Discover the mystical power of water in Naruko Onsen

The rural train leaves the town of Osaki behind and slowly enters the tranquil natural realm of Naruko Gorge. Gradually the landscape changes to reveal a dramatic ravine where the forested hills shine in fiery colours under the autumn sun. In summer, the relaxing lush green of the wood appeases even the most intense spirits, while the powder snow in winter produces a picturesque panorama that inspires artists to create memorable masterpieces.

The panorama view over Naruko Onsen town

The gorge is home to several quiet and atmospheric hot spring towns snuggled between the forest and the swirling stream of Oya River. One of them is Naruko Onsen, an idyllic town with a history of over 1000 years, blessed by nature with a spectacular variety of hot springs. Local people possess a peculiar view towards what constitutes a harmonious lifestyle; they perceive the blessings of nature as omnipotent energy thatsustains, recharges and reinvigorates life in perpetual cycles. Particular attention is paid to water, as it is understood in the environmental context of circulating elements that contribute to the physical and spiritual survival of all forms of life in this region. Rain is a magical gift for local people because in a cycle of 40 years the rain that waters the virgin forest of Naruko Gorge will permeate deep into the earth’s womb only to come out again in the form of beneficial hot springs. The cognizance about the mystic forces that perpetuate this cycle has induced the people of Naruko Onsen to venerate the inseverable bond between pristine forests and valuable hot spring water. Their relentless efforts to preserve the flow of natural energy in this unique rural region in Japan have resulted in numerous ecological initiatives that include periodic thinning of the forest in order to allow the healthy growth of young trees under the rays of sunlight, the construction of forest huts for relaxation and meditation using traditional techniques, and the preservation of the precious countryside landscape by reducing the emissions of carbon dioxide.

Nature’s spirituality embraces everyday life

Welcome to Naruko Onsen, a tiny hot spring town of long history, social bonding, healing water, unique crafts, and treasured relationships between human beings and natural surroundings.

Naruko Onsen – a journey to the origins of life

The ways of sake in rural Japan

My trip to the wonderful rural paradise of Naruko Gorge began with a visit to the neighbouring Kami town and its traditional sake breweries remaining from the Edo period. During the glorious days of the shogunate, the region developed as a top producer of fine-quality rice which stimulated the establishment of landlord-tenant relations that characterized Edo Japan. The presence of wealthy merchants and abundant rice production resulted in the opening of some of the country’s oldest sake breweries, such as Tanaka Shuzo and Nakayu Shuzo, both of which began as stores for kimono trade. The former’s history dates back to 1789, while the latter flourished as a sake brewery in the beginning of the 20th century; however both own impressive warehouses with ornate facades and preserve the traditional ways of sake production.

Tanaka Sake Brewery’s magnificent warehouse

Water plays a vital role here as well for the fact that fresh spring water delivered directly from the mountain is used during the fermentation process. The yeast is developed using classical, albeit arduous and time-consuming methods (kimoto and yamahai mashing techniques, which are nowadays substituted with faster assisted fermentation in the mass production). Much of the process is still hand-made inside the pleasant wooden interior of the old warehouse.

Traditional sake-producing methods are still applied

However, the most astonishing aspect linked back to the harmonious unity with the powerful natural energy of the regionis the ingenious use of forest-inspired music for the slow and refining fermentation of the sake. Specially designed wave motion speakers transmit the gentle sound of “Amane” melodies directly to the tanks of fermenting sake in the span of 4 months in order to produce a delicate, rich natural taste born under the undulation of the natural sounds.

Amane’s relaxing sound waves refine the sake’s taste

The “Amane” music (literally “heaven sounds”) is written by a local composer and already after a few minutes of listening I could understand that the people of Naruko Gorge possess a unique sensitivity to the surrounding world. Together with the acclaimed brands “Mugen” and “Manatsuru”, the local “Amane” sake bears the mellow taste of pure mountain water and fine rice grown in the most favourable conditions.

Spirituality and myths surround Naruko Onsen’s mystical natural spots

Naruko Gorge is undoubtedly one of the most energizing places of Japan. The impressive combination of picturesque natural scenery and bucolic beauty has been praised highly by the great haiku poet Matsuo Basho in his literary masterpiece “Oku no Hosomichi”. With my own eyes I could verify that the splendid gorge offers numerous opportunities for spiritual recharging with the embracing and invigorating energy that has its source in the depths of the forest. All senses are stimulated and one truly feels a few steps closer to ultimate harmony with the roots of life, now largely forgotten and inaccessible in the busy lifestyle of the large cities.

