Nagano’s ‘time-slip’ onsen

by Anne Pepper

Many hot spring resorts these days look so similar that it’s sometimes hard to remember where you are. Not Bessho Onsen.

This ancient spa in a remote Nagano valley has kept true to its origins and resisted the temptation to become just another stereotypical stretch of glitzy hotels and souvenir shops.

Bessho has the sort of character that comes with age. It calls itself the “Kamakura of Shinshu,” Shinshu being the old name for Nagano. Until I went there, I had always suspected that this claim was an exaggeration.

It turns out, though, that Bessho does indeed have sufficient grounds to compare itself to the 13th-century capital of the shogunate. Tucked into the wooded hills around the spa are some beautiful Kamakura Period temples, including a National Treasure.

In the Kamakura Period, Bessho was the headquarters of Hojo Yoshimasa, the military governor of the Shinshu region. To this rustic spa, he introduced the elegant culture of the capital.

Today, due to its isolated location among other things, Bessho Onsen is the only place left in Japan with a Chinese Song Dynasty-style eight-sided pagoda. Unlike the crowded National Treasures in Kamakura, this pagoda at Bessho’s Anrakuji Temple can usually be enjoyed without a lot of tourists around.

For visitors to Bessho, primary activities include taking the waters, relaxing, eating and doing a little sightseeing. The mineral baths of Bessho have been attracting travelers for at least 1,000 years.

Bathers today have a choice of three public baths and some 20 places to stay, including big hotels, small inns, minshuku and a youth hostel. In the Kamakura Period, the choice was greater; there were more public baths and more accommodations.

The three public baths are popular both with day travelers and people staying overnight. Ishi-yu (“Rock Spring”) is a cave bath; the hot water gushes forth from a rocky cavern.

O-yu (“Big Bath”) features an open-air bath on both the men’s and women’s sides, as well as the standard indoor baths on both sides. Daishi-yu (“Monk’s Bath”) reflects the mood of Kamakura Period Bessho, when there were several monasteries here.

Many, but not all, of the inns and hotels offer rotenburo (open-air baths) in addition to their indoor baths.

I went to Bessho with some friends from Nagano who spend every New Year season relaxing at this spa. They stay at the Izumiya because of the warm hospitality of the staff and the splendid array of food served during the holiday period.

The Izumiya chef never repeats himself, not only from night to night but also not from year to year, because many of the guests during the New Year season are annual visitors. The evening meals consisted of so many different dishes that it was hard to fit them all on the table. Among my favorites was the yakuzen-nabe, a bubbling pot of broth filled with delicacies designed to promote good health, such as ginseng, along with duck and vegetables.

There’s no space at the Izumiya for an open-air bath, but it’s right across the street from the O-yu public bath, which has two rotenburo. The Izumiya is one of Bessho’s oldest inns, rebuilt a couple of decades ago; it now looks more like a hotel than a traditional inn. The hotel can be reached at (0268) 38-3030.

For those who want the mood of old Japan, Bessho offers the Hanaya, a picture-perfect inn built in 1914 and meticulously maintained by the Iijima family. The Ha-naya has 42 rooms built around an interior garden and connected by roofed walkways. It has three baths, two indoors (one of which is lined with marble and adorned with Taisho Era stained-glass windows) and one outdoors. It falls in the big splurge category, but the memories will last you a lifetime.

If you can’t stay overnight, the Hanaya, like many inns in Japan, offers a day package consisting of lunch and a bath. The price is 6,000 yen per person and lunch is a full-course kaiseki meal. Call (0268) 38-3131 for reservations. Day packages are available only during off-seasons (one of which is now).

Another way to visit the Hanaya at a reduced rate, if you happen to be female, is to sign up for a day excursion offered by JR East, called “Meguri Hime Higaeri Pack.” Hime means princess, and this tour is designed to let a woman feel like a princess for a day.

For 13,000 yen, you get a round-trip ticket on the shinkansen from Tokyo to Ueda, lunch and a bath at the Ha-naya and an admission pass good for Bessho Onsen’s three public baths. (The 30-minute commuter train that runs between Ueda and Bessho is not included; it’s 570 yen each way.) The normal round-trip or shinkansen fare to Ueda with a reserved seat is 12,980 yen, so the Princess Pack represents a good saving.

This excursion is available weekdays only, and will be offered through March 31. Two women or more must sign up and bookings can be made as late as one day ahead of time, provided there is space. To make a telephone reservation, call JR East’s View Yo-yaku Center at (03) 3843-2001; English-speaking operators are sometimes on duty.

Train information in English is always available from the knowledgeable staff at JR East’s Infoline, (03) 3423-0111, but this office is not able to do bookings. After making your reservation at a View Yoyaku Center, you have four days to pick up your ticket at a JR View Plaza; these are located in major JR East stations. Or, you can avoid the telephone reservation center and go directly to a View Plaza.

Bessho Spa has two particularly nice shops where you can buy something for those you left behind. Earthworks, owned by an American man and his Japanese wife, sells ceramics, textiles and whatever other handmade crafts have caught their eye recently.

Gallery Hyo deals exclusively in ceramics, especially those from Kyushu. The owner’s personal collection of ceramics from around Japan is also on display and browsers are welcome to look.