Last weekend (from Sunday to Wednesday) I took a trip by myself, to Shiobara Onsen. The idea was to recharge, and it seems to have worked.
Shiobara is in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, a little north of Tokyo. It takes about four hours on “normal” trains, but it’s not expensive, and you only have to change trains once going from our flat. It might take a while, but it’s no hassle. While Shiobara is a tourist town, drawing people to the hot springs, it’s not on the normal foreign visitor itinerary, so most of the tourists are Japanese. I did see a handful of other foreigners, but only a few.
Shiobara has eleven hot springs, and is strung along the valley of the Hoki River, surrounded by forested mountains. Near the centre of the town, Tengu Rock rises a hundred metres from the valley floor. The hot springs are reputed to have been discovered about 1200 years ago, and the area has been a tourist attraction for centuries. As a result, it has a lot of hotels and ryokan, some old, some much newer.
I stayed at a ryokan called Myogaya, which is located on the steep sides of the gorge through which one of the tributaries of the Hoki flows. It’s a medium-size ryokan, serving standard ryokan food. The selling point is the hot spring baths. These are down ninety or so steps, at the bottom of the gorge, cut into a rock at the side of the river. While enjoying the water, you can watch and listen to the flow of the river, or enjoy the sunlight filtering through the trees. I enjoyed the baths several times, in the day, at dawn, in the evening, and at night, and it was always extremely relaxing.
I also found another very nice hot spring bath, near the Hoki River, called Fudo no Yu. In the valley of another, smaller, tributary, it sits next to a small waterfall, with views of the all around. The bath is completely open air, and the changing area only has one wall and a small roof.
Both baths are traditional Japanese hot spring baths, in that they are for both sexes, and you do not wear anything while bathing. I did see women in both, but there was a bias towards men, and towards older people. However, the latter bias is at least partly to do with the fact that I was there during the day on weekdays; most younger people were in work or school. I chatted to several people, and apparently Fudo no Yu is very full at the weekend, which I suspect does not improve the experience.
My original plan was to spend most of my time at the ryokan, reading and taking baths. However, once I arrived and saw the scenery, I decided that would be a waste. Add to that the near-perfect walking weather, and I spent the whole of Tuesday seeing the area. First, I walked along the Shiobara “Nature Trail”. An English nature trail is aimed at children, and is an easy walk through pleasant natural scenery. The natural scenery was there. However, the trail was eight kilometres long, and went straight over the top of a mountain with a 1180m peak. If it was in Scotland, it would be a Munro.
It was a very nice walk, and, apart from around a marsh which had its own car park, I saw no-one. Large areas of Japan are not crowded at all, unlike the impression you might get if you just visit Tokyo and the main tourist destinations. The nature trail ended at another hot spring, where I was able to have another bath, which seemed to do my legs good, at least; they weren’t sore the next day.
I then walked back to the ryokan, via the main town of Shiobara. In total, I think I walked about 25km on Tuesday, including over the top of the mountain, so I was quite tired that night, but it was a good walk through gorgeous scenery. Only my body got tired.
I definitely want to go back to Shiobara, with Yuriko and Mayuki. They wouldn’t be able to do the walk, but there are plenty of places in the town I didn’t visit, so we wouldn’t be short of things to do. Now we just have to find time to do it.