Monday, November 21, 2011

Tsurunoyu Onsen

When one envisions the quintessential winter scene in the snow-covered mountains of Japan, it might also likely involve soaking in an onsen (hot spring) watching the snow falling quietly around you.  We had dreamed of  enjoying this very experience and so we sought the picture-perfect onsen for our trip to Akita in late January/early February.

While researching the subject using an onsen guide (convenient!), Hiroko was taken with the milky white water of the well-known Tsurunoyu Onsen.  The resort's ryokan (inn) had several rooms with a cooking hearth where your meal is cooked over glowing coals.  Tsurunoyu is one of the country's most famous onsen and therefore a very difficult reservation to secure. Hiroko actually called the onsen to make our reservation in the Spring of 2010!  Since we were going all the way to Akita, we wanted to stay in one of the more rustic rooms to enjoy the whole cooking-in-your-room experience.  Fortunately for us, Hiroko was able to reserve one of these rooms.

When we arrived at the ryokan, it was so dark that we couldn't really see much of our surroundings.  All we knew was that it was very cold and that we were in a place where there was more snow than we'd ever seen. 

The ryokan was old and rustic and known to be originally opened to the public during the Genroku period (1688-1704).  The roof of the main building is still made from straw and is replaced every 6 years!

The main attraction of the resort is milky water onsen.  After dinner in the room by the sunken hearth, we headed to a konyoku (coed) outdoor bath.  After you take off your clothes, you can wash and clean yourself in an adjacent indoor bath, then go outside to walk the path to the main bath.  When we were in onsen, it was snowing and cold.  The water was rather lukewarm, and we were getting too cold to be in the water.  We were joined by a number of other bathers but it was dark and with the rising steam we couldn't see much of them.  The water was very milky and soft, and it was a perfect setting to relax.

Next morning before the breakfast, we decided to soak more in onsen. This time there was no one else quiet...with crisp air, and no snow, it was a relaxing morning bath.  

We explored the grounds of the ryokan after the breakfast since we hadn't been able to see much of anything the previous evening when we arrived.  The snow created an "authentic snow country vista" that was both beautiful and serene.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Visiting Akita Breweries

Throughout our time in Akita we were told by locals that there had been more snow this winter than any since 1973!  All of prefectures on the Sea of Japan side of  Tohoku were being bombarded with continuous heavy snow.  The winter had been so severe that during our time there, even the usually steady JR trains had stopped running due to the wind and snow.  The best and most reliable means of transportation was by bus or automobile.

We were lucky to have brewers generously offer to drive us to their breweries.  It was an Akita brewery relay of sorts.  Saiya Shuzo's Saito-san picked us at our hotel in Akita city.  He drove us from there along a coastal road from which we were able to view the beautiful and dramatic Sea of Japan in its turbulent winter fury, to Yuri Honjo, where we visited his brewery.

He then dropped us off at Asamai Shuzo, makers of Ama No To brand sake.  There, after showing us his brewery, the famous toji treated us to his signature sake kasu dishes, and then we were off to Hinomaru Shuzo to see their kura and visit with the president, Sato-san.  All of this while the snow kept falling the entire day with no sign of letting up.

We left the following day via local train to Akita Konno, one of few koji makers in Japan. From there we were picked up by Ito-san from Akita Seishu Brewery.  We visited his brewery, and his parents historic home most of which was buried under the immense blanket of snow.  Ito-san then drove us the two hours from his brewery to our final destination Tsurunoyu Onsen.

It was snowing heavily and getting dark, but like so many of the brewers who had driven us from kura to kura,  Ito-san forged on effortlessly, zigzagging up the mountains, through blinding snow, on deep snow-covered roads with only a car-length of visibility in his headlights.  But, finally we made it to Tsurunoyu Onsen, the finish line of our Akita relay!