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Japan Travel:
Snowed in

When the air turns bitter and powder blankets the hills, few things feel better than a long soak in warm, restorative waters. Peter Weld dips into two of Gunma's hidden treasures.

Anyone who has been in Japan for more than, say, 45 minutes, knows about the nation's overwhelming passion for onsen. Many residents can be considered connoisseurs, visiting as many springs as possible and then comparing them, waxing lyrical about the delights of this place or that, raving about their latest discoveries and cautiously confiding about the hidden treasures they've unearthed.

But then there are people like me who don't have enough vacation time for leisurely comparisons—we want to maximize the time spent relaxing while minimizing the trials and errors. We want the best onsen, and we want them now.

One of four outdoor pools at Takaragawa

Of course, opinions differ on which are the best, but sifting through a variety of sources, I found two names that seemed to pop up more than the others: Hoshi and Takaragawa, both in Gunma Prefecture. In fact, the people who put together sumo-style rankings of onsen always seem to put one of the two in the East's yokozuna slot.
Heeding their advice, I boarded the shinkansen and set out for my own exercise in relaxation. Less than 90 minutes from Tokyo, I stepped out at Jomokogen station. There was almost no snow on the ground and the temperature hovered in the single digits. No worse than Tokyo, I figured. A one-hour bus ride later, I emerged in a different world: deep in the hills, at an elevation of about 800 meters, and surrounded by snow, snow and more snow.

Bathing beauty
I was at the entrance to Choshukan, the one and only place to stay at the onsen known as Hoshi. Originally constructed in the 1870s, the wooden structures have been rebuilt and expanded several times yet retain the charm of a bygone age. I was escorted to my room—more like a suite, actually, with two large tatami rooms, a foyer, and an attached toilet—and immediately made my way to the baths.

Bells, Buddha and prayers adorn Takaragawa's Zen temple

Choshukan has four distinct bathing sections, including a newly built 'rotenburo', or outdoor pool, but its most famous is an old wooden hall consisting of four separate tubs. The 43¡C water, which bubbles up naturally through the pebbles on the bottom of each tub, contains calcium and magnesium sulfate and is said to be effective in treating burns, pimples, hiccups, hysteria, nervous disorders and hardening of the arteries.
It must work, too, because I didn't see any hysterical or nervous people there. In fact, everyone looked supremely placid, some with their heads resting comfortably on logs that floated on the surface of each tub. At certain times of the day, the hall is reserved for men and at other times for women, but for much of the day it's open for 'konyoku', or mixed bathing (shy females can use one of the other baths, which is women-only all the time).

In summer, visitors can hike in the surrounding mountains, but in winter, there's virtually nothing to do but unwind in the warm water, return to the room for a sumptuous meal, then go back for another soak. Due to its high ceilings, the old indoor bath has excellent acoustics, and more than a few bathers are inspired to sing praises of the place quite literally.

Sitting by a smoky fire later that evening, I listened to the fifth-generation owner, Mr Okamura, describe the area's history. Although it might seem to be in the middle of nowhere, he said, Hoshi was once a popular stop on the Mikunikaido, the trail through the mountains. Okamura explained that travelers slogging over the nearby Mikuni Pass, the point at which Gunma, Nagano and Niigata prefectures come together, often welcomed the chance for a hot bath.
Before retiring to my room, I asked him if he knew the next day's forecast. "No," he answered. "But that's okay because it's almost always wrong." He said that down on the plains, near Maebashi, the weather does what it's supposed to, but up in the hills it does what it wants to do.
And what it wants to do most of the time in February is snow. This fact became even clearer at Takaragawa Onsen, my next stop, either because most of Takaragawa's baths are outdoors or because the area simply gets more snow. Or both.

Winding down in Choshukan's 43°C waters

Zen and the art of onsen
Like Hoshi, Takaragawa sits way up in the hills, at the dead end of a road. Anyone who doesn't know it's there will go right past it (unlike Hoshi, even in the distant past Takaragawa was never on a well-trodden path). Few facts are known about the history of the hot spring, but a local folk tale attributes its discovery to a man who spotted a white heron flying away from a pool and went to investigate.

Ohsenkaku, the lone ryokan at Takaragawa, was first built more than a century ago but has recently been renovated. It's famous for its traditional thatched roofs, but when I was there most of them were buried under so much white stuff that they couldn't be fully appreciated.
After reading in a guidebook that the owner of the ryokan had a special fondness for bears, going so far as to build a pool especially for them to bathe in, I eagerly inquired about their whereabouts on my arrival.

The desk clerk smiled. "That must have been a very old guidebook. The prefectural health authorities forced us to close the bear pool in the late '80s," she said. A half dozen bears still live at Ohsenkaku, but they are confined to cages and the closest thing they get to a bath is being sprayed through the bars with a hose.
One of Takaragawa's other interesting features is a small Zen temple, not far above the pools. Visitors can refresh their minds with a bit of silent meditation before or after refreshing their bodies in the baths. They accomplish this by sitting in the traditional posture—bolt upright, with legs tucked under—and staring at the blank wall, silently pondering one of life's eternal mysteries, such as "Why do I have to go home tomorrow and start working again on Monday?"

Meditation would have to wait; the baths were calling me. The four outdoor pools at Takaragawa Onsen, ranging in size from about 80 square meters to over 300 square meters, are widely regarded as the best in the entire country. Most popular in the fall, when the area's foliage turns three dozen glorious shades of orange, they still draw crowds in the chilly and foliage-free winter.
Takaragawa may be the first onsen in the country to build a women-only outdoor pool, which is discreetly hidden behind a fence, but its other three baths are open 24 hours a day for both genders. The water, which is rather alkaline, is effective in treating stiff joints and skin irritation. It's also said to be good for your stomach if you drink it. There's even one bath reputed to help women (and men?) conceive.

The Entrance to Choshukan

Not wishing to bring on a sudden pregnancy, I chose another pool, eased myself into the hot water, and began to watch the snowflakes fall noiselessly. While it's not often easy to escape all traces of the modern world, there was almost nothing to remind me that I was in the 21st century. I could just as easily have been that long-ago wanderer who followed a white heron and discovered my own private hot spring.

My reverie was interrupted when the roof covering the far end of the pool abruptly shed its entire burden of snow. Happily, nobody was buried in the resulting avalanche, and after a few seconds of excitement, we all got back to the business at hand: relaxing.

Ahhhhhhhh. . .

Getting there
The Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Jomokogen Station takes roughly 75 min. Take the bus to Sarugakyo and transfer to a mini-bus to get to Hoshi. The two bus rides combined take about an hour. The Takaragawa Onsen bus goes straight to the ryokan from Jomokogen and takes about an hour. You can also take the bus for Yunogoya and get off at Takaragawa Onsen Iriguchi, where a mini-bus will pick you up and drive you the last couple of kilometers.

Where to stay
Choshukan at Hoshi Onsen: 650 Nagai, Niiharumura, Tone-gun, Gunma-ken. Tel: 0278-66-0005, fax: 0278-66-0003. (Japanese only)
Ohsenkaku at Takaragawa Onsen: 1899 Fujiwara, Minakami-machi, Tone-gun, Gunma-ken. Tel: 0278-75-2611, fax: 0278-75-2038. (Japanese only)

Travel and regional information for Gunma Prefecture can be found at or

Photos: Peter Weld

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