Naruko Gorge’s most scenic natural spot

The view of bridges crossing the river amidst a fiery orgy of colours during the autumn season attracts plenty of visitors, but the summer too offers ample supply of natural energy at the disposal of hikers challenging the pleasant forest trails along the gorge. Steams of hot spring water gushing out from the hills along the lower parts of the narrow ravine remind visitors that the everlasting environmental cycle cannot be disrupted, yet needs conscious care and protection in order for people to benefit from the abundant blessings that nature has in store for us.

The acidic water of the silent Lake Katanuma

Naruko Onsen is a town with an old history. It emerged thanks to the mystical power of water and its leading role in the formation of the surrounding landscape. Standing at the shore of the caldera Lake Katanuma, one of Japan’s most acidic lakes devoid of any life in an eternal somber solitude, I could clearly see the traces of Naruko Onsen’s origin. In 837 the volcano Toyagamori erupted ferociously and created the lake together with all 400 hot springs whose water began gushing out from the earth. The legend claims that shocked people named the local village “Naruko” after the roaring sound of the exploding hot water.

Naruko Onsen Shrine keeps the myth of the town’s origin

However, my visit to Naruko Onsen Shrine, the most important sanctuary of the town, confirmed that yet another and more recent legend links the origin of the place once again with the benign influence of the water. According to the alternative myth, the wife of Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a great warrior from the 12th century, gave birth to a baby that initially looked stillborn but miraculously cried after being bathed in the hot spring water. This cry for life, epitomizing the invigorating power of the natural resources, is embedded in the name of Naruko Onsen, and the shrine stands as a reminder of the spirituality imbued in this rural area.

Ecologically clean food and home-made sake

These are just the appetizers! Home-grown vegetables used

Simplicity, eco-friendly lifestyles, and organic self-grown food products delineate the creed of the unique farm house restaurant Doppuri where I had the enormous pleasure to dine. Entering the 100-year-old well-preserved building is impressive because of the sudden ecstatic feeling of being transported back in time to a world of idyllic tranquility. When I heard that Doppuri was the first restaurant in the entire region to be allowed the production of doburoku (home-brewed thick and muddy sake), I instantly imagined a busy interior of a popular location, but the farm house fascinated me with its intimate atmosphere and delicious food prepared by the skillful mistress.

The sweet and rare joy of doburoku

Only locally grown ingredients are used, and the woman explained how many of the vegetables in the dishes were picked by her from the backyard the same morning. Lovers of gourmet experiments with a sweet tooth like me will appreciate the doburoku pudding served for dessert. Doppuri’s mistress will further transport visitors back in time with the personal story of her life and several surprising exhibits.

The endless wonders of Onuma Ryokan and its hot springs

Onuma Ryokan’s room is simple and elegant

Having flourished as a hot spring town, Naruko Onsen triumphed in accomplishing the uneasy task of preserving a traditional style atmosphere where visitors can casually experience the social and healthful effects of bathing. It is exactly this concept that the owner of Onuma Ryokan inn, Mr. Shinji Onuma, promotes convincingly with his magnetic personality. Guests of the simply-decorated, yet gorgeous ryokan will undoubtedly remain impressed by Mr Onuma’s comforting aura and his eloquent skills in explaining the authentic meaning behind the hot spring experience. A man of genuine character and complete harmony with the surrounding world, he advocates the traditional understanding of hot springs as a place to recharge with fresh energy and build lasting relationships with new acquaintances.

One of the healthiest breakfasts I have had

As Mr Onuma explained to me and my group too, there exists a natural cycle of discharging and recharging with power, and this cycle is best maintained in the countryside’s rural regions. After a good day of work on the farm field or in the forest in which one releases energy, the hot spring water gushing out from the earth embraces the body and produces a relaxing recharging effect that adjusts the balance of both the body and the mind.

The inn’s mistress warmly welcomes the visitors

In the old days, farmers and fishermen from various regions of Japan would gather in Naruko Onsen’s pools once per year (usually in winter) to socialize, exchange ideas and cultures, learn about each other, and bond on a deep spiritual level. Onuma Ryokan nourishes this traditional concept and recreates a space for healthy relaxation and social interaction through its multiple facilities.

“Mori no Yu”, a truly outstanding experience!

