (or even private) bath dirty. First, you shower, scrubbing yourself clean. And only then do you slide yourself into the hot spring waters. In most onsen areas, you will find hotels that have private facilities open to guests as well as a public bath that townsfolk can patronize, for a small fee. Further, different hotels will offer guests a range of choices. Some will only have communal (but same sex) baths, while others will allow you to reserve a smaller bath for a half an hour or so. And the more luxurious ryokans (inns) and hotels will even have rooms and suites with their own private onsens. For onsen-beginners, and people that are a tad shy of strutting their stuff in front of strangers, finding a ryokan or hotel with private baths or baths you can reserve is very important.

While you can find nice onsens all over Japan, Tohoku–Honshu’s (the main island) northeast region, which consists of seven prefectures–boasts over 4,000 natural hot springs, making it in my book, Japan’s onsen capitol. And the best place to go if you’re thinking of experiencing some of the country’s best onsens.

I was fortunate enough to be invited by the Japanese foreign ministry and its tourism agency to visit Tohoku recently. The trip was part of an initiative to invite foreign media to tour the region, which many of you will remember was hit by a vicious earthquake and devastating tsunami in March 2011. While some parts of this beautiful region were horrifically damaged and are far from recovery, there are other areas that were relatively untouched by the natural disasters and others still that have already repaired physical damage and are fighting to rebuild their economies. Tourism, especially foreign tourism, is one very big way that the Japanese hope Tohoku can bounce back.

Over a week, I visited several different towns, hotels, restaurants, farms, and onsens. This is just one story that will be generated from that trip.

My trip kickstarted with a bullet train into the Fukushima prefecture in order to get to Higashiya Onsen, where the Saitoh family have been running the Shosuke-no-yado Takinoyu onsen-hotel for the last 131 years. The hotel is gorgeous, situated right at the entrance of this hot springs resort town. It offers a smartly engineered mix of Japanese tradition and modern comforts, including Western style beds and flat screen TVs. Shosuke is used to welcoming foreign guests, many of whom are visiting friends and relatives working in Aizu, the closest major town. The hotel has 60 rooms and 8 onsens, all of which can be reserved for private use. Several of the rooms also have a private rotenburo (open-air hot spring bath), which is a real luxury. The baths here are all beautiful, many with postcard-perfect views of the local scenery. Their rooftop onsen was particularly magnificent.

For the Saitohs, showcasing Japanese tradition is very important. One of the ways they achieve this is through a nightly performance, which takes place in a beautiful theatre they have built on the side of the hill that faces their lobby. Guests can comfortably sit in the lobby and watch live Noh performances or, if the weather is too cold, a projected sound and light show which tells the story of Aizu’s history. Showcasing local produce is equally important. Ninety percent of the food served in their restaurant comes from the local area; which is something the Saitohs have always practiced, but now, post-earthquake and tsunami, something vitally important in rebuilding the livelihoods of the farmers and fishermen of Fukushima.

I next visited Tatsumiya Sanso Satonoyu, a much more traditional ryokan in Fukushima that has some of the most gorgeous rotenburo I have ever seen. The first photo in this post (as well as the picture just above) is of one of their outdoor hot spring baths. Of course, Satonoyu also has indoor baths as well–the inn has six onsens in total–all of which can be booked for private use.

Satonoyu is hidden down a steep and narrow road, inside the Bandai Asahi National Park. It is surrounded by a beautiful virgin forest. During warmer months (when I visited it was zero degrees Celsius outside), guests can explore the area via walking paths that the ryokan’s owner has set up throughout his property. This is a place for escaping the hustle and bustle of the world; a place to go when you want to experience true, classic, and formal Japanese hospitality. While Satonoyu does not receive too many foreign guests, it is very popular among Japan’s elite, including members of the royal family.

Perhaps the most stunning of all the onsen ryokans and hotels I visited during this trip was Yunishi Ichijoh, located at Kamasaki Onsen in Miyagi prefecture. This stunning property was founded in 1560 and has been run by the Ichijoh family through 20 generations. The current scion is Mr Tatsuya Ichijoh, a visionary who has transformed his family’s property radically over the last decade. Previously, Ichijoh was a traditional inn, frequented mostly by senior citizens who came to treat their ailments through long soaks in the hot spring waters. But Tatsuya, hotel school-trained and who had worked in some of Tokyo’s top international hotels, wanted to create a new kind of ryokan, one that epitomized luxury at all levels. His plan would require extensive renovations as well as a total mindset shift among staff.

