Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 5) – N(onsen)se in Kinosaki

DSC06717_editIt’s 35 degrees just after three as the train slowly chugged into Toyooka, pronounced Toh-yo-oh-ka (豊岡). If I’m being honest, I didn’t have much of a choice in Toyooka as my base camp for the next three nights. Ideally, I would have snagged a room in one of those atmospheric ryokans lining the banks of the scenic Kinosaki River.

The original plan was to do some onsen hoppin’ in Kinosaki Onsen (城崎温泉) and use it as a base to explore the surrounding locales. However, most ryokans were already fully booked half a year in advance by the time I was looking for accommodations back in March this year. Hence, I had to re-route my plan to Toyooka (豊岡), only two train stops away.DSC06748The idea actually sounds absurd if you think about it. In the simmering Japanese summer heat, who in their right minds would wanna soak in an onsen?

Apparently, plenty.

There are many crazy Japanese out there, and even crazier foreigners.

DSC06778The day involved a lot of moving around, so by the time I checked into my basic but adequate business hotel in Toyooka, I took a quick nap for half an hour after downing a can of Asahi (a much appreciated welcome drink from the hotel’s reception). With not much daylight left, I was just glad to check myself in to Kouno-yū (鴻の湯), the oldest onsen in this vicinity, and soak my fatigue away. It didn’t make sense to go onsen hopping given the approaching twilight.

Maybe tomorrow, I reasoned…

After a good night’s soak at Kouno-yū (鴻の湯), I checked into an izakaya and treated myself to some sushi and local sake.    LSDSC06798DSC06793

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Euphemisms for the Travel Writer

img_20170114_124552Almost every onsen I’ve been to in Japan has been described in travel features by one of these words: “rustic”, “atmospheric” and “nostalgic”. Here, allow me to offer a light-hearted take on what these words actually mean…

Rustic – of course, the word has no association with the word “rust”. But perhaps by some satirical pun on the word, the rustic onsen/hotel/ryokan you are going to is probably literally rusting away…

Atmospheric – Not very well-maintained and in most cases, very run-down… A tad similar to “rustic” but in this case, the place probably has open-air spaces or comes without a roof…

Nostalgic – just damn freaking old, and probably abandoned in some cases. A place where people no longer give a damn to even visit. Which also means, you are likely to be the only visitor there…

Below are pictures of Kirishima’s Shin Yu Onsen (新湯温泉), a terrible irony because it’s definitely not new (新), but yes it’s very rustic and atmospheric. Oh yes, and a lot of pipes and sulfuric smoke… you would be forgiven to think that Gandalf’s secret hideout is probably somewhere in the woods behind this onsen…Thankfully, the locals still visit this place… Enjoy…

Kirishima is about an hour and a half by train from Kagoshima. The nearest train station is Kirishima Jingu Station, which is uniquely designed to resemble its namesake i.e. a shrine. Its entrance is fronted by a large torii gate and shrine lanterns. Check ahead for bus schedules to the Kirishima Shrine and the various onsen hotels (cue the above-mentioned “atmospheric onsen“) as buses tend to be infrequent.  LSdsc02993pano_20170114_112753img_20170114_161543

Frozen in the Fall

Autumn is my favourite season. I love watching the landscape slowly turning from lush greens to a patchwork of red, orange and yellow hues. I still remember my first encounter with fall in Japan five years ago, when I visited Tokyo. Streets were lined with row after row of yellow gingko and red maple. It was almost like one of those scenes from a jigsaw puzzle. Shrines in Japan are most beautiful, in my opinion, during fall. There’s an inexplicable tranquillity and spiritual energy in these places.

