Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Onsens

Japan is famous for its Onsens. Onsen is the Japanese term for Hot springs, actually public baths built near hot springs. Geothermal activity at thousands of sites in Japan has created natural hot springs below the earth’s surface.

The Japanese simply love their baths and swear by the Onsens. Visiting onsens has been an age old tradition in the country. Hardly surprising considering Japan is a country which boasts of close to 2000 onsens. The hot spring water is said to have medicinal properties which can cure arthritis, hypertension, nerve disorders, skin problems and sometimes even chronic ailments. Apart from this, the onsen visits are said to be refreshing. Onsens in Japan are not restricted to human beings. For instance, the monkeys in Jigokudani Hell valley in Nagano prefecture are famous for their onsen fetish and are said to sit in the hot water pools for hours to stay warm.

Onsens may be either indoors or outdoors, small or large, boiling hot or lukewarm.


Sometimes Onsens are located in picturesque surroundings.


Some onsen hotels may also have private onsens in rooms so that families can enjoy the bath in privacy. 


While most onsens are located on natural springs, there is no dearth of man made onsens. Sometimes hot spring water is piped and transported to a distant resort or Onsen hotel. Sometimes the water is so hot that it needs to be cooled before it can be used for bathing.

Onsens can be identified from either of these signs. 


Onsens are generally separated into Male and Female areas. Bathing is generally in the nude , and this is often a cause of culture shock to foreigners, including me. I somehow don’t understand how nude bathing is common in a country which is highly conservative in some matters and where set rules of behaviour and modesty are defined and strictly followed. Somehow I haven’t been able to bring myself to visiting an onsen till date.

Onsen visits are not simple. A certain etiquette needs to be followed. For instance, people are required to clean themselves in the washing area before entering the public bath. Clothing and personal possessions need to be kept in the changing room area, usually in lockers. Soaps or shampoos are not allowed to be used in the bath. People can only carry a towel in the bath and usually this is placed over the head during the time in the bath. (This is said to reduce the dizziness likely to be caused due to exposure to sulphur.) After emerging from the public bath, people should clean themselves again in the washing area.

Onsens are found across Japan and there are entire towns which are called Onsen towns.
These towns have many onsens and onsen hotels and these are frequented by the locals, with families in tow. Most of the time people come to Onsen towns for overnight stay in these Onsen hotels.  It is common to see people roaming in onsen towns in their yukata with a towel in their hand.  The strong sulphuric odour in the air is the best way to identify an Onsen town. In some towns, even the drainage outlets smell of sulphur.
Sometimes the rocks near these onsens turn white due to the high sulphuric content in the water.


Strange as it may sound, most Onsen towns also look similar and as such are easy to identify. A snow covered Takayu Onsen town in Fukushima :
Some onsens are highly priced while others may be moderately priced. Onsen hotels provide overnight accommodation with meals and onsen facilities. Generally the pricing is per person and the accommodation is in Japanese style rooms. In some onsen towns, there is a system whereby a guest can visit various onsens in the town or in the same area during his period of stay in the town. Lot of people can be seen onsen-hopping because of this system. In most onsen towns, apart from the public baths, it is common to find Foot Baths. A footbath in Takayu onsen town: 
Foot Baths are known as “Ashi-yu” and are definitely a boon for weary travellers. Soaking tired feet in the foot bath for just a few minutes works wonders. Personally I love these foot baths and cannot stop myself from soaking up my feet in one. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Goshikinuma - the Five coloured lakes

Post 11th March 2011, Fukushima has become a name synonymous with crisis, calamity and despair. In a sad turn of events, the once peaceful and unspoilt region has been associated with one of mankind's worst disasters. Before disaster struck this region, it was an agriculturally rich area with a lot to offer for nature lovers. Be it the coastal areas, called Hamadori or the mountainous interiors called Nakadori or the Aizu region in the west, Fukushima prefecture is a traveller's delight. Living in Iwaki city in the same prefecture, many a weekends have passed with us driving northwards towards the Bandai or Aizu regions hoping to spend some time closer to nature. 


One of my personal favorites among all the places my family has visited in Japan happens to be Goshikinuma Ponds. This is one of the places where one can feel closest to nature. A place my family totally loves to visit over and over. The best part of visiting Goshikinuma is that with each season, the place is totally transformed. We ended up visiting this place during three seasons- Summer, Autumn and Winter. Each time has been a totally different experience.

