If you understand the satisfaction of a piping hot onsen (hot spring) on a cold day, or the view of fiery red leaves against a crisp autumn sky, you’ll understand my disbelief when I found myself at Ubayu Onsen Masugataya Ryokan.
The drive up the long and winding road on Ubayu’s shuttle bus offered a stark contrast to my bullet train trip out of Tokyo and into central Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture, where I spent the night. I then hopped on a train to Toge Station to finally end up on this near-empty mountain road with orange and red leaves fluttering in the trees overhead. The trees eventually opened up for just a moment to reveal a glimpse of the onsen in the distance: a dark building coquettishly peeking through hills of red, orange, yellow and green foliage. After a few more minutes of bumpy driving over the last of the mountain road, I’d arrived.
It wasn’t easy getting to my first hitō (secret onsen), but when it comes to these secluded resorts, that’s entirely the point. Unlike largely urban sentō (public bathhouses) and occasionally rural yet still accessible onsen, hitō are a separate class of baths. While some require visitors to drive themselves for a soak, others — like Tochigi Prefecture’s Okukinu Onsenkyo Teshirosawa Onsen — are so remote that guests must hike several hours from the nearest public transit just to reach the front door.