Onsen tour with Maarten & Pascal

March 16~18 2008

On the way through the northern part of Nagano prefecture and Niigata prefecture there were many snowy sights. Although in Tokyo and around Matsumoto it felt like spring had already started, here it just felt like a nice winter day.

The second night we slept in the Maru-1 ryokan, on the seaside a bit south of Niigata city. It is one of the few japanese style guest houses/hotels along the sea side there that actually has a real hot spring and Hasegawa-san recommended it because it had won some prize for good food.

It seemed that the older lady had been worrying a lot about us coming... When I made the reservation she already asked whether "namamono", raw stuff (like in raw fish) was ok and I had said yes. I also asked her then what time sunset was, as it should be nice to see the sun sinking into the (japanese) sea, but it was very cloudy and although she had given us the best room (corner, windows to both sides of the bay) there was not much interesting to see that evening. When we came she worried whether the yukatas (bath robes) were not too short (pascal is tall, and it actually was a bit short for japanese standards, not at all for western standards), then a light was broken, which she hadn't noticed before and of course she could not speak english etc. etc. Lots of worries there...

After saying several times that we were enjoying anyway and she shouldn't worry too much about those things it got better and when the food was served and we started to ask all kinds of questions about it, she seemed to get to like it and I had a tough time keeping up with translations (unlike the sake brewer she did not really notice when I needed to translate for Maarten & Pascal). She told that she had bought the fish for the sashimi fresh from the boat in the harbor about 2km north that morning, showed how to get the meat out of the crab, explained what the hell the half-egg-shaped purple thing in the bowl with octopus tentacles was (it was the head, with brain still in, very chewy and with a weird, crumbly texture inside). Each of us had got half of a complete octopus child, yummy! The rest of the seafood was excellent, just too much (as usual in onsen ryokans) so that we felt sorry not to be able to finish all (and the rice and soup would even have been brought later)

The next morning at breakfast we talked a bit further. We had totally forgotten the tea, and apparently she had noticed, as she came in with 3 cups of coffee, thinking that we didn't like tea :-) Just as she came in with it, we were making tea...

Pascal asked how many foreigners came to the place. After some thinking it was maybe one a year! Wow we thought. But she went on, "and that was never a problem, as they were always accompanied by a Japanese person"! So in all her life, we were probably the first, unaccompanied foreigners that came to her hotel/restaurant! That explained why she was nervous in the beginning!

The next morning we walked a bit along the beach in front of the hotel. As far as we have seen this is really the best beach along the part of the coast line we traveled by car. (By the way, it is the coast of the Japanese sea, i.e., west of Japan)

When saying goodbye before leaving she said we should certainly come back some time, so although we probably did some things wrong, we got away with it being foreigners.

On the way to the next onsen ryokan we stopped in Yuzawa, also a famous spring resort. It has a shinkansen (bullet train) station with lots of souvenir shops and an onsen where they mix in nihonshu (sake)! We HAD to try that! Unfortunately the smell of the natural hot spring was so strong (sulphur) that the nihonshu couldn't be noticed at all... too bad. We bought some sandwiches at a convienience store as we didn't have much time, because we also wanted to try some sake (sorry again Maarten).

They have a system where you pay 500yen, get a sake cup and 5 coins, and you can choose from over 100 different kinds (you can get 1 shot per coin). Apart from the label of the sake, there were also some indications like "dry", "sweet", "liquor" etc. and we asked the man at the counter some special ones (he indicated some winter and spring sakes, I never heard of that classification yet) and tried 10 different types in total (5 coins of Pascal, 5 of me and we shared all), then we got 3 additional coins from some japanese who apparently thought 5 was too much for him, THANKS!

After the sake we went further. Most of the remaining way was a tunnel of almost 11km. Then we would arrive at a parking from where a shuttle bus would take us to the Takaragawa onsen ryokan. We had informed before, but as the hotel is in the mountains and there was still snow, we were told it was ok "with 4 wheel drive and snow tires". We had rented the car with snow tires to be on the safe side, but 4x4 was not an option for us, so we thought we'd better take the shuttle bus.

We waited and waited, 10min late I got a phone call, he would be there with the shuttle bus in 15 min. 5min later he called again, "actually the road condition is very good, you can come with a normal car if you like". He also still had to pick up people from the train station, so I guess he preferred not being too much too late there... Anyway, it saved us the extra shuttle charge, the road was well accessible indeed and Maarten actually loved driving it.

The dinner was great again. A sort of barbeque of fish, vegetables and mushrooms, really nice meat with a white-sesame sauce, some omelet-pudding-thing and lots of small other things. When we were totally stuffed again and tried to sneak away, we were told to sit down again for rice and soup. That was the weird-dish-of-the-day! No normal miso soup, but miso soup with bear meat inside! I thought I had misunderstood or so, because they also kept some bears in cages outside and they had some cute pictures of the bears in the onsen and of girls feeding little bears with a nursing bottle... But it was reall bear meat. But not that of their pets of course.

The ryokan has 1 indoor bath for men, 1 for women, 3 mixed outdoor baths (women wrap themselves in a big towel) and 1 women-only outdoor bath. On the right side of the river you can see a small shed, it is changing rooms and begind it is a bath, next to the river. The other 2 baths are at the shed on the left side of the river.

The current ryokan contains of 3 parts, the main building (center), east building (left) and a new part. It is getting quite famous because it has been on television some times and is included in tour packages and shown in tourist leaflets. It has the largest outdoor baths in Japan, 100, 120, 50 and 200 tatami mats large, so the largest is about 325 square meters!

The way back to Tokyo would be quite short, so we went a bit in the other direction first, towards Asamayama, an active vulcano, and bought a birthdaycake for Maarten on the way. At Asamayama there is a lava park which would open the 19th (it was the 18th when we came) so we could enter for free.

There was still quite some snow on the smaller paths, which we enjoyed, although we got really wet feet as we sunk over 30cm into the snow at quite some places.

A famous waterfall close to there is the shiraito-no-taki (literally: waterfall of white threads, many waterfalls in Japan have this name).

After the shiraito-no-taki we planned to go to the sen-ga-taki waterfall, but we found there would be one more that would be better to see first: Tatsukaeshi-no-taki.

This is the sen-ga-taki (thousand waterfalls). I found it on a weblog of someone who hikes to lots of waterfalls in Japan and I thought it looked cool

Construction workers were busy to renovate the trail from the parking to the waterfall, so we had to do some obstacle course over half loose beams :-)

Weird dishes review: Day 1) raw horse meat; Day 2) Octopus brain; Day 3) Bear soup