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Off to Takayu for the Steaming Baths of Winter
It's late November. The autumn leaves have fallen and I can hear winter's approach up here in Takayu. I'm paying another visit to Adachiya, a venerable 400-year-old establishment that dates back to Takayu Onsen's beginnings, when it opened as a hot spring resort for those seeking a tranquil getaway.
The impressively spacious open-air baths are a particularly popular draw at Adachiya, but the communal men's bath at Fudo-no-Yu has its own retro, mid-20th century charm for its camellia stained glass and stone tap. In this final winter of the Heisei Emperor's reign, there may be no better bath suited for a journey on which I'll be pondering the coming era of change.
The room I requested this time was a bit different than my usual. A hybrid style of Japanese and Western design, it has a bed on tatami mat flooring. The walls feature wainscoting and Western-style wallpaper. Combined with the curves of the hanging partition wall, the interior design has a stylish air. In Takayu, where the vestiges of old-fashioned baths still linger, I instinctively rolled about in my traditional Japanese resort apparel, a "yukata," a light cotton kimono, as I was lying down－and fell out of the bed! Of course, Adachiya also offers a choice of Japanese-style rooms with the conventional comforts of meticulous cleaning and arrangements. You can select the one that fits your inclination and budget.
My time here was just prior to the winter solstice. By four in the afternoon, it was already turning quite cold. Although I hadn't yet espied any snowfall in the area, I soon succumbed to the beckoning steams of the open-air baths and rented one out for a private dip.
The private open-air baths you can rent out at Adachiya, an establishment that prides itself on its luxurious spaciousness and elegance, must be booked in advance if you're going to enter before 10 p.m. Each group gets 50 minutes a session, free of charge. There are two separate open-air baths to choose from in the Yakushi-no-Yu area: Ichi-no-Yu and Ni-no-Yu (literally meaning the first and second baths, respectively). You can get a key from the front desk. The two baths are open to all of the inn's guests without need for a reservation from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m. and 5 to 7 a.m. By the way, I personally recommend you go just before sunset so you can revel in how the light shifts.
Delicious Seasonal Foods from a Venerable Hot Spring Inn with Excellent Hospitality
For dinner, you can rent out a private room with a table and an "irori" sunken hearth. It's one reason so many travelers choose to keep coming back to Adachiya. The delightful seasonal menus offer "kaiseki ryori" in a set that includes food grilled right at your table. The dishes served near the end of your meal may include surprising Western cooking. (When I was there, it was apple cooked in an iron pot with white sauce and seafood.) There's also a "nabe," or hot pot dish, that customers often request in this season because it's topped with freshly grated Japanese yam to resemble a light winter snowfall. Once you experience the soft, fluffy texture of the yam after it absorbs the fine broth, you'll keep wanting to come back to this delicious dish. The cleverly prepared cuisine and its alluring flavors made my yukata tight around the belt that night.
I should also mention that the way to have dessert at the end of your dinner at Adachiya is to take it in the lounge. Even I couldn't help but crack a smile and embrace my full belly as the flavor of the sweet, handmade crème brûlée spirited me away. The lounge also offers a drink service with unlimited access to a selection of coffee, black tea, herb tea and more. A pleasant chat late into the night as you settle into an antique rocking chair and relax with the quiet sounds of jazz playing in the background is a fabulous moment to experience in winter.
The Height of Luxury: Free-Flowing Spring Water in an Open-Air Bath
After a snack in my room, I headed for Taiki-no-Yu, a large open-air bath, to enter a magical setting where the greenery outside is hidden in the shadow of night. The bath brings Adachiya much pride. It also allows mixed bathing beginning at 9 p.m. (Between 6 and 9 p.m., it's only open to women.) At this time, women can enter the water wrapped in a towel. Of course, not everyone is open to the idea of mixed bathing, but women can rest assured they have a more conservative option: Hime-no-Yu, the women-only communal open-air bath that is also located on the premises.
Taiki-no-Yu is a liberatingly open space that stretches around 30 meters from front to back. Takayu Onsen is renowned for the free-flowing spring water that wells up naturally to fill the baths, so it is considerably uncommon to find a bath so large at the resort. To make sure Taiki-no-Yu is always at the proper temperature for bathing, spring water is fed in from multiple sources. This furthermore enables bathers to enjoy fresher water despite the large space. You'll also find a sleeping bath and a waterfall bath in a corner, as well as a unique cave bath, to relish a luxurious dip in the water. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that due to the milky color of Takayu's water, you cannot see the bottom of the bath. Tread carefully as you walk through the water.
