Travel

Surrendering to a hot-spring package tour in snowy Yunishigawa

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

Despite never having joined a package tour in my entire life, I felt a pang of regret when the colossus of Thomas Cook, Britain’s oldest travel company and creator of said package tour, ceased trading last September. Founded in 1841, Cook’s early tours did not come cheap. For a suitable fee, the moneyed class could enjoy grand circuits of Europe, high tea on the sand dunes of Tunisia, or elephant tours of Jaipur with a full retinue of porters.

The company demonstrated commercial savvy in recognizing the preferences of wealthy passengers for comfort, luxury and safety; a desire for a foreign experience — but not too foreign. Its River Nile packages aboard a flotilla of steam ships, for example, replete with carpeted decks, private bathrooms, string quartets, multi-course meals and fine wines, were legendary.

Illuminated plumes of steam from Yunishigawa's natural hot springs add to the town's romance. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Illuminated plumes of steam from Yunishigawa’s natural hot springs add to the town’s romance. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Tours for the supra-rich — a leisured class demanding an exclusive experience — still exist today, of course, with companies providing designer packages to the privileged world of high-end Balinese spas, and private villas in Grand Cay, Conception Island or Eleuthera, each with its own dream-like infinity pool.

Thomas Cook would have been astonished at how lean, streamlined and affordable the concept has become in Japan. With no first-hand knowledge of such things, I expected a nightmare of insipid food, endless traffic jams, shrill, flag-bearing guides and the prospect of being harassed from one cheesy souvenir shop to the next.

What was it that turned me into a convert of the short package tour in Japan? Partly the cost. Just under ¥10,000 per person with the Ohruri Group bagged me one night in the hot spring town of Yunishigawa, Tochigi Prefecture — including accommodation, breakfast, dinner and, of course, unlimited access to the hotel’s baths — as well as transport by bus from our closest pick-up point, Nishi Funabashi. Yes, it is easy to reach from Tokyo without the obligatory toilet/souvenir pit stops, but — much like the Thomas Cook tourists of yore — I was sold on the luxury of surrendering all responsibility to a travel company.

Part of the annual Kamakura Festival, Yunishigawa's cozy snow huts are a nod to those of the Tohoku region. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Part of the annual Kamakura Festival, Yunishigawa’s cozy snow huts are a nod to those of the Tohoku region. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Winter is a fine time to visit Yunishigawa. The months from December to the first week of March see the enchanting Kamakura Festival, when hundreds of kamakura (snow huts) are constructed along the Yunishigawa river, in forest recesses and in the precincts of temples and shrines.

However, as the bus made its way up the twisting mountain roads, there was barely a snowflake in sight. The trees, as magical as fairy wands during summer and autumn, now looked like wiry toilet brushes. Though the stark, monochrome beauty of such a frugal landscape is striking, mercifully, the snowline appeared 200 meters below the village as the first plumes of steam from the odorless alkaline onsen (hot springs) vaporized in the freezing air.

The moment we arrived at the hotel, Yunishigawa Onsen Heike Honjin, the staff went into overdrive, swiftly processing people, dispensing meal schedules and allocating rooms. Victorian-era Thomas Cook travelers would have found the quarters, and attached thermal baths, most commodious: The panoramic windows of our spacious, well-heated room looked out onto a forested, snowbound river valley.

With no chain restaurants nor convenience stores, lunchtime choices in the village are confined to local, family-run eateries housed in old timber structures. At a cantina with a warm stove along the main road of the village, my wife and I opted for steaming bowls of regional Heike soba (thick soba noodles topped with mountain vegetables) and a local side relish of miso paste grilled on a spatula. The menu also included a number of wild game options, venison and boar among them. A couple at the counter were gingerly prodding at cuts of grilled bear meat. “My husband’s a licensed hunter,” the owner vouched. “He shot this one yesterday. Then skinned and cut up the meat for the freezer.” A slow creature, on the point of hibernating. “It was an easy shot,” she added.

Frozen stiff: Blue ice on one of Yunishigawa's tributaries. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Frozen stiff: Blue ice on one of Yunishigawa’s tributaries. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Warmed and fortified by our meal, we set off to explore the area’s frozen riverbanks, forest glades, time-worn wooden shrines and rustic cottages, remarking on rabbit trails, a solitary scarecrow standing vigil over a snowfield and a shelf of brilliant blue ice on a tributary of the Yunishigawa river.

