The Best Unknown Hot Spring in Japan 湯ノ平温泉
My trek to Yunohira Onsen, 湯ノ平温泉, in Shibata, Niigata, gave me the strongest onsen rush of 2016. Although Yunohira Onsen is one of the best natural hot springs in Japan, foreigner visitors are rare.
A tough hike is necessary to reach it. Few people know about it. Many Shibata residents have never gone there. This article could be the only article written in English about Yunohira Onsen.
Villagers hunting bear during winter in the mid-1800's, the story goes, discovered the hot spring by accident. One hunter fell off a cliff and toppled into the gorge below. Struggling not to freeze to death in the deep snow, he found a natural hot spring, which kept him alive until rescuers found him.
If you go, you can stay in a primitive mountain hut near the onsen. A flat grassy area is available for tents. Bring food, a sleeping bag, and cooking gear. If you are not fit, do not attempt going there. The first three-quarters of the one-way four-hour trek is easy for strong hikers. The last hour requires pushing oneself up muddy wall-like trails with the legs while pulling hard on chains and ropes someone had tied to tree trunks or had anchored into cliff walls above. Many people turn back.
The route has many precarious sections, particularly at the end. Some powerful men and women ride mountain bikes on the first three-fourths of the trail. A Japanese man on a mountain bike passed us near the start of our hike and shouted encouragement. I noticed two bouquets of flowers attached to his backpack and wondered about them. Later, I saw them placed on the side of the trail. At night, in the mountain hut, he told me that two of his friends had died after slipping off the trailside ledges. He brings flowers and prays for them once each year.
If you still want to go, start your trek by registering your name and hiking plans on documents left in a metal box at the end of the last parking lot above Kajikawa Dam. You begin walking on a crumbling concrete one-lane road that keeps to the left of the winding river that pours into the leaf-shaped dam lake. Only dam workers can drive vehicles on this narrow road that looks and feels as if it could suddenly slip hundreds of meters into the river. Tiny bridges, battered by heavy snows and falling rocks, rusted by rain, and cracked by ice, span numerous waterfalls and streams. Metal bridge railings, long ago corroded by nature, are rusted and crumbly. It is best not to look down when walking on the suspension bridges.
Look to the side. See hundreds of thousands of dragonflies hovering between steep, moist valley cliffs. I had never seen such dragonfly abundance. They darted, hunted, and mated on wing amidst trees, whose strong thick roots clasped cliff sides while bending sideways and then turning skyward at right angles to catch the sunlight. Beneath it all, the river churns white in narrow channels, shifts to clarity in calm, shallow stretches, and turns a dark blue-green in deeper sections.
Meanwhile, hundreds of meters above, the road advances through a cedar mono-forest, an expanse of white birch, and a stretch of mixed trees and shrubs. If you walk without speaking, the occasional screech of hawks and crows penetrates the woods. In the thick forests, where sunlight dapples the earth, moss and mushrooms grow profusely over toppled trees and craggy rocks. We crossed paths with a few gatherers of matsutake and other mushrooms and various mountain vegetables.
After hiking 9.6 kilometers, you will see a sign announcing that just two kilometers remain. These last two kilometers are exhausting but challenging. Mountain bikers lock their bikes to a fence and proceed on foot. Bicycling on the remainder of the trail would be impossible. The trail zigzags at almost ninety-degree angles in some places. In others, wobbly suspension bridges swing hazardously from side to side. The trail is soggy and slippery. Without ropes and chains, ascending would be out of the question for most people.
Finally, the first bath area appears around a bend. It, shockingly, looks like a derelict metal shed slapped together above the river. We approached and found a sign that said that the ladies' bath was within. Steaming water issued from the nearby rocks. Metal pipes caught that mountain juice and led it into the bathing enclosure. I was disappointed. I had heard the baths were beautiful and natural. We saw a sign that said the mountain hut was above us, so we hiked up another hundred meters or so. The hut manager we met told us that a few more minutes of strolling along an upstream trail would bring us to another spring, the men's bathing area.
I instantly recognized this part of Yunohira Onsen to be the best riverside onsen of 2016. Because of the attractive features of this spring, most male and female visitors, some naked, some clothed, bathe here. We walked on tiny, slippery rock ledges to the bottom of a gorge where huge boulders surrounded holes in rocks filled with hot mineral water that was issuing from the cliff side. The baths were almost invisible. They blended naturally into the river bank. Rising steam helped me locate them. Nearby, the white river roared as it slipped between other boulders. It was one of the cleanest rivers I have ever seen. After our strenuous hike, bathing in naturally heated water while enjoying the green mountain, valley, and riverbank views was heaven. Our bodies moved like noodles among the four natural pools.
Evening falls quickly in the distant mountains. Lights go off in the hut at eight at night. Small kerosene heaters provide some heat. We cooked ramen on a small camp stove and ate by flashlight in the wooden two-story building. We chatted with Japanese hikers who had traveled, camped, and bathed their way across the Japanese archipelago. A club of robust, experienced mountain climbers was having a dinner party on the top floor, and they invited us to join them. They had carried in boxes of Japanese sake, bottles of wine, packages of meat, fish, and vegetable dishes, and portable solar lights, which they used after the lights went out.
Mountain lovers, photographers, and onsen addicts from across Japan and America bonded in the hut that evening. We laughed, told stories of other mountains and baths, and shared food. Late at night, we walked outside to see a full moon and brilliant stars illuminating the gap between dark cliffs and trees above us. It was a fantastic evening.
The next morning, we soaked in all of the baths, took photographs, and separated from our new friends, each party leaving at a different time. The mountain hut and onsens are accessible from two routes, and hiking paths lead off to nearby peaks.
Shibata city officials close the trail leading to Yunohira Onsen from Shibata from the end of October to the end of June. The actual dates vary according to weather and trail conditions. Landslides once kept the trail closed for two years. The city also manages the mountain bungalow. Twenty-five people are the maximum number allowed to stay each day. The fee to sleep in the hut is 1,000 yen per person. An outdoor camping site costs 1,000 per tent.
Access - getting there
Public transportation is unavailable. The closest train station is Shibata Station. A taxi ride takes 40 minutes or so. Tell the driver you want to go to Kajikawa Chisui Dam. Print out this map. Your phone won't work in the mountains. Shibata Station can be reached from Niigata city by train in 37 minutes on the JR Hakushin Line. If you want to visit remote Shibata and love hot springs, but prefer to stay in hotels, I recommend Tsukioka Onsen. You can get there by bus from Shibata Station.
The name Yunohira Onsen is not uncommon, but this hot spring exists in the most remote woods of Shibata, Niigata. Do not get it confused with the famous Yunohira Onsen in Yufuin, Oita Prefecture in Kyushu.
Photographs are by Peter Locke and Greg Goodmacher
The author of this article blogs about Japanese hot springs at hotspringaddict.blogspot.jp.
Japanese Bath Products
Purchase a range of wooden Japanese bath products made from the finest Japanese wood including original bath buckets, chairs and soap basins to give your bathroom that Japanese hot spring onsen feel.