The correct way to onsen: ‘Touji’ 湯治

Think you’re a hot spring expert? Think again.

The therapeutic and restorative practice of ‘Touji’ (湯治) has been practiced by the Japanese for centuries. ‘Touji’ refers to the process of relieving exhaustion / healing wounds and illness through a long-term stay at a hot spring, bathing in the waters several times daily. Sounds pretty hard going, right? Traditionally a practice favored by post-battle samurai and post-harvest farmers, anyone who is looking for some hard-core restoration is welcome to partake in Touji – you just need to know where to go!

Staying overnight at a hot spring resort is usually reserved for special-occasions, is considered a bit of a luxurious indulgence and can typically set guests back a solid 10000 yen a night (with a full course dinner and breakfast included). As such, the idea of staying for more than one or two nights is (sadly) out of reach for many savvy travelers. However! Unknown to many international tourists, quite a few of the large, more traditional hot spring resorts have a separate ‘Touji’ wing, featuring much more basic, simple rooms and communal kitchen and dining/living spaces; kind of like hostel style accommodation but with the same luxurious access to the mineral-rich hot spring baths! These rooms are designed for those staying around three to seven nights, and will typically set guests back anywhere between 3000-8000 yen a night (depending on whether some meals are included etc.)

That’s right! If you’re willing to make your own bed and sacrifice a slightly more fancy ‘yukata’ and a couple of lavish meals, you can still enjoy the restorative benefits of staying at a hot spring for just 3000 yen a night!

Mind. blown.

Example of ‘Touji’ accommodation: simpler rooms, same gorgeous views and access to hot spring baths!

The Tohoku region (Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata and Fukushima) is a mecca for hot spring enthusiasts and the perfect place to take the plunge (literally) into the world of ‘Touji’.

We were lucky to be given the chance to experience a Touji and ‘health tourism’ based tour which took us to three of Tohoku’s best hot spring districts:

  • Kaminoyama Onsen (Yamagata Prefecture)
  • Hanamaki Onsen (Iwate Prefecture)
  • Sukayu Onsen (Aomori Prefecture)

Whilst the bathing and relaxing side of the trip was incredible, we also explored some great local cultural experiences and took advantage of the clean, fresh mountain air by getting active outdoors.

Here are some of the highlights from our trip including some great options for those interested in experiencing ‘Touji’ for themselves.


YAMAGATA: KAMINOYAMA ONSEN


Kaminoyama Onsen is a picturesque hot spring district located in southern Yamagata Prefecture. The town of Kaminoyama still retains its rich history with a small castle and samurai residences to be explored along with the surrounding nature (some ideas for exploring the town here)

However, we stayed focused on our mission to relax and headed straight for ‘Tsukioka Hotel’, where our first night of hot spring bliss awaited us.

Kaminoyama Onsen ‘Tsukioka Hotel: https://www.tsukioka.co.jp/

Our first bathing experience was certainly not a disappointment with both indoor and outdoor baths to be enjoyed. However, the health benefits were not limited to the hot springs! The hotel also offers guests a special ‘healthy’ menu as an alternative to the typically quite heavy course-dinners. The menu of our course meal was designed to both showcase the delicious local produce as well as cut-back on calories. In fact, the whole meal – from appetizers to mains and dessert – was no more than 700 calories! And no less satisfying.

Another benefit of staying at Kaminoyama is their local ‘Kurort’ program! For those not yet familiar, ‘Kurort’ is a German word usually referring to a ‘health resort’ or retreat area. A group of active locals have discovered the principles of Kurort and made it their mission to transform the entire town of Kaminoyama into a health retreat where visitors can make the most of not only the hot springs but the surrounding nature. Guests staying overnight at one of Kaminoyama Onsen’s hot spring resorts can sign up to participate in an early morning walk with a local guide.

Our wonderful local guide demonstrating some natural ways of stimulating all five senses

We spent a leisurely 90 minutes walking through the nearby hills to a look out point. One of the key concepts of ‘Kurort’ healthy walking, so we were told, is to maintain a consistent body temperature by not over-exerting yourself. This is one kind of exercise we were willing to get behind!

The beautiful view over Kaminoyama at the peak of our early morning walk

For more information about the Kurort community in Kaminoyama, visit their webpage:

クアオルト

We highly recommend it to compliment your rejuvenation through Touji relaxation!


