Sugatani Onsen

Sugatani Onsen is a lovely secluded onsen located on the north eastern shore of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, approximately 90 minutes by train from Kyoto.  My Japanese colleagues had recommended it to me following my business trip to Shiga prefecture so I was keen to check it out! As it turned out, I had a truly memorable trip especially after discovering Hikone Castle surrounded by cherry blossoms en route to Sugatani Onsen.

Hikone Castle

To get to Hikone Castle, I took the Biwako line from Kyoto to Hikone station and from there it was another 15 minutes walk. Reading up on my history, I learned that Hikone Castle was completed in 1622 after 20 years of construction. It is one of only five castles in Japan listed as a national treasure and one of only twelve original castles still standing in Japan. Furthermore, it is regarded as the most significant historical building in Shiga Prefecture. No doubt this rich history explained the crowds upon my arrival! For a split second I considered doing quick u-turn back to the station, but upon seeing a cloud of pink cherry blossoms at the entrance and around the moat, I decided that the allure of the cherry blossoms might just compensate for the crowds!

It turned out to be a very good decision as soon the full view of the castle came into sight.

After patiently following the crowds on the paths leading up to the castle, I entered the building and climbed to the top to see the surrounding views. It was extremely crowded within the castle and somewhat challenging on the internal climb up very steep steps, but the view  from the top floor was well and truly worth it. There was also lots to learn about the history and intricacies of the architecture, however I found it too crowded to fully stop and appreciate them on the day of my visit.

Having safely navigated my way out of the castle, I took a long walk through the extensive grounds surrounding the castle. I soon came across Genkyuen, a beautiful Japanese landscape garden with spectacular views looking back toward the castle. Genkyuen was built in 1677 by the local lord as a place to entertain his family and guests. There are lovely walking paths around the lake and a beautiful tea house to relax and enjoy some green tea. Although it was a very overcast day, I was still glad to capture some of the beauty of Genkyuen in the picture below.

Following Genkyuen, I took a leisurely boat ride along the moat surrounding the castle. It was truly as if I was in fairy land with the pink petal carpet on the surface of the water and the  blossom laden branches bowing over the walls of the castle surrounds.

As if this was not a big enough feast for my senses, I saw an elegant white swan gracefully floating along the moat as I got off the boat. Gorgeous!

To finish off my amazing visit to Hikone Castle, I stopped and reminisced over a bowl of hot udon at a traditional little Japanese restaurant just opposite the castle. I couldn’t believe how special my day had been so far and I had not even got to my onsen yet!

Off to Sugatani Onsen

Warm and content, I made my way back to Hikone station to continue my journey on the Biwako line to Maibara where I transferred to the Hokuriku line to get to Kawake station. Although it was only a further 22 minutes from Hikone, I felt as if all of a sudden I was “in the sticks”! At this stage my plan was just to visit Sugatani Onsen as a day visitor, but this was soon to change as I had not counted on the fact that there was no taxi or bus services from the station.

I must have looked a forlorn figure, as I stood there thinking about what to do next. Out of the blue however, I was greeted by a wonderful “Ojii chan” (grandfather) who worked at the station. As we chatted, he asked where I was going, and he confirmed my fears that there was no public transport around that time so he very kindly offered to drive me to Sugatani Onsen.  Initially I was a little hesitant in getting into a vehicle with a stranger, and I certainly didn’t want to impose, but I just went with it. Before I knew it my “Ojii chan” ended up driving me around the country side giving me a tour of the local area on my way to the onsen!

Upon arriving at Sugatani Onsen I was lucky enough to get a room for the night. Unfortunately though, I was told that it was too late to order a meal for the evening, so my beautiful “Ojii chan” kindly drove me to a local produce market to buy a bento box featuring the famous local Omi beef. We drove back to the ryokan and I thanked my new friend for his incredible kindness.

As I walked in the door, I noted my name had been put up on a frame in the front foyer to welcome me as a staying guest.  I smiled seeing my name written vertically in English, but was chuffed regardless! It was great to finally head up to my room and rest before my bath.

Bath time

There is an indoor and outdoor bath at Sugatani Onsen. The facilities seemed a little old, but the waters are high quality and were the first in Shiga prefecture to be certified as being 100% natural from the ground source. The waters are classified as “ferrous hydroxide” and are clear when they come out of the ground but change to a reddish brown colour as they come in contact with air. As for the healing qualities the water is said to be good for a range of conditions including neuralgia, muscle soreness, cold extremities, gastrointestinal conditions and recovery from illness and fatigue. For me, I chose to spend most of my time soaking in the outdoor bath and melting away my tiredness from the day!

Morning walk

In the morning, I headed off on a walk to explore the surrounding country side and came across a local map that highlighted the history of the area. I discovered that Sugatani Onsen is located close to the ruins of the Odani Castle. Oichi no Kata (sister of the legendary warlord of Nobunaga) and various military commanders frequently bathed in the waters of Sugatani Onsen as they were renowned for their healing powers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to visit the ruins, but I loved walking through the rolling hills and peaceful surrounding country side enjoying the mountain cherry blossoms and quaint rural homes before coming back to the ryokan for one final bath.

It had been a beautiful couple of days. As I headed to the station in the ryokan shuttle there was one last surprise. The “Ojii chan” had found out what time I checked out and was waiting at the station to say good bye to me! I will never forget his wonderful hospitality and the beautiful memories of my trip to Sugatani Onsen.

Getting there

To get to Hikone Castle from Kyoto, take the Biwako Line Special Rapid to Hikone (48 minutes). Hikone castle is a 15 minute walk from the station. To get to Sugatani Onsen, continue along the Biwako line from Hikone to Maibara (5 minutes) and transfer to the Hokuriku Line to Kawake station (17 minutes). A free shuttle bus is available upon request from Kawake station to Sugatani Onsen (7 minutes).

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