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Reliving the Past Amid Thick Blankets of Snowfall
It is winter 2019. Spring is coming thereafter, when we will finally learn the name of Japan's next imperial era. I don't know if it's the weather or the celebratory mood in the air, but this winter seems to be a mild one. Even so, Takayu, an area known for its heavy snowfall, has plenty of snow to make for a fantastic landscape of white to view from an open-air bath. They say the best time to enjoy Takayu is the winter, so it is in this esteemed season that serious hot spring connoisseurs head for these baths.
Among the ranks of Takayu's inns, the bathhouse at Tamagoyu is particularly beloved for its history and character. On this last visit during the reign of the Heisei Emperor, I thought it might be nice to take a journey exploring the idea of the original Japanese hot spring therapy here at this bathhouse that has witnessed 150 of history.
Every now and again, snow flits through the sky. Perhaps it's an auspicious sign of favorable weather...for my purposes, anyhow. As I climb to higher elevations, the snowflakes become finer, and the green of the trees in the surrounding mountain woods seems decorated in lacework up to their tippy tops. The still and silent spectacle unfolding beyond the car's windows brings a smile to my companion and I, as we know this is fine weather for taking in a snowy landscape.It was evening when we arrived at Tamagoyu. Yet it seemed bright, perhaps because of the sheen from the snow or some other surrounding glow. When the car stopped in the parking lot, a porter from the inn hurried out to come take my luggage. The sky looked just as frozen as ever. As if to remind us that spring is still far away, fine, dry snow occasionally floated gently down.
After checking in, we were taken to our room. The heater was already on when we got there, heating the space to a comfortably warm temperature. I could see the snowy mountain landscape, seemingly framed in the veranda window like a painting. Down below the window outside I could spot the secluded, quiet thatch-roofed bathhouse. Seemingly buried in a garden covered in a thick blanket of snow, it looked like some kind of candy creation. Mesmerized by the pure beauty, like something out of a story, I swiftly donned the thick "yukata," a kind of cotton kimono, laid out for me in our room, and scampered over to the historic baths.
Seasonal Foods and Sake Deliver Delicious Bliss
Dinner on this night was served in the dining hall I could see from our room nearby. I could already spot several guests enjoying their meals at the spaciously arranged tables. The menu offers a "kaiseki ryori" course that changes with each season. The items lined up at our table included blowfish, anglerfish, deep-water shrimp, soft roe and other delectable seafood. I shared with my companion my suspicions that one container contained warm sake... I was right! As it turns out, Fukushima Prefecture has become a leading sake-producing region of Japan, winning high accolades at international sake competitions. The inn has a large stock of local sake brews you can imbibe the "mokkiri" way, a style loved by sake enthusiasts by which a glass filled to the brim is placed in a little wooden box to catch any overflow and prevent any sake from being wasted. Along with a gorgeous feast of seafood cooked in a ceramic bowl ("tobanyaki") and Japanese pig sukinabe (similar to the more familiar sukiyaki) prepared right at our table, we were served with fried blowfish and anglerfish, sizzling as it was brought to us, a Japanese soup of soy milk skin and crab dumplings, plus more. No matter what the inn serves, it all goes wonderfully with sake.
After a satisfying delicious meal, I headed once again for the outdoor baths for one last dip before the night's slumber. Outside was completely covered in the veil of darkness. Surrounded by the pitch-black night, the snowy surroundings that seemed to glow as they floated in the black void instilled in me a burst of new energy. The snow had stopped falling and the bright moon was shining brilliantly in sharp relief from its lofty seat up in the heavens. Viewing the moon and snow was an elegant treat, and in addition to it, I felt the avaricious desire for another long soak in the so-called "ladder bath".By the way, one of the open-air baths available at Tamagoyu is Seoto, which is for women only. Unlike the open-air bath in the wild, natural surroundings I visited earlier, Seoto is designed more specifically for the particular needs of women. As half the tub is covered with a roof, you can enjoy your dip without your head getting wet from light rain or snow. Next to Seoto is a mountain stream and the alpine woods in close proximity. There is also a small courtyard garden with a stone lantern. The still setting has a snug, relaxing atmosphere.
Free-Flowing Hot Spring Water Maintained by Master Technicians
The next morning, the sky was so clear that I thought I had imagined the weather from the night before. After awakening from a deep sleep, I headed first for my morning dip at Taki-no-Yu, the main building's communal bath. Incidentally, the inn's outdoor baths, including the bathhouse, do not have washing areas for soap and shampoo. This is because these outside bathing spots are for nothing more than simply enjoying being in the water and taking in the scenery. If you want to use a shower, you'll have to go to the communal bath or Senki-no-Yu, the main building's other indoor bath. Unlike the outdoor baths that are open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. but may be closed due to the weather, the main building's indoor baths are available anytime, 24 hours a day.