Goshikinuma simply translated means "Five Colored Lakes". As the name says it, Goshikinuma is a cluster of five lakes situated at the foot of Mount Bandai in the Bandai Asahi national park. These lakes were created due to a volcanic eruption of Mount Bandai in 1888 which caused widespread destruction in the Bandai area. The eruption resulted in a near complete transformation of the area, thereby creating a number of lakes, swamps and the Bandai plateau. The volcanic activity deposited minerals in the lakes thereby giving different colours to each of the ponds. The colours of the lakes vary during each season and even at different times of the day.

A 3.6 kilometre walking trail around the ponds is the way to experience this natural wonder.

The first of the five ponds on the trail is Bishamon Pond. It is also the biggest of the ponds and has a turquoise blue-green glow. 


The view of this pond is especially spectacular during the Autumn months when red maple leaves against the turquoise blue pond make it a magical sight. 



Boating facilities are available for rental at Bishamon pond. Carp fish are found aplenty in Bishamon Pond.

Next on the trail is Akanuma Pond which as the name suggests has a Reddish Brown tinge.


It takes about 25 minutes at a normal walking pace to reach Akanuma Pond.


A three minute walk further takes one to the Midoronuma Pond. The pond has a greenish tinge.

About 10 minutes ahead is the Bentennuma Pond which is actually a big swamp.


Last on the trail is the Aonuma Pond which has a dark blue hue.



Along the trails are small streams of water and swamps. Even during the hot humid summer months, one feels refreshed walking along the trail. The entire 3.6 km trail is covered in a little over one hour.

At the end of the trail is a Visitor centre with food stalls and souvenir selling shops. Right across the road is a bus stop from where a Bus service is available (at a price, offcourse) to the Parking Lot. This is a relief after a 3.6 km trek along the ponds.

Our first visit to the area was during the Obon Holidays in August 2010. The place was crowded and we had a tough time finding a parking space. There were busloads of tourists vouching for the fact that this was clearly Fukushima’s most popular tourist destination.
 
Our last visit to the place was in February 2011. The entire place had a deserted look barring a few people. The entire area was covered under a thick blanket of snow. The trail was closed, but we could walk up a thick wall of ice to see Bishamon Pond , rather the frozen Bishamon. 


It was unbelievable that there was not a trace of the turquoise coloured Bishamon. 


White snow was all that we could see everywhere around. 

Clearly, Goshikinuma is one of the most scenic points of the region and attracts large number of tourists from across Japan.
  
Address: 1093, Kengamine, Hibara Ko, Kita-Shiobara, Yama gun, Fukushima Ken- 969-2701

Entrance Fees: Free.

Phone:  0241-32-2349 (Urabandai Tourist Association)

Best Season: All year round, Spring and Autumn (peak)

Parking: Available (Limited)


Lake Hibara is another lake in the vicinity. This lake was also formed as a result of the volcanic eruption of Mount Bandai. The lake is the largest of all lakes in the Ura Bandai highlands or Bandai kogen plateau as the region is called.  It is a short walk away from the endpoint of the Goshikinuma trail. The lake has boating facilities except in winter months, when it is totally frozen. There are lot of eating joints on the shore of Lake Hibara.

During the winter months, this entire region turns into a ski resort with lot of skiing slopes and snow fields. Infact many people camp on the frozen lakes and we did see many such campers. Icefishing is a popular sport at Lake Hibara during the winter months.  

Lake Akimoto and Onogawa are other smaller lakes in the Hibara-Goshikinuma area. 


Completely frozen during the winter months, these too are popular camping and ice fishing spots. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Shiramizu Amidado

One of Iwaki's most popular sightseeing spots is Shiramizu Amidado. This temple which is also called Ganjoji is a Buddhist temple built in 1160 by Princess Tokuhime, the widow of feudal lord Norimichi. This temple which is built in typical Heian period architectural style was designated a national treasure in 1952. Interestingly it is the only building in Fukushima prefecture to be designated a national treasure.  
Clearly, Shiramizu Amidado is the oldest building still standing in Iwaki. The Amidado Hall enshrines five wooden Buddha statues- the Amida Nyorai triad, Jikokuten and Tamonten. All these are Important cultural properties.  
The beautiful garden named "Jodo Teien", which surrounds the temple draws large crowds especially in autumn when the foliage makes the place look straight out of a postcard.
 No wonder that during the Shichi Go San festival, young children in traditional attire can be seen posing for pictures with the autumn foliage as a lovely backdrop. 
The garden is popular across Japan and is laid out in the Japanese Paradise style of gardening. 


