Monday, April 27, 2015

Japanese Hitou - the concept of secluded hot spring inns




As the shuttle van winding up the narrow road to Tsurunoyu (鶴の湯), where we would be staying on our second night in Nyuto Onsen-kyo in Akita Prefecture, we felt like riding on a gigantic bobsled. With us sitting uneasily at the back seats, the driver maneuvered the sudden twists and turns on an unpaved, unmarked walkway a few kilometers off the major thoroughfare and completely surrounded by snow as high as the van itself as the road was being plowed and snow piled to the side earlier in the morning. I wouldn't imagine a shuttle van driver would need such driving skills.


video

Diehard onsen enthusiasts would rightly point out Tsurunoyu is not only just an onsen ryokan, but a hitou (秘湯), which literally meant "Secluded Hot Spring". While an onsen ryokan is defined as any place with natural hot spring facilities, hitou added to it a degree of hiddeness, a virtue which has been treasured and appreciated by local travelers for centuries. All of the hitou inns are small and located far off the beaten path, enabling visitors to immense in true natural beauty in an intimate setting for physical and spiritual cleansing through hot spring bath.

While western resorts were rated according to the level of comfort and luxurious facilities and personalized services, hitou's were rated by its remoteness, history and size - the farther, the older, the smaller, the better. In the 70s, a number of hitou inns joined together to form the Japan Association of Secluded Hot Spring Inns and a catalogue was published annually with detailed information and rating for each of the member hitou inns, which identified themselves with a white lantern hanging outside the front doors. To date, membership has grown to 185 inns spanning across various parts in Japan and the catalogue was considered the bible for those seeking hitou excursions.

Tsurunoyu was the third hitou we have visited - after our stays in Kyushu's Uchinomaki and Shikoku's Iya Valley a few years ago - and possibly the oldest we have been to. Tsurunoyu received its first guest in 1650, and the current complex, called Honjin (本陣), was built 100 years ago. I didn't know what it was like back then nor how did people travel so far deep in the mountain without car and train, but it's almost as if things remained largely intact back in the old days. The building was built with dark woods with only bare necessities inside each of the 15 guest rooms - most don't even have electricity, relying on oil lamps and charcoal hearth both for heating and cooking.



This time we didn't stay at Honjin but at a newer building about one kilometer away. The building, called Yamanoyado Bakken (山の宿 別館) or Mountain Lodge Annex, was built in the same traditional style as the original lodge but with much modern facilities - at least there were electricity, central heat and private bathrooms in each of the 9 Japanese style guest rooms. That said, I would have loved to stay in the older complex if they didn't only allow booking by phone and we don't speak any Japanese. (whilst Yamanoyado at least has an online booking system available).


Open-air Onsen at Yamanoyado Bakken
Yamanoyado Bakken has its own onsen facilities inside the premise - 2 small indoor baths plus a private outdoor bath with hot spring water drawn from the same source as the main lodge, and guests at Yamanoyado Bakken also have access to the original onsens at Honjin via a shuttle van which goes back and forth regularly throughout the day. Once we settled everything in our room, we hopped on to the van for another "bobsled" ride to Honjin.


I have seen many pictures of the historical buildings and the hot spring baths before we came, but I think one need to be here physically to have a true feeling of its charm, something I realized immediately as the van pulled up at the entrance gate. Many have described the place as rustic - to me it's almost like a nomadic tavern taken from those Chinese kung-fu movie set. The tall wooden pillars marked the entrance, followed by rows of houses on both side, all built with dark wood - and inside the house were the guest room and the front desk.


There are 2 rotenburo, or open-air baths, within the complex, the bigger one of mixed gender, and a smaller one for women only. Both were located at the foot of the mountain with a river running by their sides, sheltered slightly by the branches which worked as a screen from the passers-by. The bath was of decent size - which could easily fit dozens and was not even half full by the time I took a dip - and the water was comfortable - sufficiently hot but not broiling. I could tell the water source was just close-by - some rocks underneath the bath were hot from the geothermal heat.

For those who are still uncomfortable of the thought of "bare it all" in front of complete strangers in the open-air bath, in reality the water was completely opaque because of the mineral sediments, so I could hardly see myself under the water let alone anyone else. Plus everyone basically just mind their own business, sitting quietly on the side, indulging oneself in the midst of nature beauty, immersing in the soothing hot spring said to have special healing power. With such serenity and an environment that resembles the yester-years, this is as far as we could go in terms of escaping from our day-to-day urban life totally, and that escape feeling is probably what drew people to a hitou in the first place.

After spending a couple hours at Honjin enjoying our time of "doing nothing" - strolling leisurely on the ground without a purpose, taking pictures of the buildings and the surroundings, dipping in the various baths a few times - it's almost dinner time when the van took us back to Yamanoyado Bakken. The meal was served inside the dining hall around the irori, the traditional sunken hearth fueled by burning charcoal.


Hitou Beer - available only in hitou inns

The style of the dishes might be rustic, with many courses prepared on top of the irori, but no details were overlooked with all ingredients coming from local sources; some foraged, some house-grown. We began with the trio of seasonal sansai, or mountain vegetables, served as cold appetizer. The proprietor of the ryokan was known to go up to the mountains and forests to pick up mushrooms and vegetables to serve to their guests every day. More vegetables were then served on the grill, along with pieces of Hachimantai pork, a local breed from Iwate Prefecture next to Akita. Next came the seafood - iwana was seasoned with sancho, then slow-grilled on a stick right in the irori; thick slices of benimasu were marinated with kelp, seasoned with yuzu zest and served as sashimi.

The signature dish of Tsurunoyu is the Yama-imo Nabe - in which local mountain yam was cooked in a casserole with various mushrooms, burdock, green onions, herbs and miso. The casserole pot was then hooked above the irori to keep warm. We finished our meal with a bowl of house-made udon and pickles, including iburi-gakko, or smoked radish pickle, as it was traditionally prepared in Akita. It has a good crunchy texture and rich, smokey flavor.



Tazawako JR Station - on the day of our departure
The snow that has been falling non-stop for the entire time while we were in the area, finally stopped on the third day just as we were leaving. With one last dip in the private hot spring bath in the morning, and another homey breakfast, we said goodbye to Nyuto Onsen-kyo and Tohoku and made our move to our next stop Tokyo, back to the familiar world of skyscrapers, busy streets and the fast pace of life.

Web:
Tsurunoyu Onsen: www.tsurunoyu.com
Japan Association of Secluded Hot Spring Inns: www.hitou.or.jp/en/

(Part of the Japan Rail Trip 2015 Series - a journey through the Tohoku region by rail in Spring 2015)


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