I was excited to discover and tour the 8 hot spring pools available for use in this splendid inn. Besides the large gender-mixed pool located right next to the entrance, there are also five private baths, one female-only bath, and the astonishing open-air “Mori no Yu” pool attractively snuggled between the lush green of the nearby forest. On top of this, the pools use different hot spring sources which makes the bathing tour dressed in yukata a highly-recommended activity for the late afternoon or the early morning. In particular, soaking in “Mori no Yu” while meditating among the natural energy transmitted by the forest and its distinctive relaxing sounds is what epitomizes mutual harmony between humans and the earth’s blessings.

One of Mr Onuma’s forest therapy projects, a self-made hut with blossoming flowers on the roof

Onuma Ryokan has numerous surprises in store for its guests. Following the concept of adjusting the balance between body and soul, Mr Onuma offers a variety of health-sustaining programs targeted at people who are eager to experience farm work, undertake a traditional style diet with organic Japanese vegetables, and immerse themselves in a world of authentic cultural practices. In the early dawn Mr Onuma took me to a small shrine in the mountain for a rejuvenating Zen meditation which proved to be an exhilarating way to start the day. Longer sessions are held in Mr Onuma’s private forest villa where guests can relax in what is commonly known as a forest therapy.

An elegant and classy tea ceremony in the forest

In addition, Mr Onuma’s mother, the elegant mistress of the inn who never failed to deliver stylishly all the detailed nuances of Japanese hospitality, demonstrated the fine art and extraordinariness of the Japanese tea ceremony inside a classical tearoom complete with a beautiful moss garden.

Naruko Onsen’s culture between the past and the future

Kokeshi dolls, the town’s proud culture and craft

A stroll along the pleasant streets of Naruko Onsen town reveals even more surprises to the unsuspecting visitor. The first thing I noticed was the steam coming out of various bathing facilities and the distinctive smell of sulfur. Out of eleven hot spring types existing in Japan, categorized by their mineral composition and health effects, Naruko Onsen has nine different kinds, which is rare and enhances the preciousness of the destination. The public bath “Taki no Yu”, located just a few hundred meters down the town’s shrine, scored as one of the best traditional rural hot spring experiences I have ever had in Japan. The water is highly acidic and there are two pools with different temperatures.

Complete relaxation in the sulfuric water of “Taki no Yu”

The main street is a paradise for craft lovers because of the numerous shops and artistic studios for creating the most iconic wooden toy of North Japan – the graceful kokeshi doll. Developed originally in Naruko Onsen as a children’s toy during the Edo period, the kokeshi dolls have now become one of Japan’s most unique craft arts. I could not hide my excitement from the opportunity to paint and create my own doll in one of the many atelier studios, even though the final result did not necessarily adhere to the classical art vision of Naruko Onsen’s skillful masters. The town holds a large-scale Kokeshi Festival for several days every September, in which people dance on the streets, parade with giant shrine floats, and celebrate together.

In the process of painting my own kokeshi doll

Yet the most shocking discovery in this idyllic – some might say charmingly old-fashioned – town was the unique Ene Café which challenged my preconception of Naruko Onsen as a place where time has stopped. Built near a steaming hot spring source by an inventive local townsman with a rich life experience, this small café has adopted a revolutionary concept of producing bioenergy from food leftovers that people bring directly to the fermentation tank. The methane gas produced suffices for cooking soups and coffee, thus completely utilizing recoverable eco-friendly resources. In addition, the energy from the hot spring is used in multiple ingenious ways. For instance, the heat facilitates the fermentation of the biogas, dries vegetables and spices to conserve their most nutritious components, and even boils eggs while visitors soak their feet in the small foot hot spring.

The owner of Ene Café displaying vegetables dried on hot spring steam

The existence of such a progressive eco-friendly project in Naruko Onsen left a lasting impression in my memory and convinced me that the remote hot spring town is not only far from submerging into oblivion, but on the contrary, its agile human potential has developed opportunities which guarantee the survival of alternative visions of coexistence between people and nature. Perhaps it is in the comforting harmony with the energy sources born out of the ceaseless environmental cycles where the key to asuccessful future lies.

One of Onuma Ryokan’s picturesque private baths

Access to Naruko Onsen

Take the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Furukawa Station, and then transfer to the local JR Rikuu East Line to Naruko Onsen Station. The entire trip will take less than 3 hours and is entirely covered by the JR Rail Pass. If you are traveling without the JR Rail Pass, the total cost of the journey will be 12,480 JPY.