Onsen: A New Found Love

Getting ready for my first outdoor “hot spring” bath, I found myself in a room filled with women of all ages, some soaking in the (indoor) pool and others seated on stools going about the bathing rituals.

I found an empty seat.  Observing their rituals, I started washing and scrubbing until I felt clean enough to share a pool with them (the onsen etiquette dictates that one must be scrubbed clean before entering any pools).  The room was warm but because winter was on its way, the weather has turned cold and windy outside.  I hesitated and soaked in the pool while I mustered the courage to brave the cold, windy afternoon.

With only a hand towel in tow, my friend Stella and I walked into unfamiliar territory.  Outside the bathing room were several (geothermal) pools spread around a gorgeous Japanese garden. As I felt the gush of wind blow straight into my bones, I went straight into the nearest pool.  Unbeknown to us at that time, it was the pool that the source of the spring pours into.  Wrong move.  The farther away the pools are from the source, the gentler (to the body) it becomes.  We settled on alternating between the third and the fourth pool.  The heat can be unbearable at first, but once the body acclimatized, it was soothing, palliative even.  The diversity of minerals relieves a multitude of ailments, they say.  It was the perfect remedy to my sore muscles at least.  Despite a 10°C windy evening, I felt warm to the bones from the hot spring.  When it snowed on the second night, it was surreal.


Hirayu. It is a town surrounded by mountains and active volcanoes on all sides, a town known for its more than 30 natural source hot springs or what is known in Japan as “onsen”.  The oldest and largest of Okuhida’s “onsen towns” is also the region’s transportation hub making it a marvelous base for wandering through nearby areas like Kamikochi, Norikura, Matsumoto, Shin Hotaka and the Hirayu-Otaki waterfalls – famous for its illuminated display of a frozen waterfall during the winter.


Our home for 2 nights, Hirayu No Mori, is conveniently located near the bus terminal.


This hot spring resort, primarily a bathhouse, boasts of beautiful grounds, comfortable rooms


and a restaurant serving central Japanese dishes such as Hida Beef and Hoba Miso.


It has 3 bath facilities (2 segregated and 1 mix gender) and a total of 16 pools altogether.

And for two nights under the stars, I soothed my exhaustion away in several of the pools and soaked up as much of this quintessential Japanese experience to take home with me.

Useful Info:

There are several rules of etiquette to keep in mind when visiting a onsen.  Click here to know what these are.

Hirayu No Mori
763-1 Hirayu Okuhidaosengo,
Takayama, Gifu Prefecture
Contact:  0578-89-3338



Gassho-zukuri.  We’re not done talking about it yet because there are still some that can be found in typical farming villages, some ordinary folks still call it home, this 250-year old special farmhouses.


These villages still exist, and one is just 50 minutes away by bus from Takayama.


The UNESCO declared World Cultural Heritage Site, Shirakawa-go and its neighboring region Gokayama has been slowly attracting visitor since it was inscribed in 1995.

Ogimachi is Shirakawa-go’s largest community.  A charming village, albeit a slightly “touristy” oriented one, lining the Shogowa River valley.


Its beauty lies not only in the scenery, resplendent in shades of autumn at the time of visit, but as well as in its community.  Ogimachi has 2 medical clinics, a primary school and a junior high school.


Many still live in a Gassho-zukuri, but many of the well-preserved farmhouses have become museums, restaurants and there are 20 or so of it that has been made into Minshuku (bed and breakfast) guesthouses.


Time permitting; spending a night there would have been glorious.  Instead, we contented ourselves to a nice hot soba meal before heading back to Takayama.


Across the bridge, near the bus stop is a well-constructed outdoor heritage museum.


The Gassho-zukuri Minkaen features 25 preserved farmhouses.


Like Hida-No-Sato, it was relocated and rebuilt to emulate a traditional village in the countryside, scenery and landscape of which is simply superb with the mountains lending the perfect backdrop.


A Feast for the Eyes and Soul

Hida-No-SatoCredits:  Template by K Pertiet (Bears Life)

I love how the Gassho-Zukuri farmhouses stand out against the warm hues of autumn – a stunning contrast, really.  This tall (possibly 3-4 stories high) coffee-colored A-shaped thatched roof farmhouses were first built during the Edo period.


Lush woodland with hints of fall reflects on the stillness of the pond like a mirror.  It reminds me of a Monet artwork except that the setting isn’t France.  This is the first thing your eyes will wander to once you enter Hida No Sato, sometimes also called Hida Folk Village.


And this is where those Gassho houses were relocated.  It resembles a village of old Japan – it has around 30 well-preserved traditional houses, storehouses and other structures with farming tools and everyday utensils displayed in each house.


This outdoor museum of sort, aside from preserving the structures, strives to keep the culture alive by offering hands-on lessons on the traditional way of life like rice cropping, straw-work and stitching, cypress carving to even storytelling using the local dialect.


