According to legend, the hot spring in Yuki town, in western Hiroshima Prefecture, was discovered way back in the sixth century, when villagers noticed an injured heron bathing in the waters. Somewhat later, the Asano lords, who ruled the Hiroshima area from 1619 till 1869, used to enjoy a break in this area.
Today, Yuki town is Hiroshima’s most renowned onsen (hot spring) resort, and its waters are now known to have one of the world’s highest radon contents, good for rheumatism, stomach troubles, skin diseases and generally soaking your stress away. It has been a designated National Recreational Hot Spring Resort since 1955.
History aside, the promise of healing waters, fireflies, mountains, waterfalls and forest (which accounts for 90 percent of the Yuki area) — just an hour’s drive from central Hiroshima — sounded like the ideal antidote to a sweltering summer in the city.
When we arrived in Yuki on one of those hot, humid afternoons, we were greeted by the striking sight of mist rising off the Minochigawa River like steam. We checked into the Yuki Lodge, which the Michelin Guide understatedly describes as “very comfortable,” and savored the green tea and cakes left on the table in our room.
Anxious to immerse ourselves in the greenery we’d driven through on the way up, we then set off in search of the Ishigatani-kyo Gorge. Within minutes we’d reached a turning where the road became a path, then came to an abrupt end with a sign warning us not to continue by car.
Disgorging from the car we found ourselves in an alpine wonderland of a rushing river, waterfalls and phantasma- gorical rock formations. The river cuts a narrow 7-km gorge through the craggy mountains, dark with dense pine forest, so it was cool and fresh after the baking asphalt. We clambered down the rocks to the river and slid under its cool crystal-clear waters awhile.
After drying out atop one of the many boulders that littered the river bed, we walked on up through increasingly spectacular scenery, with waterfalls splashing into deep turquoise pools. By then the track was deserted and, with the sun dipping behind the peaks, we decided to call it a day, anxious not to get overtaken by the oncoming night on an unfamiliar trail. Night falls quickly in the mountains, and neither of us had the desire to find ourselves alone in these darkening highlands — when the creatures of the night emerge to prowl their domain, especially after seeing the sabre-like tusks on the wild boar’s head mounted on the wall of a nearby bar on the way here.
Back at the lodge’s dining room, our dinner had already been set out for us, on a table with a card bearing our names. And what a joyous sight to welcome weary hikers home: a multi-colored assortment of fish, grilled and raw, chilled noodles, tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlets), salads, rice, soup and such a confusing array of little sauce dishes we had to ask the waitress for help. The only other guests were four teenage girls, already in their post-onsen yukata (summer kimono).
Finally, it was time to submerge our tired bodies in the fabled radon waters. The onsen was empty at that time of the evening, offering some privacy to try out the pools. The first, a hot pool, had a cascade that gives your upper back a merciless pounding. In another pool, jets of differing size and intensity pummel the pain away from your lower back and massage your thighs, feet and belly. When it all gets too much, you can slip into the cool pool till you’re ready to renew the heat treatment.
We emerged an hour later with our faces pink as freshly-fried shrimps and our bodies reduced to a warm jelly. So we poured ourselves onto the futon and slept till sunrise. Next morning, we got up early for a pre-breakfast amble around the streets. Little red bridges cross the Minochigawa River as it chuckles through the village. Houses, and even a couple of hotels, back right onto the river, while cherry trees that line its banks complete the idyllic scene.
On the other side of the main road we spied a bench with a wooden shelter over it. At first, it looked to be a bus stop, but it turned out to be an ashi-yu (footbath) where you can enjoy the view while soaking your feet in the water piped in from the hot spring.
Breakfast that morning included rice, pickles, raw eggs, milk and scrumptious slices of salmon you cook yourself at your own little grill. Suitably fortified, and armed with a wad of pamphlets from the front desk, we then embarked on a quest to find the legendary shihon sugi, an ancient cedar whose trunk splits into four. This isn’t just any old four-pronged cedar. This is one of Japan’s top 100 trees, boasting a massive circumference of 14 meters. The four-way split in the trunk doesn’t even start until 4 meters above ground level.
Just as we found the path where the ascent of Mount Togo (977 meters) starts, distant thunder rumbled, and an intense rain began to fall. But it was too late to stop now.
Three hours later, after plowing our way uphill through thick undergrowth and a steamy forest so dense the trees blacked out the sky, we came across a clearing from which the most astounding view greeted us. It had rained so hard, followed by sunshine of such intensity, that a thick mist was enveloping the slopes, creeping up toward us with alarming speed. Then, just for a moment, the mist parted to reveal a tiny town and the river winding its way through the valley, hundreds of meters below.
It seemed like a good moment for a spot of contemplation so, using the concrete base of an enormous electricity pylon as our table, we sat down and made a nonchalant sandwich, pondering what to do next.
It had been a hard hike, up an interminable path that was getting steeper and steeper. Every time we thought we must be nearing the top, another slope would appear, with another series of rough-hewn steps disappearing round the bend. Our stairway to heaven was beginning to feel more like a descent into masochism. And so, as the sun began setting and with time clearly not on our side, and no indication we were even on the right path, we reluctantly opted to turn back, the whereabouts of the fabulous cedar remaining a mystery, to be solved another day.
On our way back, we stopped off at the pretty Yahata Shrine and admired some ancient-looking wood-panel paintings depicting mythical scenes, as the sun began setting behind the mountain we’d just been up.
Dinner that night began with sukiyaki — individual dishes piled high with meat and veg to cook on our own mini-stoves — followed by local specialties such as yamafugu (mountain “blowfish,” made from konnyaku jelly) and ayu (freshwater sweet fish), plus a delightful fan of side dishes, so charmingly arranged it almost seemed a shame to eat them.
After another blissful melt in the onsen, we donned our hotel yukata and strolled out together into the midsummer night, where the mountain air felt deliciously cool on our parboiled skin. The only sound, apart from the symphony of frogs and crickets, came from our wooden sandals as we clip-clopped along the deserted streets. Little orange lanterns glowed along the river bank, and a big yellow moon rose, silhouetting the pines on the mountain peaks — the same ones the Asano lords must’ve gazed on.
Getting there, take the Sanyo Line from JR Hiroshima Station to JR Itsukaichi Station (about 20 mins). Yuki, in Saeki-ku, is a 70-min bus ride from Itsukaichi Station South Exit.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.