Before turning in for the night, I headed again for Yakushi-no-Yu, where I could rent an open-air bath to have all to myself. I got greedy and reveled in my personal time with the so-called "ladder bath" made up of Ichi-no-Yu and Ni-no-Yu. (Those are the first and second baths, remember?) By the way, Adachiya also has a more compact private bath for rent that snugly fits two or three adults. Naturally, the inn's guests get access free of charge. Inquire at the front desk if you're interested.
The next morning, after thoroughly enjoying a long bath to myself, I went to go eat breakfast. There were gorgeously arranged rows of 20 or so handmade foods that varied from local Fukushima cuisine to Chinese, pasta, bread freshly baked at the inn, petit cakes and more. Breakfast at Adachiya is a welcoming buffet served in a dedicated dining area. I was elated to see morning "oden," a hot one-pot dish of several ingredients that was just right considering the adult beverages I had consumed the night before. The breakfast hall features a wood fireplace with a roaring fire, antique furniture, and vintage books about the innkeeper's hobbies and interests. It is a soothing, chic atmosphere that starts your day off with relaxation and happiness.
Before check-out, I visited Taiki-no-Yu again to keep that sensation fresh in my mind before leaving. (It was mixed bathing at this time.) The large open-air bath with the early winter sunlight beaming in gently between the trees sparkled as if a mirror unto the sky. That beauty and warmth is bewitchingly soothing.
This also happened to be the day when they clean the renowned baths. If you ask the staff at the inn, you can watch how the skilled workers do it, diligently polishing the giant bath with familiar hands as sweat beads on their brow. The mood of the hot spring resort here at Takayu has been shaped by exactly this kind of manual labor over the past four centuries.
An Inn in the Skies with Intoxicatingly Amazing Views
It's a calm and clear winter day. After chatting with my companion, we decide to make a hurried day-trip bathing excursion before heading home. Just across the way from Adachiya is Attakayu, a popular public bath visited by travelers from elsewhere in Fukushima Prefecture and beyond, but on this day we are heading for the Kagetsu Highland Hotel , located in the farthest reaches of the hot spring resort. It is a big, modern hotel that cuts a conspicuous figure among the nice little inns here at Takayu Onsen. But the biggest selling point is the amazing view you can take in from its high perch.
The bathing fee for day-trippers is 700 yen for adults and 350 yen for kids in elementary school or younger. After purchasing a ticket from a machine at the entrance, you take it to the front desk for processing, then head straight for the open-air bath. Unlike a large communal bath, a separately constructed open-air bath gives you a look over the overlapping ridges of Mt. Azuma. When the leaves of autumn paint the mountain's slopes, you get a sweeping view of the brilliantly prismatic landscape. Of course, this is not the only enjoyment to be had at the Kagetsu Highland Hotel's baths. There are two private baths you can rent out, named Himesayuri (1,620 yen for 50 minutes), that are exquisitely built and spacious enough to by themselves count as a communal bath at a somewhat smaller inn. These are refreshingly half covered with a roof, half open-air to further accentuate the wide space. The view outside contains the undulating peaks of the Azuma Mountains as they present the rich and varied expressions of the season throughout the year.
With a particularly superb outlook in this corner of Takayu, the Kagetsu Highland Hotel is a luxurious establishment up in the sky where you can experience panoramic views of the seasonal scenery, along with a stage of light that dyes the mountain slopes in the morning, the romantic sight of Fukushima's city lights floating in the pitch black of night, and, if fortune favors you, a dramatic sea of clouds drifting below your vantage point.