IWATE: HANAMAKI ONSEN


Our next destination was the birthplace of famous poet and folktale writer, Miyazawa Kenji: Hanamaki Onsen in central Iwate Prefecture. On our way, we stopped by Ichinoseki City to enjoy some of its unique and tasty ‘mochi’ (rice-cake) cuisine, including ‘flying dumplings’…?

Located a short drive from Ichinoseki Station is Genbikei, a picturesque gorge famous for its beautiful Autumn leaves as well as its flying dumplings! Yep. No joke, they fly!

Across the gorge from the main lookout is a small tea shop that specialises in the Japanese sweet ‘dango’ (sweet dumplings made from mochi rice-cake). Stretching from the balcony window across the ravine is a zip-line pulley system with a basket that zooms along, carrying orders and dango between master and customer.

As if that isn’t unique enough, send a short message mentioning your nationality when you place your order and your dumplings will fly back across the gorge, accompanied by your national flag and anthem blaring through the speakers!

Just when we thought we’d reached peak-mochi, it was off to Sekinoichi Sake Brewery for delicious lunch of…more mochi!! This time, it came as a set of eight varieties (both savory and sweet) ranging from your typical red-bean paste topping to the slightly more unusual baby shrimp or natto (fermented soy-beans).

Mochi-mochi, Ichinoseki is calling!

With our stomachs full we rolled off to explore some of Hanamaki’s best hot spring resorts, the first being ‘Osawa Onsen’ – a 1200 year old sprawling complex of three different styles of lodging and six different bathing areas for guests to enjoy, including gender-separate and gender-mixed outdoor baths that look out over a pristine river.

The variety of accommodation at Osawa Onsen is incredible, with both high-end packages of modern Japanese-style rooms with private family baths to the very basic ‘Touji’ style rooms where nearly everything (including futons) is rented out.

Whichever style of accommodation you choose to stay in, all guests have access to the stunning hot spring baths with beautiful views.

For more details about visiting or staying at Osawa Onsen, visit the official website: https://www.oosawaonsen.com/

After a visit and quick dip in the bath, we had fallen in love with Osawa Onsen! But our final destination was actually a different resort not too far away called ‘Kouyoukan’. The highlight of our stay here was the live performance of ‘Shishiodori’ , a kind of folk dance featuring deer-like creatures portraying scenes from local folklore.

https://www.hanamakionsen.co.jp/koyokan/

See a live performance of Iwate’s ‘Shishi-Odori’ from the comfort of your hotel! Every evening local Shishi-Odori groups provide live entertainment for guests staying at Hotel ‘Koyokan’ in Hanamaki Onsen. Enjoy all the comforts of a beautiful hot spring resort as well as a local cultural experience!————————————Hotel Koyokan homepage: https://www.hanamakionsen.co.jp/koyokan/More about Shishi-odori: https://news.gogotohoku.jp/2017/11/16/oh-deer-discovering-shishi-odori/

Go Go Tohokuさんの投稿 2018年7月29日日曜日

Not only is Iwate famous for its varied folk performing arts, it is also the home of some unique folkcraft, such as ‘Nanbu-teki’ iron-casting.

After our stay at Kouyoukan we visited ‘Iwachu’ workshop in Morioka City. Time your visit on a weekday and enjoy watching the resident iron-casting geniuses at work in the workshop. It is fascinating to learn about the highly-detailed techniques behind what appear to be very simple designs. Along with the gorgeous tea-pots, there is a room full of both practical and ornamental pieces begging to be taken home as a souvenir!

Another original local culture of Iwate prefecture is ‘Wanko-soba’; a fast-paced eating challenge that will leave you more than satisfied. Instead of enjoying just one bowl of soba-noodles, a waitress will stand behind you, emptying mouthful-sized portions of noodles into your bowl as soon as you’ve finished the previous mouthful! The challenge is to eat as many mouthfuls as you can without exploding.

The record of our group was 115! How many can you handle?

Take home a cute certificate of your personal best record! 

There are many restaurants around Iwate Prefecture that offer the wanko-soba experience. This time we visited ‘Hatsukoma’ in Morioka City, just across the road from Morioka-Hachimangu Shrine (http://hatsukoma-group.com/honten/).