It is easy to imagine the remoteness of this mountain valley as it was in the 12th century, when the Heike clan, defeated in the Genpei War (1180-85) by the Genji clan, sought refuge here. Preventing the settlement from being discovered involved a number of elaborate measures, including prohibitions on flying koinobori (carp streamers), and banning chickens, their crowing a sign of human habitation. Curiously, these two prohibitions are still upheld.

The history of Yunishigawa can be explored at Heike no Sato Open Air Museum, where visitors can step inside reconstructed homes displaying various agricultural tools, kitchen implements and looms.

Furnished with finely woven tatami mats, warm hearths and well-crafted wooden storage chests, the residencies belie the probable early living conditions of the clan. Inhabited by war refugees, these would have been considerably more squalid, more indigent than the spacious, thatched villas displayed in the museum. One often comes across this gilding of the past in Japan. We leave the museum concluding that any one of these residencies, fitted out with one or two modern conveniences, would make a wonderful second home.

With nightfall, the village and surrounding landscape turn into a winter wonderland, as candles light up almost 800 kamakura, ranging from conical, Hobbit-sized snow structures to those resembling giant cottage loaves or pies. The walls of the larger snow huts are as hard as concrete: dense and compacted, they are made to last all winter. Rain aside, the only thing that can spoil the illuminations is wind. We were lucky: The night before, a strong wind had blown along the river, extinguishing most of the candles, plunging the area into near darkness. Few people actually stay overnight in these Japanese igloos; the snowy structures are largely aesthetic, but some serve as eateries, with meals delivered from outside.

The food at the hotel’s buffet dinner that evening was fresh, tasty and plentiful. Unlimited beer, sake and wine were also included. Admittedly, the beer lacked zest, the sake was a little tart and the red wine might better have served as a vinegar dressing or scouring substance of some kind, but the dry white was perfectly quaffable.

The onsen were surprisingly quiet that evening, the frozen silence outside the plate glass windows almost oppressive. The thermal waters here are alleged to be efficacious for relieving stiff joints, arthritis, neuralgia and certain forms of skin disease, although you would need prolonged exposure to experience any real benefit. Perhaps the battle-fatigued soldiers, said to be the first patrons of the onsen at Yunishigawa, felt the keenest benefit.

After breakfast, the hotel minibus took us to a pick-up point where we had an hour to wait for a larger tour company bus. To entertain us during the wait, we were issued with tickets for a performance at a small theater next to the car park. The drama, a truncated Edo Period (1603-1868) narrative about the timeless themes of love and betrayal, was synchronized to begin just after our arrival. It seemed the organizers, in their pledge to provide a completely satisfying package experience, had thought of everything.

Plebeian entertainment: Melodramatic theater for the masses. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Plebeian entertainment: Melodramatic theater for the masses. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

The genre, as far as I could tell, was close to taishu engeki (“theater for the masses”), a brand of earthy, unpolished theater still supported in downtown districts of Tokyo and Osaka, and out in the provinces, where troupes perform to largely older audiences at small venues and onsen hotels.

As we took our seats, the lights were dimmed, the stage bathed in lurid red. I recognized two of the actors from when we had entered the theater, where they had been dispensing tickets and ushering in the audience. A spirited production, this was unapologetic melodrama. Even when one of the actors’ wigs fell off and had to be hastily reattached, there was verve in the theatricality.

The performance, the final touch to a thoroughly satisfying package tour, was the coda to a level of service that, far from making Thomas Cook turn in his grave, would have witnessed him sitting up and paying attention to a most admirable business model.

The Yunishigawa Kamakura Festival is held from late January to early March. Independent travelers can take the Limited Express from Tobu Asakusa Station to Shimoimaichi Station (one hour 52 minutes, ¥2,440), then take a Tobu-Kinugawa Line local train to Yunishigawa Onsen Station (47 minutes, ¥840), where you can catch a twice hourly bus to Yunishigawa (25 minutes, ¥880). This tour was booked through the Ohruri Group. For more information, visit ohruri.com.

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