Visiting a Japanese Onsen

Posted by a student studying on exchange at Akita International University.

A trip to Japan is not complete without a visit to a Japanese Onsen (hotspring). I had wanted to go to one, and I knew that I would kick myself if I didn’t have a chance to go. When I heard that a group of students were planning on going to Tazawako (Lake Tazawa), the deepest lake in Japan, I jumped on the opportunity. Due to Japan’s extensive rail system, it was even possible to get there by train. If you are planning on visiting anywhere in Japan, I suggest getting familiar with the train system, and buying a JR Rail-Pass for Golden or Silver Week.

It took 2 and a half hours to get to the lake. We took a bus for the last lag of the journey, and accidentally missed the stop for Tezawako. We decided to just head straight to the Onsen, as it was getting late anyways. No one was sure where the Onsens were, and we didn’t have any Japanese students with us. Someone asked the bus driver where to find the hot springs, and he pointed at a non-descript bus. We hesitantly got onto the bus, and joked about them taking us into the woods and abandoning us.

After a short drive on some of the narrowest roads I have seen, we came to an old looking Japanese building. It was an Onsen, and it only cost 700yen to use. The bus was complimentary. We all relaxed for about an hour, and the water was a nice milky color and smelled like sulfur…it was the real thing. This was a very traditional Onsen, as we got out we saw a woman getting in (she was wearing a towel). We didn’t realize that we were in the non-gender segregated Onsen, so if you think that would be a problem for you, make sure you are going in the right one!

We were going to stop by the lake afterwards, but it had started to rain and it was almost 4pm, so it was getting dark outside. We were all hungry, and Akita is famous for a dish called Kiritanpo, and we had 2 hours to kill before the train would take us back. We figured we could find a good restaurant in the city, and prepared to hike around looking for a restaurant. The search didn’t last long as there was a restaurant 40 yards from the bus stop. The food was delicious, and I got to try horse sashimi (raw horse meat) for the first time, knocking another “things-to-do” item off of my mental list. If only I could stay longer and make it to Hokaido for the snow festival.

While returning, we saw some other exchange students at the train station. We told them about our trip, and they said that they had traveled to a similar Onsen a couple weeks of before. After giving them more details, they were more certain that we had been to the same place. Apparently it was one of Japan’s most traditional, highly rated, and historical Onsens. I did a little research, and confirmed through pictures that the Onsen was called Tsurunoyu Onsen.  It has been around since the 17th century. Considering we didn’t know where we were going, I think we did pretty well.

The trip on a whole was very surreal. I never could have imagined going on such a crazy trip with people from all over the world, who I had just met a couple of months before. It’s one of the great things about studying abroad: getting a chance to meet and spend time with people from all over the world.