Today, Ichijoh is a truly luxurious accommodation that, to me at least, represents the future of upscale yet still intimate hospitality in Japan. The staff are startlingly young, well-groomed and immaculately outfitted in dark suits. Almost all of them also speak passable English. The rooms are lushly furnished, with state of the art audio and visual systems, super-comfortable Western beds and other amenities that make spending the night here a true pleasure. I was thrilled to spot plusminuszero’s Naoto Fukasawa-designed humidifier, as well as M’s System’s MS Series speaker (something I’ve coveted since first seeing one in the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo), in my room. I was also lucky enough to stay in one of two rooms with a private onsen. The bathing room was very smartly designed so that it can be opened up to the elements in nice weather. Ichijoh also has an additional six onsens, two of which are “medicated” baths that some claim are able to heal skin wounds and even burns.

Dining at Ichijoh was also a wonderful experience. I was surprised and thrilled to see a wine list with wines recommended and stocked by Berry Bros & Rudd, the UK’s oldest and most iconic wine merchant. My overall stay was a pretty near perfect experience. The only downside was that my wife was at home in Singapore with my son; I would have loved for her to have been with me. Tatsuya has truly accomplished his goal of creating a new level of luxury and setting a new standard of service in the ryokan trade. He’s done such a good job in fact that JTB has been bringing other ryokan owners to Ichijoh to learn from him, hoping to raise the overall standard across the country.

One of the towns that was hit the hardest by the tsunami was Minamisanriku, in Miyagi prefecture. This once-picturesque seaside village was known for its stunning views and super-fresh seafood. Tragically, the tsunami wiped out almost 95% of the town, claiming also the lives of thousands of its residents. Minamisanriku, in fact, suffered the highest casualty rate from the tsunami. Two years on, most of what once was the town is still a barren wasteland, dotted with only a small handful of ruined buildings. While this may not exactly seem like a likely place to recommend for an onsen holiday, I’m recommending it mostly because the remaining townspeople desperately need your tourism dollars. There’s also something deeply moving about seeing the devastation caused by the tsunami firsthand. It’s the kind of thing you will likely never forget and something worth witnessing.

The Hotel Kanyo is Minamisanriku’s largest and most iconic hotel. Built high on a cliff overlooking the town, the property suffered only minimal damage to its first two floors when the tsunami hit. In the aftermath, the hotel played a major role in keeping the surviving townspeople together. It housed citizens that had lost their homes as well as aid workers who arrived later. The hotel’s owner Mrs Abe built a school and a library in the hotel, which still operate today. And she continues to allow all of the town’s senior residents to use the property’s stunning onsens for free.

The views of the ocean from the hotel are still amazing. As are both the indoor and outdoor onsens here. Equally amazing is the food served at the hotel. Standouts from an incredible dinner I had there were a whole abalone, slow grilled and served with butter and soy, and a bowl of the some of the best ikura I have ever tasted, served over rice with slices of raw abalone. But the point of coming here isn’t the fabulous hot springs nor the exquisite seafood. It is to lend support to a town very much in need of visitors.

zuisenkaku offers gorgeous scenic views from its rooms

The last onsen I visited was Yabitsu Onsen, located just a short drive from Hiraizumi, an important 12th century UNESCO World Heritage site in Tohoku’s Iwate prefecture. Zuisenkaku is a very traditional ryokan-style hotel founded in 1989. The hotel has two indoor and two outdoor baths. The waters here are well-known locally for treating muscle pain, digestive problems, and skin diseases. They are also supposed to be good for physically weak children. Both modest and more luxurious rooms–all traditional–are available here. While few staff speak English well, this is a lovely place to spend the night on the way to Hiraizumi.

Websites for the ryokans and hotels mentioned above:

About Aun Koh

Aun has always loved food and travel, passions passed down to him from his parents. This foundation, plus a background in media, pushed him to start Chubby Hubby in 2005. He loves that this site allows him to write about the things he adores--food, style, travel, his wife and his three kids!