It was with these images in mind as I tumbled along the countryside on one of those rickety buses that ply the countryside in Asahikawa. My destination? Sounkyo Onsen 層雲峡, a famous kouyou  or “autumn leaves” viewing locale in Hokkaido. I had spent the previous night in Asahikawa (about two and a half hours by train from Tomakomai via Sapporo) so that I could catch an early bus from Asahikawa Station to Sounkyo Onsen.dsc01969The pension where I had made a reservation was a humble family-run establishment, but Tripadvisor and Booking.com decals on its glass doors carried promises of a rewarding stay. Since I was two hours ahead of check-in time, I deposited my luggage at the lobby and headed for the Sounkyo Ropeway. The Ropeway was the easiest (i.e. laziest) option to get near the peaks of Mount Kurodake (), which towers above the sprawling Daisetsuzan National Park (大雪山国立公園). Seasoned hikers may prefer the hiking trail that continues from the summit of Kurodake, through Daisetsuzan to the summit of Asahidake. However, without proper hiking equipment and still nursing a severe bout of flu, I decided against the hike.dsc01985Nevertheless, the view from the 7th station of Mt. Kurodake was well worth the 1,950 yen that I had to cough out for the gondola ride. At the top of the Ropeway, a chairlift whisks you nearer to Kurodake’s peak and a tiny cafe for a further 600 yen. Despite forecasts of early snowfall (yes! Snow in October!) in the later half of the day, the weather held up sufficiently for breathtaking vistas of the valley below. My only lamentation was that autumn had not quite peaked here in Sounkyo, contrary to what was written in many of the travel literature I’ve read. In other words, the valley was only covered in sporadic blots of yellow and red. Later, I learnt from the pension owner that autumn had been at least two weeks late this year.dsc02000My second day in Sounkyo was a rough affair. I had planned to make for the Ginga no Taki 銀河の (Milky Way Falls) and Ryusei no Taki 流星の(Shooting Star Falls) on foot – a journey that would take about 50 minutes. However, midway through my journey, the weather turned nasty. Strong gales and a combination of rain and hail threatened to wreck my umbrella (which it eventually did). I had no choice but to turn back as I was completely soaked and shivering. The winds were threatening to make this innocuous 50-minute walk into a dance with death.dsc02031As it turned out, the two waterfalls turned out to be rather disappointing. Perhaps the stormy weather had something to do with it. After my initial failed attempt to trek to the falls, I decided to have another go at it – this time, I opted for the bus service that would whisk me directly to the falls in case the weather decided to bail on me again. Just as the bus was about to leave the Tourist Visitor Centre, it poured buckets again!!! The wind and rain made it difficult to maintain my balance, much less steady myself for a picturesque shot of the falls. The stormy weather probably made the silver aqueous threads less magical than what their names would suggest. Whoever had named these waterfalls must have had a very cosmic (i.e. ethereal) imagination. Needless to say, I was less than impressed to say the least.

The next pit stop on the bus took the pits. I arrived at a giant cesspool of a lake called Taisetsuko (大雪湖). The pelting rain and chilly winds made the landscape even greyer and more dreary than what it already was. No sign of any autumn foliage, no sign of life, except me, a couple of elderly ladies and a family from China. The lake was a bleak mix of ash grey, sickly yellow and dirty green.dsc02039Back in the pension, a huge bowl of ramen was a welcome treat after a frigidly cold outing. Unlike Asahikawa, Sounkyo Onsen is not known for its ramen, but on a miserably wet and chilly day like this, I gratefully slurped down my bowl of goodness. A trip to the Kurodake Onsen (conveniently connected to the pension by a passageway) thereafter was the icing on the cake, and the fastest way to warm up my body. The onsen also has a modest walled-in rotemburo (露天風) that offers a view of the surrounding landscape, albeit through wooden grilles.

And just as I was blissfully soaking my aches and chills away, I saw it! Snow!

Snow in early October??? This is crazy man!!! I mean, I was just told that autumn arrived two weeks late but it’s already snowing here in Sounkyo. Looks like autumn gave this place a miss this year!

If there’s something I’ve learnt since arriving here in Hokkaido, it is that anything is possible as far as weather is concerned. Here in Hokkaido, a 20-degrees diurnal range is not an exception, but the norm. And that is something I need to quickly get used to. I still struggle with waking up with cold feet to zero degrees in the early morning. I am constantly amazed by how my students could run around with boundless energy, playing football in the sun-drenched field during lunch break in 14-degrees weather. In the evening, I meticulously plan the steps to take in between changing and taking a shower, so that I do not catch a chill. I shudder to think what my first full experience of winter here will be like.  LSdsc02005

Jazz It Up, Jozankei

Fall is in the air. After two weeks of consecutive pummeling by typhoons, the dipping temperatures and clear blue skies are a much welcome respite. Fall also happens to be my favourite season. It’s the season when leaves turn into brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow – a phenomenon the Japanese term 紅葉 (literally, “red leaves”) or みもじ. And one of the most popular places in Hokkaido to catch the fall colours is the Jozankei Onsen (定山渓温泉) district. Like Noboribetsu, this sprawling valley of monolithic hotels also happens to have some of the best hot spring (onsen) waters flowing through it. The story goes that a monk by the name of Miizumi Jozan discovered the hot springs in 1866, and opened a healing spa. Today, there’s a statue of the monk near a free hot spring footbath to commemorate the reverend’s contribution. So while it’s perhaps too early to witness the area blanketed in a sea of red and yellow, I had made the trip last weekend to enjoy the bubbles.img_20160911_160434_hdrJozankei’s close proximity to Sapporo makes it an ideal day trip, or a weekend getaway. Express direct  (直行便) buses whisk you from the Sapporo Bus Terminal from berths 7 or 8 straight to the onsen area every hour and the 70-minute journey will cost you about 840 yen one way. However, you could also opt for the more frequent “Rapid” (快速) buses (770 yen one way) from the same berths. But these would take a good 15 minutes more, as they stop at every bus stop along the way.

