Fukushima hot spring resorts: Bathing in Japan's nuclear shadow
Before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Fukushima was Kanto’s biggest power-generating area, its 95 plants supplying one third of the energy needs of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba.
Now, it likely just brings to mind billowing smoke and burning nuclear power stations, but there’s another side of this gorgeous part of Japan -- its superb hot-spring resorts, all within easy reach of the capital.
It also hosts one of the biggest open-air bath in the country -- at Spa Resort Hawaiians, a gloriously kitsch indoor resort made famous by the 2006 Japan Academy Award-winning film, Hula Girls.
The movie depicts the true story of how a mining company based in the harsh climate of Iwaki town decided to run a summery spa resort fueled by hot springs after the coal economy was undermined by other forms of energy, including nuclear power. Perhaps I should have used the word “ironic” somewhere in that sentence.
The good fight
Which leads us nicely into the fact that Fukushima is blessed with more than 150 hot springs, or onsen, boasting restorative waters on a par with those in famed resorts further north, in Akita and Aomori.
During the May Golden Week holidays, some friends and I ventured into the Tohoku region for a soak as part of the “Ganbaro Fukushima” movement -- it translates, roughly, as “Fight on, Fukushima.”
We evidently weren’t the only ones heading northeast, as the Tohoku highway was jam-packed with volunteers heading to other quake- and tsunami-affected zones, such as Sendai and Miyagi.
Our destination was a good 100 kilometers away from the Daiichi nuclear plant and, at some 1,700 meters above sea level, a region aptly called Takayu -- literally, “High, hot water.”
The drive there is filled with breathtaking beauty, particularly along the Bandai Azuma Skyline, one of the top 100 scenic routes in Japan.
Smell the sulfur
The road passes right next to the crater of Mount Azuma, also known as mini Mount Fuji, and there is a visitor center nearby for tourists to park their cars and make a short climb up to the active volcano’s crater.
From here, one can smell the distinctive sulfuric scent that is expected in any good onsen region.
Another route to the Takayu zone is the Lake Line, which boasts a view of the Goshiki Numa (Five Colored Lakes), a cluster of five volcanic lakes at the foot of Mount Bandai, ranging from reddish green to cobalt blue.
The enjoyable upward drive was topped only by our lodgings at Takayu -- the exclusive 14-room ryokan, Hige no Ie (“Beardy’s House”), fondly named after its hirsute founder, the near-eponymous Hige-san.
Hige no Ie is consistently ranked one of the top three “hidden onsen” in the Takayu region and, while exclusive in its limited number of rooms, is not priced to exclude the ordinary onsen traveller -- no need for the Gold Card here.
There are both indoor and open-air baths at Beardy’s, the latter made of Japanese cypress for a faintly scented soak best enjoyed under the stars.
The ryokan is set by a steaming stream and is just a short trek from a 30-meter waterfall that was once an ascetic training site.
On the menu
Come mealtime, owner Yoko Goto serves up some rather splendid fare created with the season’s best produce and rare mountain vegetables.
The food is one of the reasons that, natural disasters aside, one usually has to book half a year in advance to secure a room, particularly during the Golden Week period.
That changed after March 11, as one of the Hige no Ie staff told me. “A lot of bookings were cancelled at first, but in the past two weeks we’ve seen the visitors returning.”
Indeed, it was evident from the license plates in the car park that onsen lovers, mostly from Fukushima and Miyagi, had come to take advantage of the empty rooms and special prices now available.
Another popular destination in Takayu is Tamago no Yu and its celebrated walking route and waterfall. I didn’t have time to check it out on this trip, but its reputation puts it among Fukushima’s best.
Moving on, some 70 kilometers from the nuclear plant we find the Tsuchiyu Onsen region, one of the areas currently housing evacuated Fukushima residents.
At Noji Onsen Hotel, some 40 families forced from the no-go zone are living in one of the two blocks of the complex.
Ryokan operator Emiko Sagami told me that life, albeit subtly altered, carries on. “We’re doing our best to keep the atmosphere bright and positive, and our residents have also been responding very well," he says.
“We have introduced a special campaign price to encourage tourists to come and stay at our onsen. Food supplies have returned to normal and our source of spring water remains unaffected,” she enthused.
Things are taking slightly longer to return to normal nearer the nuclear plant. At 50 kilometers out, onsen in Iwaki town are looking to reopen from around July onwards.
That remains up in the air, though, with concern remaining over damaged roads, water supplies and, of course, the nuclear situation.
Iwaki still has a contribution to make -- bizarrely for a town in Japan’s chilly northeast countryside, it recently sent a contingent of hula dancers on a tour of evacuation centers in the region to entertain victims of March 11.
The women were part of a group from Spa Resort Hawaiians, a themed residential onsen park that goes heavy on the grass skirts, pineapples and fun for all the family at budget prices.
As for why the Hawaiians crew is free to roam the area doling out tropical cheer, the reason is simple -- the nuclear crisis forced management to shut it down until October at the earliest.
Personally, whenever Hawaiians -- and the rest of Fukushima’s affected onsen -- gets back on its feet, I’ll be joining thousands eager to slip on a towel and get back into some seriously hot water.
Let us know if you have any Fukushima favorites to add to our shortlist.