Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Snow and Hot Spring in Akita

Enjoy a relaxing outdoor hot spring bath/onsen whilst watching snow flurries slowly falling down has always been something we would love to do one day, but then that opportunity just came totally unexpected as we continued our journey through part of the Tohoku region of Japan.

When we confirmed our itinerary, we always knew we only got an outside chance of seeing even any snow on the ground. It's already past mid-spring then, plus the weather has been much warmer than usual so far this year. In fact, a few friends of ours came to the nearby region a couple months ago wanting a snowy onsen holiday, only to come home slightly disappointed afterwards because there was hardly any snow. Even as we looked at the weather forecast just before our departure, it only indicated a few drizzles with a slight possibility of snow in these few days.

Morioka JR Station - still not a lot of snow as you see
Nyuto Onsen-kyo - view from our room. Look at those snow!
So you could imagine how delighted we were when we opened the window in our hotel room in Morioka in the morning, only to see a thin layer of snow covering the roads, the trees and the buildings outside, just as we were to pack up and depart for our next onsen stop! What started as a few snowflakes in the afternoon the day before has developed into a full-blown snowstorm overnight covering the entire Tohoku region.

With the snow still falling with no indication to stop at any moment, and a quick journey on the shinkansen bullet train plus another 45 minutes bus ride later, we have reached our next destination of Nyuto Onsen-kyo (乳頭温泉郷), a well-known "secluded onsen villages" in the mountainous region of Akita Prefecture. It's named after Mount Nyuto, meaning milky top in reference to the snow present all year long, as part of the Tazawako Kogen (田沢湖高原) plateau and a national park. The village is considered secluded both because of its remote location and the cozy surroundings. Within this vast "village", there were only eight ryokans, or small inns, and all except one has only a handful of rooms available for visitors. This time, we decided to stay a little bit longer here, staying in 2 different ryokans over 3 days, so we could spend some quality time in the countryside enjoying the many hot spring baths.

On the first day we stayed in a ryokan called Taenoyu (妙乃湯), which was probably one of the most accessible and picturesque among the eight. It's right by the bus stop and as we got off the bus with our suitcases, they were already expecting us at the door since we emailed them about our estimated arrival time. They took our luggage inside and started preparing our room, while we were led to the traditional dining room for a cup of hot tea and snacks, overlooking the river next to the inn with the snow still flying across the sky. Our room - located on the upper floor - didn't have much of a view,  but since all we could see was just snow outside it didn't really matter. At least it's spacious and well-equipped.

Onsen directory inside the building
Men and Women sections
Apart from being convenient and beautiful, Taenoyu is also probably the one with most established onsen facilities. There were all together seven different hot spring baths inside this 17-room property - four of which were segregated by gender while 2 open-air baths were mixed. The men and women section was swapped each night so guests could enjoy all four of them during their stay. The last one was a private open-air bath, offering a similar view as the communal ones, and was free for the exclusive use of the overnight guests. You only need to book your timeslot at the time you check in.

Iwa-buro - the indoor bath lined with rocks. Compact but offered a nice view outside
View from the private open-air bath - you can see the giant waterfall in the background
My favorite among them was the communal open-air bath right by the river like an infinity pool, overlooking the waterfall right behind. Taenoyu is one of the few ryokans that allowed woman to drape in towel inside mixed baths for those who prefer more modesty. We were told that policy, plus the women-only hour available each evening for the outdoor onsen, made this a popular choice among women visitors.

The elegantly-presented dinner menu
Inaniwa Udon is perhaps the most famous Akita food to the rest of the world
We had our dinner at the same room we had tea earlier, and the meal was an elaborate affair served kaiseki style featuring local dishes using local ingredients. Akita Prefecture is one of the major rice producing region in Japan, so a few dishes were prepared with rice products, beginning with a small bowl of hot Inaniwa Udon, the flat rice noodles in soup famous in the region.

Kiritampo Nabe - an Akita specialty dish
The sake bottle was chilled using the snow taken from outside - there's no lack of supply of those!
Kiritampo Nabe was another well-known Akita dish, usually served in colder seasons. Cooked rice was pounded, rolled around a chopstick or skewer, then slowly toasted to become Kiritampo. It was then served in a casserole (Nabe) along with chicken broth (made with the indigenous chicken breed of hinai-jidori, mushrooms and seasonal mountain vegetables. The sake we had with our meal was also made by a local brewery in Akita, specifically bottled for the ryokan.

The live iwana fish was shown to us before it's grilled - poor fish! (but it was delicious)
Grilled Iwana
Kinoko-jiro served from a big pot heated on top of the irori
The fish served at the dinner came from Lake Tazawa nearby, which is the largest lake in Japan in terms of depth. Benimasu, or red trout, was served first as oshizushi (or pressed sushi) then in sashimi slices, while Iwana (rock char) was made into sashimi and also grilled on the whole. We ended our meal with their signature kinoko-jiro, or mushroom broth, prepared at the irori right behind us, rice with housemade pickles and then sakura moshi with strawberries as dessert.

Breakfast is always my favorite part of any onsen holiday!
The breakfast next morning was prepared in the western-style saloon just right downstairs from our room. It was equally sumptuous with overnight-cured iwana fish and salmon fillet cooked on a table-top grill, baked eggs and hams, natto (fermented soybeans), seaweed soup, and of course, a bowl of Akita rice.


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

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