Our arrival at Yunishigawa-Onsen Station in Tochigi Prefecture is more than a little disconcerting.
The two-carriage train, which until now has been chugging determinedly through an increasingly snowy landscape, pulls to a halt in the middle of a tunnel. The doors slide open to reveal a dimly lit corridor leading down to a lone, forlorn-looking elevator — it feels as though we are entering a disused hideaway from a 1960s James Bond flick.
When the elevator doors open, we emerge at ground level looking out at a scene both reassuring and breathtaking. Almost 40 cm of snow has fallen, lying heavy on the ground. Passengers waiting for the local bus huddle in a waiting room near the train station’s noodle stand, shivering every time the doors are opened and a chilly wind swirls snowflakes inside. I feel vindicated for having dragged my daughter’s snowsuit all the way from our home in Kyushu.
It turns out that the township of Yunishigawa Onsen is a further half-hour drive into the mountains. We pack onto the bus with the other onsen-bound travelers, our breath quickly steaming up the vehicle’s windows. Still, I manage to catch glimpses through fogged glass of snow-covered valleys and icy tree branches shimmering in the late afternoon sun.
The village lies in a gap in the mountains, seemingly miles from civilization — it’s no surprise this area has been cloaked in legend for the last millennium. When the Taira clan (also known as the Heike) lost the Battle of Dannoura to their rivals the Minamoto clan, in the seas off of Shimonoseki in 1185, allegedly a faction of the survivors ended up here in Tochigi Prefecture’s inhospitable mountains. The discovery of a hot spring in the 16th century certainly helped to ease the pain of exile, but for many centuries, the village itself remained completely off the radar. Certain local regulations kept Yunishigawa from being discovered — even today, there’s still a loosely enforced ban on keeping chickens (too much noise) or hanging carp-shaped koi no bori banners on Children’s Day (they can be seen too easily from a distance).
The bus slows to a stop at the entrance to our chosen ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), the Honke Bankyu. A staff member cheerfully comes out and greets us while we heave our luggage down the steps and we all skid down the driveway to the ryokan’s entrance.
The exterior of Honke Bankyu gives no indication that this inn was actually established in 1666. Whether the proclaimed ties to the fugitive Taira clan are legitimate or not, there’s no denying that this is a family business — the ryokan has been run by the same family for 25 generations.
Inside, a foyer with a soaring ceiling and crackling irori (sunken fireplace) immediately makes us feel at home. I drool over the views of the snowy river gorge behind the inn while we wait to check in. When it’s time to be shown to our rooms, another staff member beats — four times in quick succession — on a hanging drum that bears the stylized butterfly crest of the Taira clan.
Faced with a pile of snow and a good pair of gloves, it’s hard to keep a 3-year-old inside, even in rooms as spacious and comfortable as those in the ryokan’s original building. While I am content with the wintery view from our massive window, my daughter has other plans in mind and we bundle up for a jaunt outside.
After several futile attempts at building a sizable snowman, a staff member dashes over with a plastic sled. We take off down the road, in search of adventure and perhaps a small hill on which to try out our new acquisition. Our aim is to make it as far as the Heike no Sato folk village on the western edge of town. Built in 1985 to showcase the lifestyle of the Taira clan, the ryokan staff have told us to expect old-fashioned tools and straw crafts scattered throughout the nine thatched-roof buildings. There’s even a 20-volume copy of the “Heike Monogatari” (“The Tale of the Heike”), the epic saga of the disgraced warriors.
Despite our intentions, we never make it there. A stone torii and a steep staircase just before the edge of town appeal to our curiosity, and we make the climb up to the Takafusa Shrine. There’s nothing remarkable about it, save for its primitive beauty in the snowy surroundings. Yet someone has cared enough to shovel a path to the rickety main building. While our daughter leaps about in drifts as high as her waist, my husband and I ring the shrine’s weathered bell and send up a petition for a safe trip home.
With feet slowly going numb, we head back toward the hotel via the riverside walk. As dusk falls, the path’s lamps slowly come to life. Each is emblazoned with the Taira butterfly, yet another nod to the history that fuels this town’s economy.
Thankfully, there’s time before dinner to thaw out in the inn’s hot springs. The women’s indoor bath is scalding but the rotenburo (outdoor bath) is cooled by the evening air and works wonders to restore circulation to my limbs. From the gap in the bamboo fence, I can see ice sculptures on the opposite bank. In January and February, the entire town creates kamakura, igloo-like houses that are illuminated at night. We’re too early in the season for this annual event, but the creative sculptures beside our bath — made by spraying river water into the freezing air — are a decent consolation prize.
Promptly, at 6 p.m., clad in our padded yukata (cotton robe), we join the other guests in the ryokan hallway. A door slides open to reveal access to the Kazura rope bridge, the sole conduit that links the main inn with the dining hall on the opposite bank. Modeled on the vine bridges once used frequently by residents in this mountainous corner of Tochigi Prefecture, the structure creaks and sways slightly as we all shuffle across. As I pause and wait to take a photo without the crowds, a staff member darts out onto the bridge. He swiftly opens a paper parasol and stands holding it over me, ostensibly protecting me from the elements (which is only a light mist at that point) while I take my shot.
Perhaps due to our daughter or as consideration for our poor foreign knees, we’re led past the main dining hall and into a small room with actual chairs. An irori stands in the middle of the space, fresh river trout and potatoes already staked out on skewers over the coals. The rest of the spread is unusual by Japanese standards; buckwheat porridge, deer sashimi and minced venison don’t appear on many other ryokan tables. The menu is an homage to the food the Taira clan subsisted on in their years on the run. If this is the taste of hardship, I might have signed up for exile myself.
We top off our copious dinner with fresh strawberry pudding and cups of hot sake that have been warmed over the fire. Thoroughly sated, we walk back across the bridge, intent on bedding down for the evening.
However, I’m drawn one more time to the riverside rotenburo, nearly empty at this late hour. I know I can return to Kyushu and have my pick of equally enjoyable onsen, but the addition of snow and the echo of history make this final soak one I’ll remember for quite some time.
Getting there: Yunishigawa-Onsen Station can be easily reached via train from either Kinugawa Onsen Station or Tobu-Nikko Station. A daily rapid express runs directly from Asakusa Station in Tokyo to Yunishigawa-Onsen Station and from here, buses leave hourly for the Yunishigawa township (25-30 minutes, ¥880). The Honke Bankyu ryokan can be booked online at www.bankyu.co.jp/en.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5