A few hours here will boost your appreciation on how life was back then for farmers and craftsmen of the Hida region.


Life isn’t easy for these people as winter is harsh in this part of Japan.  The steep slanting roof was said to be for the purpose of rain and snow.  It allows both to fall straight off, preventing water from seeping through the roof or heavy snow collapsing the roof.  It also eases the work of cleaning. Isn’t it amazing how a practical need has led to a fascinating and unique style of architecture?


So when in Takayama, you must go visit this place.  It’s just a 30-minute walk from town or a 10-minute bus ride from the Takayama Station.  It will be a feast for the eyes and the soul.

Useful Info

Hida No Sato
1-590 Kamiokamoto-machi, Takayama City
Opens 7 days a week from 8:30am – 5:00pm
Admission: ¥700
How to get there from Takayama:
Take a 10-minute bus ride from the Takayama Station (bus runs every hour); get off at the Hida No Sato bus stop. 

Takayama Morning Markets

It was cold. The warmth of the comforter and the futon was extremely inviting, but I was determined not to give in to the temptation because we are going to the market today.




So at exactly 6am, we ambled to the morning market nearer to the ryokan, watching the city wake up along the way.


At the Jinya-mae market, we watched it come to life one stall at a time.


I expected to see a much bigger market than the neighborhood market it really is.


More of a farmer’s market, it sells a lot of foodstuff and produce from gigantic, gorgeous but expensive fresh fruits and vegetables to rice cakes and


pickled vegetables all wanting to be purchased, begging to be noticed at the least. We eventually gave in to this corn – the sweetest and crunchiest I’ve ever had, and that is not an exaggeration.


If we weren’t heading back to the ryokan for breakfast, I would have feasted on a few more.


Thank God for good judgement as breakfast was lavish in Hakuun!

There are two morning markets (Asa-ichi) in Takayama that takes place daily from 6am till noon. The Jinya-mae morning market can be found in front of Takayama Jinya, a historical office building from the Edo Period said to be the only remaining building of its kind.

Not far from the Sanmachi district is Miyagawa morning market.


This market situated along the east bank of the Miyagawa River is bigger and I believe geared more towards the tourists.


Stalls selling crafts of wood or fabric, souvenirs, street foods are spotted alongside fruits and vegetables stands.


Interesting bites that had us so full but wanting more. So with these bites in tow, we explored the market.


Here, tourists abound or maybe it was the time of the day – when the city was already fully awake and vibrant with life. Here, the lure to buy is much, much greater. Here, I looked, I tried some, I got a few to take home.

Old Town Splendor

It was close to lunch when we hailed a taxi at the Takayama Station to take us to Futurishizuka Hakuun, our Ryokan.  Not exactly at the center of town but Takayama is small enough to go around on foot anyway.  A leisurely walk to town took us about 15 minutes to Le Midi,


a French bistro recommended by the Ryokan, for an excellent Hida beef meal.

Lesser known internationally, the Hida region of Gifu Prefecture breeds top quality black cattle.  As a mater of fact, it was given the highest prize by the same award giving body that made Kobe beef what it is today.  And when in Takayama and the surrounding areas around the Hida region, a Hida beef meal should be high on your list.

But more than Hida beef, Takayama is visited for its famous historic townscape.


At the center of town, old wooden houses from the Edo period line both sides of the streets of Sanmachi imparting an atmosphere straight from the 19th century.


Most of these are still private homes while a few are now shops, inns, and restaurants.


Many museums, galleries, and even sake breweries likewise coexist with the old private houses in that quarter.  The three narrow streets that form Sanmachi are “Nationally Recognized Important Historical Preservation Areas”.

Takayama was the center of Japan’s timber industry and was known for its expertise in carpentry.  It is believed that carpenters from this town worked on palaces and temples in Kyoto and Nara hence the well-preserved quarter.


The striking black luster of the buildings were the result of rich merchants back then trying to hide the use of the best but prohibited wood by painting their houses with soot, which in my opinion gave the city its character in the end.


The old town is where the action is; just a short distance from each other is where most of the attractions are.


And for the remaining portion of the day, we walked around town not exactly aimless but with a loose agenda, and this was where our meanderings took us:

Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan

Ranked as one of Japan’s most beautiful festival, the Takayama Matsuri Festival always attracts a large number of spectators.  Magnificent floats are pulled through the streets of Takayama’s old town during the festival held every spring and autumn.

Festival Floats Exhiibit Hall

The Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan or the Festival Floats Exhibition Hall displays on rotation four of the eleven floats used in the festival.  Many of the floats that date back from the 17th century are of gilded wood intricately carved with detailed decorative metalwork.  If not displayed in the hall, they are stored in tall storehouses called yatai-gura scattered quite noticeably around the town.  And these elaborately crafted floats are excellent showcases of the special skills the Hida-Takayama craftsmen are known for.

Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine


Just across the exit of the exhibition hall is the shrine where the Matsuri Festival is held every year. It was built during the time of Emperor Nintoku and later made bigger than the original under Lord Kanamori.  It was officially established to protect a part of Takayama,

Sakurayama Nikko Kan

The Nikko Toshogu is a Shinto shrine in Nikko Tochigi Prefecture dedicated to the first shogun of the Edo Shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Shogunate spent a fortune and took 15 years to reconstruct the Toshogu.


The entrance fee of the Matsuri Yatai Kaikan includes the Sakurayama Nikko Kan, a hall displaying the impressive one-tenth scale replica of the Nikko Toshogu.


The replica, after the war, was shown in the United States and in a few decades later, in Japan.  Today, it has found its home at the Sakurayama Nikko Kan complete with a computerized lighting system programmed to alternate sunrise to sunset.  It is a beautiful exhibit not to be missed.

Yoshijma Heritage House

Built by master carpenter Nishida Isaburo in 1907.  The Yoshijima family was a prosperous merchant engaged in money lending and the production of sake in Takayama.  And it once had a building where sake once brewed and plastered storehouses where sake was stored before being sold.  Unfortunately, most of the structure has been torn down with only a small part remaining.


Well maintained, the house has posts and beams polished and smoothened through the years to a rich brown tone delivering a sense of sophistication to an already beautiful old house.  Another a must see.

As we continue to explore the town, we decided on an early dinner of Tonkatsu.


Unlike the ordinary Tonkatsu we know, this deep-fried breaded pork fillet is placed on top of a magnolia leaf with the sweet sauce heating on a dish with fire underneath. Tender and juicy, this meal was the perfect way to end the exploration.

Back in our Ryokan, we reveled at our ante room, put our feet up, and sipped our green teas.  We were in good spirits.


I wasn’t planning to, but the hot tub was calling out to me.


Nestled on a hill, Futurishizuka Hakuun is favored with a wonderful view of the city and mountain.  It has in some rooms a private hot bath.  And our tub has that view – beats having a massage any day.


As I lay down in the tub, I see steam all around, and I feel heat melting the weariness from all the walking done the past few days.  Knowing that there will be more, I welcome this tonight.  And maybe tomorrow too.

Useful Info:

Yoshijima Heritage House
Hours: 9:00AM to 5:00PM (Mar – Nov); 9:00AM to 4:30PM (Dec – Feb)
Closed on Tues (Dec – Feb, when Tue falls on a national holiday, it is open and is closed the following day)
Admission: ¥500
Festival Floats Exhibition Hall & Sakurayama Nikko Kan
Hours: 8:30AM to 5:00PM (Mar – Nov); 9:00AM to 4:30AM (Dec – Feb)
Admission: ¥820

Best of 2012

Forgive the silence… would you believe that I ushered in the New Year with colds and fever?  But that didn’t stop me from having friends over for the count down. No.  I hope you all had a wonderful holiday.


Credits:  Quickpage from JSprague’s 4ever kit, created by Brenda Neuberger

2012 has been good to me.  Even with much less travels this year, I’ve managed a few unforgettable firsts.  Here they are; some I have not even posted but will pre-empt:

1.  The Bus Ride to Vang Vieng


A 4-hour bus ride from Vientaine on a sleeper bus made for petite Laotians.  Worst was the bunks were meant for (yes) 2 petite Laotians.  We’re definitely far from petite.  So imagine the trip.

2.  First time on a Hot Air Balloon


Soaring high in Vang Vieng, watching the town wake up.  You get the best view in town, if you ask me.

3.  The Boat Ride to Y’ami


An idea that came to fruition had us journeying to the northernmost island of the Philippines on a grueling 3-hour boat ride off Itbayat Island in Batanes.  Why?  I ask the same question many times over.  An experience hard to topple.

4.  A Night in Siayan


We had to break the grueling boat ride and stay overnight in an island about 1 hour away from Itbayat (the farthest inhabited island of Batanes) because the waters along the Bashi Channel can be treacherous particularly in the late afternoon.  Getting to the island, beautiful as it is, is an adventure in its self.

5.  Hiking Up to Cape Engaño


Beautiful sight, up there.  That’s all I will say for now.  Watch out for my post – coming soon.

6.  Enjoying an Onsen Bath


While it snowed too.  A totally exhilarating and liberating experience, I dipped in those pools two nights in a row.  Awesomeness.

As for 2013, I’ve got some exciting plans already in the pipeline. I’ve been working hard to get that to fruition over the holidays, truth to tell.  It is going to be an exciting year.  I feel it in the air.  How is your 2013 looking so far?