For breakfast, the options included several items that are nice for a body that's just climbed out of the bath, including vegetables steamed on a bamboo steamer and boiled tofu. As the sun rose, the snow-white land had already taken on a bright appearance as the snow sparkled and glittered like glass. On a day with such fair weather, I decided to get in as much bathing as I could until the last second before check-out.
Just beside the bathhouse, enshrined within a wooden structure, I could catch glimpses through the snow of number five on the list of hot springs that bring life to Takayu Onsen. The natural spring water welling up at Takayu is gradually cooled in wooden boxes called a "yudoi" (meaning "hot water sluice") or "buntobako" (meaning "water-separating box"). From these locations, the water travels through pipes and pours out the taps at the baths into the tubs. On Tamagoyu's property, you can get a close look at hot spring source number 10 (see photo). No entry allowed beyond the barrier fence, though. The people of Takayu are proud of their free-flowing hot spring water, and you can see why here. Although nowhere else has fresh water constantly pouring into its baths like Takayu, it is a natural blessing that has been on offer for a very long time, with no human intervention. Thanks to this gift, no matter the season or weather, the "yumori," the people who maintain the baths, can apply their skills to constantly keep baths large and small at a proper temperature for bathers.
When the long rays of the winter sun in the morning pierce the steam leisurely wafting through the air, the bathhouse is a particularly soothing place to be. Taking in the snow-covered mountain terrain from Tensho-no-Yu, surrounded by the fresh, crisp air of the sky, will take your heart away. After also getting our fill at Tenkei-no-Yu and Seoto, my companion and I were in a perfect spiritual state of bathing bliss right up until just before our departure.In a related development, today is the day they remove the snow from the bathhouse. I was fascinated to learn how they take over a meter of snow from the roof. A few adults drape a long rope over the roof, then carefully pull it so as not to damage the thatching, but with tremendous effort. The rope thus pulls off the snow. When visitors come at this time, what they tend to remember is the inn staff at work more than the moving sight of snowy scenery.
Also, one neat fact about the main building is that it has a gallery of rare historical materials about Takayu. Tamagoyu is the only inn in Takayu with such a facility. If that sort of thing piques your interest, you should definitely go give it a look.
We took Prefectural Road No. 70 from the hot spring resort down to the foot of the mountain, turned left at the first light and then drove for about 10 minutes. On our return journey we stopped by a locally popular soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant, Kifukuchaya. I'd always wanted to come here, but this was the first time I actually could because they were always either sold out or taking a day off when I happened by before.
Inside, the restaurant has a cheery ambience complemented by the abundant warmth of the wooden interior. We quickly ordered a couple recommended dishes: the Ogon Soba ("Golden Soba": 1,300 yen, with tempura) and the Kamo Zarusoba (chilled soba and dipping sauce served on a strainer with duck: 1,550 yen). One thing that caught our eye was the fine transparent quality of the home-made soba with no "tsunagi" wheat-based flour added. It is made from unpolished soba from the Aizu region of western Fukushima Prefecture and deep well water drawn up from a depth of 50 meters below the property. The more you fill your mouth, the more intense the aroma. The noodles are also very chewy to give them a nice texture along with the fabulous flavor. Another popular offering is the tempura, which is made from brand-name vegetables such as true shiitake mushrooms from Ibaraki that are thick and crispy, and Senju green onions from Tokyo. Kifukuchaya adds an original twist by flavoring the tempura with cottonseed oil. Apparently, many regular customers come for the tempura. Another menu item that stands out is the Black Iberian Pig Meat Soba (1,000 yen). The name shows that when it comes to selecting ingredients, the restaurant's owner does not compromise.
When we hit the road again after leaving the restaurant, I was astonished at how little snow there was. It was like the thick snowfall only a little while earlier had been a dream. Speaking of, in the past few years, foreign tourists visiting Japan in the winter have been coming for this snow. It came as a surprise to me when I learned that Japan has several cities with a population of at least 300,000 and several meters of annual snowfall, and that our country has world-class snowy areas. Maybe it's no wonder that the Japanese have their own aesthetic sense when it comes to snow. One name our ancestors gave to this beautiful snow that stirred their sensitives was "zuika," which means "auspicious flower indicating a year of plenty." In this year that will raise the curtain on a new era, the zuika is in full bloom again this winter in Takayu, where we wish good fortune for Japan and celebrate this great land.