I found myself struggling to decide which onsen I should visit. Most of the hotels in this area have an onsen onsite that are open to day trippers but it’s always good to check in advance. Eventually, I settled on the furthest one, the Hoheikyo Onsen (豊平峡温泉), which is also the final stop on this route.dsc01715For onsen regulars, Hoheikyo Onsen might come across as a little on the expensive end. Its 1,000 yen admission fee notwithstanding, there’s also a 500 yen rental fee for towels (though you do get back 300 yen after your bath). The trick is to bring along your own towels, so you would only have to pay for the admission.

This onsen essentially has only two pools. As far as traditional onsens go, this definitely has some of that rustic feel. Stepping into the shower area adjoining the indoor pool, you can’t help but notice the potholed floor – the result of various stages of erosion by the spring waters. The main attraction, undoubtedly, is the rotemburo (露天風呂) or outdoor pool, with its landscaped gardens complete with a stationary water mill. It almost feels like being part of a Japanese bonsai. Come autumn or winter, when the surrounding hills are draped in red, yellow or white, they would provide a picturesque backdrop to enjoy your soak.137© http://jozankei.jp/

Interestingly, the onsen also has a buzzing restaurant that reportedly sells some of the best Indian curry in Sapporo. Strange combination in my opinion – onsen, curry and naan – but hey, if it rocks your palate, who is to judge? I decided to give it a miss since Indian cuisine is not that much of a novelty where I come from.img_20160911_172344_hdrLeaving the onsen, I took the bus for a couple of stops and alighted at the main Jozankei Onsen area. Here, a half dozen drab giant slabs of concrete and glass line both sides of the valley. One look at the hotels and you can tell that these have been here for ages. However, a check on the Internet may give you a shock! Many of the properties in this area go for upwards of 15,000 yen (or about 147 USD) a night. The smaller boutique hotels would probably charge at least 26,000 yen (or about 255 USD) per night. And we’re not talking about state-of-the-art facilities!

Many of the reviews I came across on various hotel sites such as Booking.com and Expedia pointed to the outdated décor and furnishings. Some complained that the rooms reek of cigarette smoke. It seemed a little exorbitant, to be paying top dollar for at best mediocre accommodation, to be honest. If anything, you are probably just paying for the scenery! So while the idea of spending a weekend here sounds incredibly enticing, the hotels really have to do a major makeover before they get my vote. For now, I’m content with just hopping from one onsen to another.  LS

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Chasing Japan

IMG_3253I could still remember vividly my first trip to Tokyo. Well, why couldn’t I? After all, it was only about five years ago, to be honest. No big deal, you may think.

It was, for me.

I finally had the opportunity to see Japan for myself. A country whose modern history was defined for me in school textbooks in terms of Japanese supremacy and militarism, of ruthless ambition to conquer a large part of Southeast Asia during the Second World War, of murderers in the Nanking massacre and countless others, of brutal soldiers who raped and killed comfort women and innocent children. Of course, that was a Japan from a different time, a different rule.

DSC01868Japan today is a modern democracy, celebrated for its cuisine and culture, and revered for its natural beauty. Its economy may have stagnated for more than two decades in recent times. Yet, the Land of the Rising Sun is still recognised as one of the most influential economies in Asia, and even the world.

Eight months before my visit, the entire country was reeling from the shock and devastation caused by the Japan Tsunami on 11 March, triggered by an earthquake that measured a massive 9.0 on the Richter Scale. I remembered when the tsunami struck, I followed the news religiously every day. My heart went out to Japan and the Japanese people. News reports of disaster victims queuing patiently for relief supplies at evacuation centres showed me a side of Japan I have never seen before. It’s during times like these that reveal the mark of a people, and the class of a nation. And I could not help but salute their resilience, their respect for each other, their civic mindedness, their solidarity. Since that maiden trip to Tokyo in the fall of 2011, I’ve also visited Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Miyajima, Beppu, Kumamoto and Hokkaido in the years after.

IMG_3916I returned from that trip to Tokyo in 2011 with a new determination and conviction to take up the Japanese language again. I use the word ‘again’ because I had previously taken Japanese as a language elective module during my varsity years. I had lasted merely two semesters then because I found myself spending more time on studying and revising Japanese than the other core modules, which affected my grades. This time, however, I am determined to master it, I tell myself. And when I do, I want to return to Japan, to find a job and experience living in Japan for a couple of years. I am on the verge of realising my dream come August this year.

