Yakushi Onsen Hatago, Gunma: Japan Photo Drift

A photographer-friendly Edo-era Japanese inn in yukiguni snow country.

On an overnight road trip a couple of hours’ drive north of Tokyo, we discovered Kayabuki no Sato Yakushi Onsen Hatago — a rustic, old-school traditional ryokan onsen hot spring inn.

My partner R. and I needed a break from Tokyo’s bright lights big city, and so on a recent Saturday — still too early for cherry blossoms — we exited busy weekend traffic onto a winding mountain road and drove on until we reached the Nurukawa River valley in the mountains of Gunma prefecture, a.k.a. yukiguni “snow country.” The thatch-roofed, Edo-era style buildings of the Yakushi Onsen Hatago resort cluster around a 200-year-old onsen — the kind of natural hot spring Japan is famous for. R. loves onsens. In the snowiest country in the world, where many houses lack appropriate insulation and heating, the luxury of all that wet, healing heat straight from the Earth’s volcanic heart really helps her relax from the stresses of city life. I have to admit a little more reluctance. I like onsens well enough, but I got schooled in hot springs on Japan’s frontier island, Hokkaido, and for me even now a good hot spring soak must involve being outside in a natural setting — and preferably after a long day of hiking and/or snowboarding. The tail end of a road trip doesn’t cut it for me. Then again, I don’t drive… Still, one of the best things about travel is top suspend at least temporarily your prejudices and preconceptions. And besides, onsen are a part of a quintessentially Japanese aesthetic experience. So I relaxed in a large wooden bath with a river view as R. soaked out the aches and pains of a drive through hairpin mountain curves..

In addition to its onsen, Yakushi Onsen Hatago is famous for preserving an Edo-era, thatched roof architecture and design atmosphere. This is the kind of place you change into a casual yukata light kimono and sandals — and don’t change again until checkout.

So, R. and I wore traditional Japanese clothes as we dragged our cameras and tripods around the resort complex. There are several outbuildings on the riverside slope, linked by straw-covered footpaths, and we really enjoyed the random photographic opportunities which presented themselves both inside the buildings and out.

We happened to visit during the annual Hinamatsuri doll festival, when ornamental dolls representing the Emperor, Empress, court ladies, musicians, and other attendants, all in formal Heian-era court dress, are on display.

In another building — somewhere between a museum, a child’s playroom, and a haunted house — we woke an antique collection of dolls and masks from its collective slumber. Hundreds of pairs of eyes followed us sleepily as we climbed creaky stairs and poked into dark corners with our cameras.

Back outside, a rare spring snowstorm struck the area that night, so we were there, cameras at the ready, as the dusky browns of spring transformed back into an unseasonal snow country winter wonderland.

Interested? Check out the Yakushi Onsen Hatago website for more information — in English


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