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.

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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…

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Frozen in the Fall: A Trip to Sounkyo Onsen

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.

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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 もみじ. And one of the most popular places in Hokkaido to catch the fall colours is the Jozankei Onsen (定山渓温泉) district.

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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 Great East 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 December 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 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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Kamifurano | 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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Asahikawa | 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.

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