And I can’t wait! 🙂    LS

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Soak In The Mountains

The Japanese love their baths, and so does this Singaporean. However, despite my affection for the bubbles, I planned this trip according to the places I felt fit in with my route. It wasn’t a conscious decision to select hotels / inns with onsens but I somehow ended up doing that anyway. Of course, things don’t always go according to plan, and along the way, I chanced upon a few onsens that I had not penciled in originally.

Take the Ryounkaku Onsen (凌雲閣 温泉) deep in the mountains of Tokachidake(十勝岳) for example. I never intended to visit the onsen, and in fact until last night, was headed in the opposite direction for a day trip to Biei (美瑛) as I had previously read about the beautiful scenery that decorates this little town. I was also keen to get out of Furano (富良野) because other than skiing, there’s really nothing much else to do. Visits to the Furano Winery and Cheese Factory on the previous days had been disappointing affairs.

DSC09123DSC09149Anyhow, while reading up on Biei (美瑛), many of the reviews centred on the lavender fields (which you won’t be able to find in winter) and the eerily charming Blue Lake (青い池) – which I figured would most likely be frozen in this chilly weather. That made up my mind to explore another vicinity. And that’s when I stumbled on Kamifurano (上富良野町).

Like its sister town, Kamifurano (上富良野町) is also renowned for its lavender fields. However, Kamifurano (上富良野町) is also the access point to an onsen that is apparently at a whopping 1,280m above sea level. Call me nuts but there’s something liberating about freezing / frying your ass off in a piping hot tub way up in the mountains (nope, not the part about being naked)!!!

20151215_13153720151215_13233320151215_153204As it turns out, the journey to Ryounkaku Onsen (凌雲閣 温泉) in itself is half the fun . The winding road up into Hokkaido’s highest onsen offers breathtaking vistas of the Daisetsuzan National Park (大雪山) and random thoughts of dying. Like, what if my bus skids off the road and rolls off the mountain? Yesterday’s dip at the Furano New Prince Hotel could have been my last onsen experience. And then, it started to snow while I was midway up the mountains. When the bus made a brief stop at the first onsen – the Fukiage Onsen (吹上温泉), it had started to snow with a vengeance.

20151215_13182520151215_140037Thankfully, I made it alive, and soon found myself confronted with this stunning view before me! (see picture above) The water itself may put off some people because it’s actually reddish brown in colour due to the high iron oxide concentration. But if you buy into those healing properties that soaking in an onsen apparently brings, I guess you would dive head in even if the water is blood red. I mean, it’s not like you get a chance to soak in this view butt naked every day, is it?

I think I’ll be contented even if this is my last dip.  LS

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The Snow Less Travelled

Asahikawa 旭川 is the second largest city in Hokkaido, but probably one of the most under-rated ones. There’s good reason to be so – with only a handful of mediocre shopping complexes, and its most renowned attraction being a zoo (the Asahiyama Zoo 旭山動物園), it doesn’t look anywhere like a tourist draw.

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However, as a gateway to both the Daisetsuzan National Park 大雪山 (one of the most carefully preserved nature reserves in Hokkaido) and the Asahidake Onsen (旭岳温泉), it makes for a convenient base from which to make day trips to these attractions.

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If skiing is not your thing, take a dip in one of the onsens (there’s 9 in total) along the main road leading up to the Asahidake Ropeway (旭岳ロープウェー). At the Ropeway, a 5-min ride takes you to a breath-taking vista at 2,291 metres above sea level. Because of its relative obscurity, it feels like having the entire mountain / volcano to yourself!

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I also found another reason to visit Asahikawa (旭川)– food! The city is slowly gaining interest as a gourmet town (it even has a village dedicated to ramen), and though the nightlife is nowhere compared to Sapporo, there’s enough to satisfy my demanding taste buds.    LS

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Bubbling Beppu

Beppu is synonymous with onsen, and the higher up you go into the highlands, you literally see steam rising from even drains by the roadside. Eight ‘Hells’ await you and while most of the more exclusive onsen are located in the highlands (i.e. the Myouban area 明礬), some are either too outdated or too exorbitant. For those conscious of budget but still desire a rewarding onsen experience in Beppu, check out Ebisuya Onsen (湯屋えびす), nestled midway between Yama no yu (山の湯) and the main bus stop at the foot of the Myouban hills.

Sometimes, the most rewarding experience can be right at the place you stay. Forget about checking out every atmospheric (think ‘outdated’) onsen, such as the Takegawara Onsen (竹瓦温泉). Yes, this onsen shrine dates back to the Meiji era and all, but for a fabulous onsen experience, it does not offer. Stay at the Nishitetsu Resort Inn in Beppu (西鉄イン別府), and you can soak in an inhouse onsen that is just as incredible as any of the other more exorbitant / outdated / traditional ones out there.   LS

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