by Raina, staff writer of japan-guide.com
2015/08/17 - Nature and Hot Springs at Naruko Onsen
Today, I joined a two day one night tour offered through Good Luck Trip <Diamond-Big Co.,Ltd> in the Naruko Onsen area in Miyagi Prefecture. It was raining when I left home in the morning, and unfortunately, the rain continued when I arrived at Furukawa Station, the closest shinkansen station into Naruko, to meet our local guides. Due to the bad weather on the first day, our tour got shuffled a little and we spent most of our time indoors on the first day and hoped for better weather the next.
Our first stop was at the Tanaka Sake Brewery, which was a relatively small brewery about 40 minutes from Furukawa Station. The chief brewmaster, or toji, brought us around and introduced the process of making sake while bringing us through the different parts of the brewery. Unfortunately, there wasn't any sake being made when we were there. Sake is typically made between the cooler months of November through to March to reduce the risk of bacteria and viruses while summer is usually the time for bottling and labeling. One of the more interesting sake varieties produced at the Tanaka Brewery is aged with specially produced "sake music" playing in the background for a sweeter and smoother sake. We tried this special sake at dinner later and I found it smooth and easy to drink.
Lunch was at a former residence where there were some cool artifacts like a samurai armour, yoroi, and old paintings. There was a great homely atmosphere at the restaurant with friendly older staff who served and prepared our meal, and told us stories of some customers taking a siesta after lunch, which sounded like a great idea to me at that time. While we didn't have the time for a siesta, we took a leisurely lunch sampling homemade dishes made with local vegetables.
Naruko Onsen is popular for its Kokeshi, Japanese dolls, and there were many signs featuring those dolls. We had a kokeshi painting session lined up after lunch and I was a little apprehensive participating as I was not one to have a good hand for art. But, it was a fun and enjoyable experience and something different to do on holiday.
The rain hadn't abated by mid afternoon and being in an onsen area, a dip in one of the public onsen sounded like a great idea to me. We headed off to Taki no Yu, one of the more popular public baths where the waters were undiluted from the source. Being an old public bath, there wasn't much space to navigate around especially in the bath when it's crowded. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed a soak in the hot milky waters while it poured outside. It may be a little intimidating for those who are not used to getting naked in front of strangers in a small space, but at least the baths are gender separate which may be consolation of sorts.
From the public bath, we headed for our ryokan accomodation and the proprietress, okami, of the ryokan, hosted a tea ceremony for us. The ceremony took place in an annex teahouse in the hills about five minutes drive from the accomodation. Typically a serious and formal affair, this was slightly relaxed and informal as most of us did not know the steps involved in a tea ceremony. Overall, it was very relaxing to partake of the ceremony whilst listening to rain pitter pattering on the roof.
The ryokan where we stayed was a very quaint place that had nine private baths, as well as an annex building for long stays. A dip in one of the baths is said to take twelve years off and of course, I took as many baths as I could. While I didn't acheive negative age, I'm pretty sure some reverse aging magic probably occured as my skin felt really nice after the baths.
The next day, the weather cleared and was mostly sunny. We took the chance to do the outdoors activities which we missed the day before. Our first stop was a two kilometer trail around part of the valley. It was an easy walk taking less than an hour with beautiful scenery of Naruko Gorge below at the beginning and going through lush greenery through the forest. I imagine the walk to be beautiful in the fall with autumn colors.
After our relaxing walk through the gorge, our group headed for a zazen meditation session at the nearby temple. The priest walked us through the process, starting with how to sit, breathe and what to do during meditation. One of the goals of meditation was to feel refreshed and energised at the end of the session. The priest then further expounded about the different types of zazen and how meditation can change our outlook on life and positively affect the people around us. A typical zazen meditation lasts as long as one stick of incense takes to burn, about 45 minutes, but it can be done for as long or short as you can afford.
Lunch was at a beautiful reservation-only restaurant in the hills. We arrived to find the table already laid out with our meal and more on the way. The owner single-handedly manages both the farm and the restaurant and serves only vegetables grown in her backyard. The meal was stunning and easily one of my favourites with fresh vegetables and clean flavours. We managed a quick chat with the owner and found out that the restaurant closes in the winter as the road into the estate gets covered in heavy snow making it almost impassable.
Our last stop for the day was Katanuma Lake, a caldera lake. It seems that the lake shares the same source as the public bath we went to the day before. The waters were a beautiful turquoise when we were there and there were paddle boats to cross the lake with. Three of us got into one boat and flexed our rowing muscles for a quick exploration of the otherside of the lake. For those who prefer not to cross the lake over water, it is also possible to walk around the lake as well. While it was beautiful to see in summer, we saw pictures of lake covered in snow in the winter except for where pockets of hot spring waters flowed, inside the shop by the lake.
From Katanuma Lake, we headed back to Furukawa Station and ended our tour of Naruko Onsen area. It was a short but fun trip, and some of the highlights for me included the baths at both the public bath and at the ryokan where we stayed, vegetable lunch on the second day, walking through the serene forested valley at Naruko Gorge and rowing across Katanuma Lake.