It was with a great sense of excitement that I boarded the Shinkansen bound for Morioka to begin a new onsen adventure in Iwate prefecture located in the northern Tohoku region of Japan. I was lucky to be traveling with family and we were really looking forward to hiring a car from Morioka and “going bush” to explore the remote areas of the region over a period of 3 days. We hadn’t made any accommodation bookings, but after calling into the Tourist Information Centre in Morioka station we were thrilled to be introduced to Kyounso, an onsen ryokan in the Hachimantai area. Luckily for us, there was a room available.
We were soon on our way in the rental car, with our reliable “navi” (navigation system) guiding us. Although there was no snow in Morioka as we left, we soon found ourselves plunged into a winter wonderland of spectacular scenery as we headed up into the Hachimantai area in the northwest region of Iwate prefecture. Along the way, our navi was a little less reliable as it took us up a mountain road that is closed during the winter months! Lesson learned – make sure you check out local road information if you are driving. With a bit of reassurance from the locals and a tweak to the navi we were soon back on track and deep into the Towada – Hachimantai Park. In heavy snow, we slowly wound our way up 1400 metres to Matsukawa Onsen where we found Kyounso.
Kyounso – Hitou
Kyounso was a very special find. It is a member of “Hitou”, the Japan Assocation of Secluded Hot Spring Inns. Kyounso certainly epitomized the philosophy of the association as an inn that is in a secluded area surrounded by nature’s beauty. Hitou’s motto focuses on “Soothing the heart of the traveler – warm baths and warm people”. How beautuful – I was in heaven!
We were welcomed warmly by the hosts, who kindly wiped the snow off our cases, and showed us to our room. The room was very cozy and warm and we were told that it often gets hot. There were no controls however, so the advice to control the room temperature was to open the window! I found out later that the ryokan heats the rooms by using the steam from the hot spring source. This was not surprising as the first geothermal electric power station in Japan was located just up the road.
Without further adieu, it was time to head to the bath to unwind and relax. The hot spring water was hydrogen sulphide which is a very milky colored water. We were surprised to learn from our hosts that underground the water is clear, but when it comes in contact with the air it changes to the milky colour. The temperature of the water as it comes out of the ground can be up to 70 degrees celcius, so we had also been told to run cold water into the bath to adjust the temperature.
There were no individual showers and taps to wash down prior to the bath, but rather there was a “trough” from which you could scoop water to wash down.
Due to the temperature of the water, there was steam everywhere, and you needed to take care when entering the water as you couldn’t see steps beneath the milky water. Once in though, it was heavenly, but indeed very hot, so I preferred heading outdoors to the stunning rotenburo in the snow!
As I stepped outside, the massive contrast to the senses hit me. From the hot steamy interior to the crisp, cool mountain air and icy snow under my feet, all of a sudden my eyes were feasting on a stunning natural landscape covered with snow. I felt incredibly alive as I sunk into the outdoor bath. The temperature was just right as the water had naturally cooled in the outdoor air.
After a gorgeous, long soak, I headed back to the room in my yukata to rest before dinner. The wonderful thing about staying in an onsen ryokan is you can relax in private after the bath rather than being in a large communal relaxation area at the day spas. The hot water does take a lot out of you, and it is really nice just to lie down and feel the tingling sensations as the body responds to benefits of the mineral rich hotspring water
Dinner was served in our room, and it was a feast of local mountain vegetables and seafood. The picture below shows the Kaiseki dinner with all of the courses.
Another traditional touch of hospitality is the handwritten name of the guest staying in the room.
Prior to bed, I headed off to the bath again to enjoy the outdoor bath in the moonlight with snow gently falling around me. I slept very well…..
Put the kettle on!
The next morning, following yet another bath (of course!), we headed to the communal dining area where breakfast was served. In the foyer area which we passed through on the way, there was a lovely traditional Japanese irori (hearth) with the kettle hanging from above, heating over the coals. What a beautiful way to sit and relax over a cuppa.
Breakfast was a mix of Japanese style with rice, pickles, vegetables, and a bit of a western twist with some ham and eggs. The ham and eggs were cooked At the table on your own little gas burner, and were baked with the lid on.
As we left the dining area, we looked outside to see that our hosts were kindly shoveling the snow off our cars. There had been quite a bit of snow overnight, so we were very glad to have this service and wonderful hospitality.
Our stay at Kyounso had been truly memorable, and the fairy tale onsen adventure continued as we bid farewell and headed through more spectacular winter landscape on our way to neighbouring Akita Prefecture.
From Tokyo, take the Shinkansen to Morioka (2.5 hours). From Morioka station take the bus bound for Matsukawa Onsen and get off at Matsuka Onsen. (1 hour and 50 minutes). Be sure to check the bus times as they are limited to 2-3 services per day. Alternatively, it is approximately 1 hour by car.