Getting into hot water in Fukushima

by Andrew Rankin

The sleepy town of Kitakata in northwest Fukushima hasn’t much to interest tourists. The ramen is famous, but once you’ve seen the lacquer museum and some of the old storehouses, you may be stuck for ideas. The locals are rather proud of their Daibutsu, an 11th-century golden Buddha, but it is hardly worth the three-hour trip from Tokyo.

None of this will matter, though, as long as you are staying at Osaragi no Yado. Just get yourself to Kitakata Station; the staff will do the rest. We were met at the station by a welcoming staff member, and 10 minutes later we had slipped into cotton kimonos and were enjoying hot tea and cakes in our 12-mat room.

The Osaragi forms a hexagon around a garden of maple trees, visible from any point indoors. The pretty wooden walkway that runs the length of the building is lined with red lacquer tansu chests, vases and cups. The only sounds are creaking floorboards and the splash of carp in the garden pond.

After a short nap, my wife and I headed off to the baths. The Osaragi is fully booked on weekends, but we were there on a Monday and the bathing areas were empty. The rest of the afternoon we spent drinking free beers in the grand lobby, which seats 80 and is decorated with paper lanterns and more antiques.

A superb kaiseki dinner was served in a private room by our extremely attentive maid. A selection of starters was followed by six courses, with rice dumplings and melon jelly as dessert. Some Westerners complain about the slow pace and small portions of kaiseki, but the aim is to make you consider what you are eating and satisfy you gradually, rather than to stuff you in five minutes. No Western meal could have offered such a wonderful variety of tastes and textures, and we were handed every dish as if it were a priceless jewel. Our second evening was the first day of summer, and dinner was served in delicate glass bowls to reflect the seasonal change.

The Osaragi has fewer rules and restrictions than most ryokan. The bath is open 24 hours a day and there is no deadline for checking out. The total bill for two of us for two nights came to 101,000 yen, a price we were happy with. As we drove away, the maids came out into the courtyard and waved to us until we were out of sight.

From Kitakata we drove eastward for an hour to Tsuchiyu Onsen. This hot spring town lies at the bottom of a gorge concealed behind hills, and if you weren’t looking for it you would drive right past. We had high hopes for our next ryokan. The Sato no Yu has become extremely popular since the Crown Prince paid a private visit three years ago, but our first impression was disappointing. The modern building is spartan inside and out. No antiques here. The walls are blank, the corridor is carpeted dark blue, and Muzak hums from hidden speakers. The lobby consists of half a dozen leather chairs positioned around a colossal wide-screen television.

The staff was courteous but distant, and unlike the Osaragi, we did not get to know them by name. Our room was dull and poorly lit. I started to grumble that we should have stayed in Kitakata, but things looked up when we tried out the baths.

The Sato no Yu has a private bathing system. Guests take the key to the bath of their choice and lock themselves in, enabling couples and families to bathe together in seclusion. The “family bath” is perched high on the side of the building and has two cypress tubs overlooking a forest of cedar trees. The outdoor rotenburo is reached via a long wooden staircase descending to the foot of the gorge. Nothing compares to sitting stark naked on mossy rocks and breathing in the spa’s aroma, while a mountain stream gurgles past.

The cooking was less ambitious than at the Osaragi. Beef rolls in vinegar sauce; strips of raw tuna and sea bass; assorted pickles; the sort of things you find in a good izakaya. The maid may have spotted me taking notes, though, because on the second night dinner was a much more extravagant affair. We began with a glass of blueberry shochu, followed by fish soup and mountain peaches. Then came eight generous courses, with dishes such as grilled rockfish and wild plants we had never heard of. I particularly enjoyed a slice of sweetened nasu (eggplant) and a very tender Yonezawa beef steak. To end, cold noodles and fresh cherries.

This time the bill for two nights topped 130,000 yen, and we were not completely happy. His Highness must have had a different room.