In this style, the garden is made to create a relaxing environment and peace. The usage of colours and decor in this style of gardening are minimal and the emphasis is laid on the water and rich foliage.  


To enter the temple one must cross a typical Japanese style red bridge over the large pond filled with carps and turtles.The hungry carps in the pond look expectantly at the visitors crossing the bridge for food, sold in stalls near the temple. In summer, the pond is full of lotus blooms.    
A must visit in any season for people visiting Iwaki city. 


Opening Hours: 8:30-16:00 hrs ( April-October)
                       8:30- 15:30 hrs (November-March)
                       Closed on 4th Wednesday of each month and during certain Holidays. 
Admission: Adults-400 yen, Children-250 yen. ( Entrance to the Garden - Free)
Address: 219, Hirohata, Shiramizu-machi, Uchigo, Iwaki city, Fukushima- 973-8045
Phone: 0246-26-7008 
Access: 15 mins by car from Iwaki Yumoto IC or Iwaki station.
Parking: Limited availability. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Abukuma-do and Irimizu Caves

Tamura city in  Fukushima prefecture is home to two famous limestone caves- Abukuma do and Irimizu cave.
Of both the caves, Abukuma-do happens to be the more famous one. The cave was discovered on 15th August, 1969 during the course of limestone quarrying . It has been designated a natural heritage. Visitors can walk along the 600 metre long trail inside the cave, viewing the stalactite and stalagmite formations.


It is said that these stalactites and stalagmites have been formed over a period of 80 million years. A further 2500 metres of the cave are not yet open to public.
Limestone formations of various sizes and shapes can be seen inside the cave.

The colourful lights adds to the beauty of the formations in the cave.


Some spectacular formations have interesting names too , like Mushroom, Christmas tree, Monster Tower, Takine Palace to name a few. 











The temperature inside the cave is around 15 deg C all year round with a humidity of about 90 %. Even in summer, it is advisable to wear a jacket inside the cave. The trail is slippery due to the trickling water drops.


There is also a small Japanese style garden near the cave.
The Hoshi no Mura, Star observatory is located very close to the Abukuma cave. 
Cute statues dot the landscape around the cave and the observatory. 




Lavender bushes cover the hillsides near the cave. 
The high viewpoint outside Abukuma cave, offers a good view of the area around.

Open Hours: 8:30-17:00 (closing 16:30 from Dec-Jan)

Address: 1, Higashikamayama, Sugaya, Takine machi, Tamura-city, Fukushima Prefecture

Phone: 0247-78-2125

Entrance fees : Adults 1200 yen, Children 600 yen

Parking: Available


Just a 15 minute drive along the countryside from Abukuma-do is another set of caves. 


Irimizu Shonyudo as the caves are known were discovered much before Abukuma-do, in 1927. 
These have been designated National Natural Treasure. The caves are also called Sunken Caves.
These caves do not have spectacular stalagmites and stalactites like Abukuma. Instead, inside can be seen waterfalls, flowing rivers and rock formations.   


Irimizu Cave has been divided into 3 courses- Trail A,B and C and covers a distance of 900 metres. Trail A is relatively easy and short at 150 metres. Visitors are allowed to enjoy this trail on their own. 
Trail B at 450 metres is more treacherous  and requires special clothing and boots as certain sections require walking in knee deep water. Trail C at 300 metres is the toughest and visitors need to take a guided tour of this trail.
Even the “easy” Trail A has a few difficult stretches- low ceiling, narrow passage, steep metal stairways and walking through flowing water. 



I am amazed at how the workmen had fit these stairways, where we found it difficult to even stand straight. 


We had our then 3 year old daughter with us, who felt she was "Spiderman”.


Irimizu cave is for people who are looking for adventure. 

Open Hours:

Address: 89-3, Sugaya, Takine machi, Tamura city, Fukushima Prefecture- 963-3601

Phone: 0247-78-3393

Entrance fees: Differs as per the Trail course
                       Trail A : Adults 550 yen, Children 450 yen
                       Trail B: Adults 700 yen, Children 500 yen
                       Trail C: Adults 4600 (incl Guide services). Children not allowed.

Parking: Available (limited)