Bessho Onsen (別所温泉) is a small hot spring resort town just outside of central Ueda City in Nagano Prefecture. During the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), it served as the headquarters of the governor of the Shinshu Region (today's Nagano Prefecture), who built temples and brought Kamakura culture to the mountain town. This made Bessho Onsen into a prosperous center of education and religion, and in turn earned the town the nickname "Kamakura of Shinshu".
Bessho Onsen is the oldest recorded hot spring in the region. Its sulfurous waters have long been regarded for their healing properties and are said to have healed the arrow wounds of warriors who bathed in them. There are three small traditional public bath houses found around town that offer visitors a chance to experience the atmosphere of a small neighborhood hot spring bath. For larger baths and more amenities, head to the Aisome no Yu public bath house at the entrance of the town.
The approach to Kitamuki Kannon Temple
Bessho Onsen is a compact town that is easily explored on foot. Its temples are found along the wooded slopes surrounding the town, and are connected with the town center by narrow streets and lanes lined by small shops, restaurants and ryokan. All of Bessho Onsen's attractions can be reached in a ten to fifteen minute walk from Bessho Onsen Station.
Hours: 8:00 to 17:00 (until 16:00 from November to February) Closed: No closing days Admission: 300 yen (an English pamphlet is available for a small fee)
Anrakuji is the oldest standing Zen Temple in the region, and at its peak it was a center of learning and culture. The highlight of Anrakuji is its wooden octagonal pagoda built in the Chinese Sung architectural style during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333). The pagoda is the only example of its kind left in Japan and is designated as a national treasure.
Kitamuki Kannon Temple
Hours: Always open Closed: No closing days Admission: Free
Kitamuki Kannon Temple's main object of worship is a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. While temples usually face south, Kitamuki Kannon faces north, directly facing the Buddha statue at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City. Kitamuki Kannon is also unusual in that she is said to answer prayers for this life rather than the next.
Hours: 9:00 to 16:30 (until 17:00 from Jun to Sep, until 16:00 from Dec to Mar) Closed: No closing days (museum closed from 12/25 to 1/25) Admission: 100 yen (main hall), 500 yen (museum)
Jorakuji is related to the Kitamuki Kannon Temple. It was built by Jikaku Daishi, a Buddhist priest of the Tendai Sect and head priest at Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto. Jorakuji Temple has a thatched roof, which is unusual for a temple, and a small art museum that includes ema (wooden plaques) painted by the famous artist Hokusai.
Hot Spring Baths
Hours: 6:00 to 22:00 Closed: First and third Wednesday of each month Admission: 150 yen
Oyu (Large Hot Spring) is the largest of the traditional public baths in Bessho Onsen, as its name suggests. Oyu has a relatively large indoor bath and an outdoor bath for each gender, whereas Ishiyu and Daishiyu (see below) only have one indoor bath per gender.
Hours: 6:00 to 22:00 Closed: First and third Thursday of each month Admission: 150 yen
This small public bath is named Daishiyu (Great Teacher Hot Spring) after Jikaku Daishi, who is said to have bathed in its waters during the construction of the Kitamuki Kannon Temple. It features one indoor bath for each gender.
Hours: 6:00 to 22:00 Closed: Second and fourth Tuesday of each month Admission: 150 yen
The gender separated indoor baths of Ishiyu ("Stone Bath") have large stones set in the water from which hot water gushes forth to fill the baths.
Aisome no Yu
Hours: 10:00 to 22:00 (entry until 21:20) Closed: 2nd and 4th Monday every month (except national holidays) Admission: 500 yen
Aisome no Yu is a modern hot spring complex built just down the street from Bessho Onsen Station. This bath house is much larger than the traditional baths listed above, and has multiple indoor baths and an outdoor bath for each gender, as well as saunas, hot stone baths (ganbanyoku), massage services and relaxation space.
Access and Orientation
Take the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Ueda Station (95 minutes, about 6500 yen, 1-3 trains per hour), one stop before Nagano, and transfer to the Ueda Railway to Bessho Onsen (30 minutes, 590 yen, departures every 30 minutes), the terminal station on the line. The Japan Rail Pass is valid between Tokyo and Ueda, but does not cover the train between Ueda and Bessho Onsen.
Alternatively, Seibu Bus operates two direct highway buses per day between Tokyo (Ikebukuro) and Bessho Onsen. The one way journey takes four hours and costs 3700 yen. Sets of two and four tickets are available for 6700 and 12300 yen respectively and can be used in either direction.
Take the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen from Nagano Station to Ueda Station (15 minutes, 1440 yen by unreserved seat, two departures per hour) and transfer to the Ueda Railway to Bessho Onsen (30 minutes, 590 yen, departures every 30 minutes), the terminal station on the line. The Japan Rail Pass is valid between Nagano and Ueda, but does not cover the train between Ueda and Bessho Onsen.
Alternatively, take the Shinano Railway between Nagano and Ueda (45 minutes, 770 yen, two to three departures per hour) and transfer to the Ueda Railway to Bessho Onsen. The Japan Rail Pass is not valid on either the Shinano Railway or the Ueda Railway.