Onsen and Sakura: Experiencing Japan’s Cultural Icons
By John Peniston
Perhaps none of Japan’s numerous cultural icons are more endearing or significant to the Japanese people than the famed onsen (hot springs resorts/hotels and spas) and springtime sakura (cherry blossoms).
Visitors will find much of Japanese culture in spring tied into the sakura season, signifiying the renewal and celebration of life. Throughout Japan, parks and streets are lined with row upon row of bright, colorful trees sprouting pink, white or light yellow cherry blossoms.
A big part of Japan’s lifestyle is enjoying the numerous onsen, or hot springs resorts, located throughout the country. For local folks, relaxing in the invigorating thermal baths while enjoying traditional onsen cuisine and related activities is part of their natural lifestyle. Like the reemergence of the cherry blossoms in spring, a dip in a hot spring bath contributes to the renewal and rejuvenation of body and soul.
Japan’s Hot Springs – A National Obsession
To say that the onsen are Japan’s national obsession is something of an understatement. Japan probably has more natural hot springs baths per capita than any other country in the world. An onsen stay will add a relaxing and adventurous dimension to any Japan visit.
Heart of Honshu
A good place to begin your onsen tour of Japan is the main island of Honshu. Nikko, about two hours north of Tokyo via highspeed train is in Nikko National Park, amidst a panorama of forest, mountains, lakes and gushing streams. Nikko is famed for the lavish Toshogu Shrine complex built in 1636 that serves as the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603. Visiting Toshogu Shrine is a solemn and spiritual experience as one strolls through the temples and buildings of the complex.
While Nikko boasts several onsen, Senhime Monogatari Inn is one of the best. Senhime features comfortable Japanese-style rooms and traditional cuisine served in intimate private dining rooms. The cuisine emphasizes the freshest of local produce, seafood and more. The onsen baths are inviting and invigorating with separate facilities for both men and women. For details For information on Nikko.
South of Tokyo is the popular hot springs resort town of Hakone which lies near Mount Fuji in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Hakone is an area of high mountains and features the beautiful Lake Ashi with winding roads and railways that connect the towns and villages of the region. The area’s volcanic origins account for the numerous onsen.
Visitors enjoy ferry boat rides across the lake and then a ropeway (cable car lift) ride across the still steaming spectacular Owakudani Gorge. On clear days, Mount Fuji appears through the clouds. Hakone, the main town, is small and compact and situated in a deep valley surrounded by high peaks. Hotellerie Maille Coeur Shougetsu is a boutique-style hotel with comforting onsen baths to soothe away a hard day’s travel.
The baths switch genders each day so everyone can enjoy the variety of each. A full-service restaurant provides creative Japanese inspired cuisine with a set dinner menu and traditional buffet breakfast. For details For information on Hakone.
Snuggled along the Sea of Japan coast northwest of Kyoto is one of Japan’s top scenic spots, the quiet fishing village of Amanohashidate. The “Bridge to Heaven,” a narrow 2.2 mile sand spit reaching across Miyazu Bay is the main attraction.
Japanese mythology has it that Amanohashidate is where the gods conceived the islands of Japan. View the “Bridge” from a lookout atop Kasamatsu Park across the bay (accessible by ferry boat-or walk across the sand spit) by bending over and looking upside down between your legs, making the sand spit appear to be floating in air. The Taikyourou Inn is centrally located near the sand spit bridge and offers traditional onsen rooms, soothing baths, and cuisine with the emphasis on fresh local seafood. information on Amanohashidate
The venerable old samurai town of Kakunodate is in north central Honshu. Known as “Little Kyoto,” Kakunodate was founded as a castle town in 1620, and is noted for its collection of original samurai houses, some of which are living museums of Japan’s feudal era. Kakunodate’s other attraction is the numerous weeping cherry trees that originated in Kyoto.
The sakura are the main attraction of the town’s springtime cherry blossom festival. Just a couple of miles outside of town is Kukunodate Onsen Kayokan, a superb modern low-rise hotel that features spacious traditional rooms, buffest breakfast and dinner, and both indoor and outdoor baths with separate gender facilities. For details, see: For information on Kakunodate.
Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, is predominately rural and boasts several national parks and geothermal hot springs areas and the ubiquitous onsen. Situated in the middle of Hokkaido is the resort town of Sounkyo. The resort is of part of Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan’s largest, and sits in the spectacular Sounkyo Gorge. The park offers year around outdoor activities from hiking and backpacking to biking and cable car lifts.
Scenic nature abounds with beautiful valleys, rock formations, and plunging waterfalls. The small resort town provides shops, coffee houses, restaurants and several onsen as well. Sounkaku Grand Hotel is a full-service hotel that pampers guests with traditional Japanese guest rooms, a large buffet dining room combining western and Japanese dishes, and a large complex of indoor and outdoor hot springs baths. After a day of hiking or exploring the park, a soak in the onsen baths will quickly relieve the day’s stress and strain. For information on Sounkyo.
Located in eastern Hokkaido is Akan National Park, a preserve of dense forest, clearwater streams and lakes, and volcanic mountains with hot springs areas. Lake Akan-ko is a major attraction in all seasons with outdoor activities to match. The lakeside town of Akan Kohan is a visitor center with several onsen lodgings, restaurants, shops, activity vendors and more.
This region of Hokkaido is noted for the indigenous Ainu people and culture. Ainu arts and crafts shops provide fine woodcrafts, artworks, jewelry and more produced by local artisans. The Akan Tsuruga Besso Hinanoza Resort in Akan Kohan features fine Hokkaido-style cuisine creatively prepared using fresh local seafood and produce. Some rooms feature a private inroom rotenburo, hot tub. The hotel has separate gender indoor/outdoor baths and a rooftop outdoor bath provides nice lake views while soaking up the ambiance. For information on Lake Akan
Japan’s sakura (cherry blossoms) herald the arrival of spring and the Japanese people revel in the colorful blossoms throughout the country. Beginning as early as mid-March in the country’s south then proceeding up through the main island of Honshu and the far north of Hokkaido into mid-May, the sakura are welcomed with eager anticipation. Folks visit the areas where cherry trees line streets and parks, river banks, temple and castle grounds, and wherever the delicate blossoms burst out. People stroll through the trees, take photos, have a picnic under the blossoms, and just bask in the simple beauty of Nature’s colorful showtime.
For visitors, there are literally dozens of sakura viewing spots throughout the country. And of course, timing is everything with the short-lived blooms. Check the “japan-guide.com” site for the latest information on best places and times to see the sakura: Some of the more popular sites to view the sakura follow.
The grounds and surrounding parklands of the Imperial Palace feature numerous varieties of cherry trees as do the grounds of Nijo Castle. Sakura are also found in abundance on the grounds of the temples at Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji and at Tenryuji as well as others throughout the city.
Blossoming sakura are found at Hiroshima Peace Park and along the banks of the Motoyasu-gawa River near the famous A-bomb Dome Building and on the grounds of Hiroshima Castle. At nearby Miyajima Island, hundreds of sakura surround the noted Itsukushima Shrine and along the island’s walking trails.
In north central Honshu along the banks of the Hinokinaigawa River at Kakunodate, a tunnel of sakura winds along the mile-long walking trail. The heavily laden weeping sakura branches droop with their loads of bright blossoms.
The grounds of Hirosaki Castle, in far north Honshu, explode with the blossoms of some 5,000 sakura. Little wonder the city gets a couple of million visitors during its cherry blossom festival each spring. The sakura line the castle moats and fill the park surrounding the castle.
Goroyokaku Park, in Hakodate, the site of a star-shaped fort dating to the 1860s, puts on a colorful sakura show with some 1,500 cherry trees. It’s one of Hokkaido’s more popular sakura viewing spots, along with the city’s Cherry Lane.
In Sapporo’s Maruyama Park, visitors can enjoy the showy blossoms of over 1,500 trees as well as the 1,200 trees in Hiraoka Park and in central downtown at Odori Park.
John Pemiston is a writer from Southern California.