Jigokudani Onsen, Nagano, Japan
Jigokudani Onsen lies high on the Shiga Plateau in Nagano Prefecture, in a place known as 'Hell Valley'.
Located somewhat off the beaten path, and accessible only by foot or snow machine, Jigokudani Onsen's idyllic setting in the mist shrouded mountains is a balm for the frazzled nerves of any who have spent too long in the stresses of the city.
After a long journey by train from Kyoto, Laura and I found ourselves hiking through country cast in improbable shades of black and white, the morning mist and snow covered trees so devoid of colour as to make one feel as if they were treading through an old photograph.
This onsen (natural hot spring) had come to us highly recommended, and even before we had reached the place, relaxation was setting in. In the span of one overnight train ride we found ourselves in another world, with the drab and biting winter rains of Kyoto traded in for the familiar crispness of fresh fallen snow.
As we hiked through what already felt to be a silent mountain forest, we found that the snow-laden boughs of the trees had an even more deadening effect, with only the sound of a river in the valley below being able to make itself heard in the stillness of the morning.
A short hike brought us to the onsen itself, with the buildings of the ryokan (traditional japanese inn) where we would be staying attached.
A cold mountain river ran past the old buildings that lay clustered on a ridge, with the haze rising from the hot outdoor baths that were situated to take in the mountain views.
Jigokudani Onsen is famed not only for its superb healing waters, but also for the wildlife in the area. The valley is home to a large number of Snow Monkeys, which pass much of their time relaxing in the springs of the area.
The Japanese ryokan experience is one not to be missed. Though somewhat expensive, a stay at a ryokan gives one the chance to leave behind all of the stresses of life. At a price usually starting around $100US a night per person (many places are much higher) a ryokan doesn't exactly fit the description of 'budget accommodation', but the pleasure of staying in one far outweigh any concerns about money.
Ryokan with onsen take things a step further still. We spent our days hopping from tub to tub, sampling the waters and taking the time to let the heat sink in and melt away every last bit of tension. Our only concerns or obligations involved sauntering into the dining hall at the appointed time for our meals, or deciding who got to sit in the massage chair first.
The real beauty of the Japanese ryokan experience is, of course, the yukatta. The yukatta seems to be somewhere in between a bath robe and casual evening wear, and once checked into a ryokan there is really no pressure to ever change out of it into regular clothes. It doesn't get any better than going for dinner in your pajamas!
The level of comfort and care in the ryokan is astounding...everything is taken care of down to the last detail. Even with dinner, we found that by the time that we had finished and returned to our room, they had already laid out our futons for the night and laid out a tray with fresh tea for the morning...that left us with nothing left to do but to have one more soak before bedtime.
In the days we could amuse ourselves by looking at all of the monkeys relaxing in the area, and in the nights we could do a little relaxing ourselves; drinking a little sake in the tub or just sitting back in our room enjoying the peace.
The whole experience drives home the value of making lemonade from lemons: Japan is in one of the most unstable and seismically active regions in the world...but they also discovered that all that lava sure heats up a good bath!