AOMORI: SUKAYU ONSEN


The third destination of our ‘Touji’ experience was the amazing Aomori prefecture! Tonight, we were told, we would be bathing in a centuries-old bath big enough to fit one thousand people!! But before we tackled that daunting mission, we had some local sight-seeing to enjoy.

Our first stop was the incredible Aomori Art Museum, with some fantastic exhibitions by both overseas and local artists. Our favourite was Nara Yoritomo’s ‘Aomori-ken’, a giant, somewhat sleepy-looking statue of a dog. Nara Yoshitomo is local to Hirosaki City in Aomori. There will be a brand new art museum featuring many of his quirky works opening in Hirosaki in 2020, just in time for the Tokyo Olympics!

Heading into Aomori City, it was time to get our festival on! Tohoku is home to some of Japan’s most lively and colourful summer festivals, including Aomori City’s ‘Nebuta Matsuri’.

Tohoku Summer Festival Guide

Sadly, the Nebuta Matsuri is only held over one week every year! Whilst it is an INCREDIBLE experience to be there for the actual event, if you can’t align your trip you still have the chance to experience the vibe of the festival inside the ‘Wa Rasse Nebuta Museum‘. See the incredible award-winning floats from the previous year’s festival, learn about how they are designed and put together, and even try-out your dance-moves or taiko-drumming skills at one of musical demonstrations.

Just across the road from Wa Rasse is the ‘A-Factory’, a newly established warehouse full of tasty Aomori treats – even an apple cider factory! It is the perfect place for a spot of shopping or to just sit with a coffee and some apple pie.

Apple cider tasting, anyone?

Full of delicious apple-goodness it was back on the bus and up into the mountains to our Touji destination for the evening ‘Sukayu Onsen’.

The atmosphere inside the resort was incredible – a truly authentic Japanese experience! The rooms themselves were very spacious and very traditional, but it was the baths that took our breath away! Sukayu Onsen is famous for its ‘Sennin-buro’ (literally ‘one thousand person bath) said to be large enough to match its name. We weren’t so convinced of the truth behind this, but the bath was still incredible. The mineral-rich water was almost milky white! The catch is that, for most of the day, the main bath is a mixed gender bath! So you do have to muster a certain amount of bravery before getting in. There are special modesty towel-dresses available for ladies to cover up, or if you are staying over night, they also offer a ‘ladies-only’ hour.

Sukayu Onsen homepage: https://www.sukayu.jp/

We spent the last day of Touji experience exploring the stunning nature of Oriase Gorge and Lake Towada in the Towada-Hachimantai National Park.

First up was a spot of canoeing in a two-man Canadian canoe! There was no way the weather was going to get in our way.

The views across the lake were so beautiful and mysterious, enhanced by the mountain mist and light rain. Our friendly guides from Towadako Guidehouse 櫂 (‘Kai’) made our trip memorable, guiding us around tiny islands and secluded bays. Towadako Guidehouse ‘Kai’ offer a range of awesome canoeing and nature walk tours – even in winter! Pair with a stay at Sukayu Onsen and make the most of your visit to Lake Towada: http://tgkai.jp/

Last but certainly not least was an afternoon of exploration at Oriase Gorge – easily one of the most beautiful natural areas in the entire Tohoku region. Famous especially for its vibrant leaves in Autumn, the green of summer also makes for a stunning sight. There is a 14km trail that runs along the mountain stream past rapids and scenic waterfalls, but this time we opted to take a ‘moss walk’ to learn a little more about the unique nature of the area as we walked along.

As you wander through the forest that lines both sides of the stream you will notice that much of the vegetation is actually growing out of rocks! The unique environment created after a huge volcanic blast several hundred years ago created the perfect conditions for various kinds of moss to flourish, which eventually gave birth to the lush forest that we can enjoy today.

Our friendly guide stopped along the way to give us a glimpse into this fascinating miniature world!

Feeling incredibly refreshed, it was back to reality for us! Our ‘Touji’ experience was certainly mind-opening – who knew that we had being doing onsen wrong all this time?

If you are visiting the Tohoku area we highly recommend you to look into joining a Touji-based ‘health tourism’ tour! It is the perfect combination of relaxation and local cultural experience.

Watch this space for some great tour packages coming soon! http://www.hankyu-travel.com/kokunai/toji/tohoku/

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