By the way, if you visit Takayu in early winter, one food you'll certainly want to try is "shin-soba," an aromatic dish that's just right for this time of year. There are several well-known businesses at the foot of the mountain that make soba, a noodle made from buckwheat. Every November or so, you'll see banners planted along the roads announcing the arrival of this year's shin-soba. The place I visited this time is Kokorian, where I enjoyed their soba by ordering the Mini Vegetable Tempura & Steamed Soba for 1,050 yen. This soba from the Aizu region of western Fukushima Prefecture is made with 90 percent buckwheat soba and 10 percent "tsunagi," a kind of wheat-based flour. It is a fine yet chewy kind of soba noodle that goes down smooth. The dipping sauce, made from dried bonito shavings and kelp, has a slight spiciness that I personally prefer. When you've just gotten out of a bath, the refreshing flavor of the accompanying salty daikon radish shavings pleasantly spreads throughout your body. One item, the Soba Bath, mimics the milky white color of Takayu's baths. It has a thick consistency that makes it drip down your throat at a surprisingly slow pace. From the restaurant's parking lot on a small patch of elevated land, you can enjoy a view of the city of Fukushima down below. No matter where you look, the sky in early winter, which seems to have a glass-like hardness and transparency, presents satisfyingly refreshing scenery.
A Bath from a Rustic Era with Ties to Takayu's History
With the shortened daylight hours of winter forcing me to hustle, I went back up into the mountains after my meal to my final destination: Tamagoyu. When night is falling, the scenery changes as columns of white steam pop up one after another. It's a sight that stirs nostalgia for an older way of life.
Tamagoyu was founded in 1872 as a small bathhouse with a thatched roof. Today it is a full-fledged inn with guestrooms. One can still see signs of the establishment's early days inside. For example, a simple structure contains both the changing room and the bath in the same space. Would you call this rustic, or perhaps luxurious? I ask myself this question when I soak my body in this bath, which seems like a relic that time forgot, and my thoughts ponder the origins of hot spring bathing. Flowing right next to the building is a stream of hot spring water with steam wafting up from its surface. Together they form a setting that remains unchanged from long ago. In the spring, the cherry blossoms come into glorious bloom on the yaezakura tree standing at the approach to the bridge. The picturesque scene seems like something out of a dream.
Just beside the bathhouse you can see the Tamagoyu hot spring after which the inn is named, enshrined within a wooden structure. It is number five on the list of hot spring sources that bring life to Takayu Onsen. Reportedly, the clear water welling up turns a milky white when it comes into contact with the air. To the people who reside here in Takayu, the hot spring is a vessel holding a sacred gift bestowed by the nature of the Azuma highlands; you could say the spring is a deity in and of itself.
An open-air bath next to the bathhouse, Tensho-no-Yu, is a satisfyingly rustic rock bath that blends in with the surrounding large stones stacked up next to it like a scree slope formed from a series of rockfalls. The expansiveness heightened by the landscape of the mountains closing in wins over hot spring enthusiasts like a more renowned bath would.
Incidentally, another esteemed establishment in Takayu's history on par with Adachiya and Tamagoyu is Azumaya . While it only has 10 guestrooms, there is a total of eight indoor and outdoor baths. Azumaya is operated on a philosophy of providing guests with round-the-clock relaxation. This is why bathing by day-trippers is not available. Sansui is rock open-air bath deep in the back of the expansive property built on the slope of a mountain. Climbing up here, you reach the edge of the tree line. There is a wild quality to this spot, where it seems the spring water has risen straight from the heart of the mountain. If you really want to get everything you can out of your visit to Takayu's baths, you have to make your way here to this bath, Sansui, at Azumaya. In addition to Sansui, the Furaku area of Azumaya has three private open-air baths you can rent out. Each has its own character and they just recently got a makeover. There is also Kogasumi , a private indoor bath for men and women, but you'll need to make a reservation in advance. When it comes to outdoor bathing, an elegant style rules the day, as guests can access any open bath free of charge as much as they like, from sunrise to sunset. (Indoor baths are available 24 hours a day). One of the Kogasumi baths has a playful relief of Mt. Azuma hidden in a large hole carved out from the center of a log where the water pours out. See if you can find it when you visit!
Takayu Onsen is a place that will enlighten you to Japan's wild yet refined hot spring culture. The hot spring resort, located deep within the mountains, fascinates fans of secluded springs in every season of the year. Despite the currents of each era having left their mark, the pure, original landscape of this "living spring" remains, and it is a sight whose magnetic allure grows by the year, much like a garden or park that grows more brilliant over time.
Deep winter and its heavy snows will soon be upon us. The true treasures to be gained from a jaunt to Takayu are just around the corner!