An onsen nestled in the mountains outside Sendai will transform you to another world
Winter is truly upon us. Skiers and snowboarders will have their own plans for adventure and athleticism. But what about the rest of us, who love to watch the snow but just don’t want to be outside freezing in it all day? Enter the quintessential Japanese experience: the onsen.
Luckily in snow country, as the northeast Tohoku region is affectionately called, bathhouses that rely on natural hot springs are as numerous as the days when the white stuff comes pouring down. While the coastal cities in the region are spared heavy snowfall, the interior is an entirely different story. Travel from a relatively warm and sunny Sendai westward through the mountains and pass through a genuine winter wonderland.
If you’re feeling energetic, take the Senzan JR train all the way to Yamadera (one hour) in the morning and climb the 1,000-step staircase to the top. Make sure to catch your breath as you wonder at the stunning view of the snowy landscape in panorama.
Take the train headed back to Sendai and get off at the first stop, Sakunami. Board the cheerful yellow bus from the Ichi-no-bo resort that is waiting in front of the station; you will arrive in less than five minutes. (If you skip Yamadera, you can go directly to Sakunami from Sendai, it will take 40 minutes). Staying over night at Ichi-no-bo is pricey, but the onsen is open for day users from 10 am to 7 pm on weekdays and 3 pm on weekends (arrive early, the number of day users is restricted).
Pick up your slippers and robe and head for the water! Three large indoor onsen billow out copious amounts of steam that fog up the huge windows just enough to create a mystical atmosphere but not enough to block the view of the snow-covered pines outside.
But it is the outdoor baths that will have you wondering if you stepped in to a romance movie. The biggest is a set of four pools; one is cobblestone lined and deep enough to stand in. A “tent” made of straw and bamboo shields some areas while others are fully exposed, making it possible to literally have snow falling on your head while warm and snug in the tub. Lean back and look up at the mountains as the nearby river bubbles away. A steam sauna and smaller baths are also on offer. All of it is connected by elegant glassed in corridors that are toasty and warm, heated by the natural spring water.
At noon the baths are closed for thirty minutes to swap the men’s and women’s sections. Have your lunch (in your bathrobe!) at one of the fine restaurants in the facility. On the first floor, enjoy complimentary drinks and ice cream while reclining in a massage chair or taking in a chess game. Head back to the baths for round two of rejuvenation.
Sakunami station is the midpoint between Yamagata and Sendai. Travellers from Yamagata should also certainly visit Ichi-no-bo.
Weekdays: 1,300 Yen
Weekends: 1,800 Yen
Website (Japanese): http://www.ichinobo.com/sakunami/dayspa/