03Journey through the land of hot springs

City of Gero Onsen

Lounge of Suimeikan Ryokan

Snow falls into the outdoor footbath where I'm relaxing. Above me, two birds flit through the treetops. For the first time this year, I notice that winter is already here. In Tokyo and the coastal regions of the country, we are still waiting, but here in Gero Onsen, the icy season has arrived. It is cold and I let myself slip more into the warm water of the onsen (hot spring). In the onsen, my thoughts wander and I make life decisions. What better way to do it than in the over 40-degree warm spring water, completely relaxed? Going to an onsen isn't the same as taking a soak in a Baltic Sea spa. Here you recharge your mental batteries. It is like a cleansing for the body and soul.

The city of Gero is a two-hour train ride from Nagoya, in the mountain valleys of Gifu Prefecture. We stayed in one of the largest ryokan hotels in the city, Suimeikan. The noble hotel, where even the Japanese emperor once stayed, offers an unforgettable view of the Hida River.

Tatami room in Suimeikan Ryokan

A ryokan is a Japanese inn and offers all kinds of amenities. Our room was a tatami room in traditional style with wooden beams, sliding doors made of paper (shoji), and some hot tea with biscuits already waiting on a table. But first, we changed into our hotel clothes,the yukata (casual kimono), because they were already ready for us. Once we changed, the fatigue of the trip was gone and it was time to relax. Since we still had some time before dinner, we decided to go to one of the three large public baths at the hotel. The hinoki baths are richly decorated with hinoki cypress, and steam rises from the bathtubs. There are open-air baths with views of mountains and gardens, cave-like arched indoor baths, and many more. The mineral-rich hot spring water of Gero Onsen is a natural volcanic hot spring.

Onsen in the Suimeikan Ryokan

Depending on which minerals the spring water absorbs on its way out of the ground, its color varies from milky white to greenish to reddish. For centuries, onsen springs have been associated with healing effects due to their high mineral content. Bathing is said to be valuable, especially if you have respiratory or skin problems. The water in certain onsen is so mineral-rich that it has deposited minerals on the bathtub's sides and walls, like a limestone cave. But you shouldn't worry too much about the volcanic origin. The spring water is cooled down to a temperature suitable for bathing. We have a choice between 38, 40, and 42-degree water. It all sounds pretty close, but those few degrees Celsius make a significant difference.

Outdoor footbath of the Suimeikan Ryokan

After we warmed ourselves up in onsen, we were already on the way to our dinner. A large Japanese-style dining room was reserved just for us today. We had a course menu with sushi specialties, the finest Wagyu beef, and other little things that always surprise us. In general, Japanese cuisine is like a culinary voyage of discovery when you open the lids of the little bowls that contain unexpected delicacies. However, for those who prefer to do without animal products, hotels in Japan are very customer-oriented. On request, the menus can of course be prepared and served as vegetarian, vegan, or according to religious requirements. Well satiated, we rolled back to our room. Two futon beds were laid out for us in the middle of the room. After a short break with a cup of tea, the onsen mood sets in again. We wanted to take another dip in the hot spring water. Before we even knew it, we were sitting in the hotel's outdoor footbath, gazing at the snow-covered pine trees above which a bright crescent moon appeared in the night.

Hot springs and temples

Gassho-mura (village) in Gero

We began our next day early because the city of Gero has more to offer than just its countless hotels and inns. A five-minute cab ride took us down the main street of the city, which is divided by a river that was still bathed in the warm glow of lanterns the night before. We are heading to Gassho-mura, an outdoor museum of traditional Gassho-zukuri (thatched-roof style) houses in the Hida region.

Ashiyu (footbath) at Gassho-mura

As we looked at the large farmhouses in thatched-roof style, we suddenly felt a bit like we were at home in northern Germany. It is amazing that centuries ago, people all over the world had the same idea of using reed plants as the roofing material. Upon entering the house, however, all northern German romanticism was gone. Inside, there were tatami mats, sliding paper screens, and a fireplace where it was quite draughty. Some exhibits recreate everyday scenes. There are also tools and old equipment on display. You can understand how cold and harsh life was here in the past. In the middle of several houses has the Gassho Village Footbath. Even if you're shivering from the cold, kneeling in the hot water will quickly warm you up, and that was exactly what we needed. In the small pond next door, a waterwheel was quietly turning, and on the mossy thatched roofs, the snow was melting and light clouds were rising, and we would often admire the scenery from the footbath. According to our guide, a trip to this village is especially worthwhile in spring and autumn. Depending on the season, you can walk through the Forest of the Ages while seeing the cherry blossoms in bloom or the colored leaves.

View of the Onsen-ji temple

Our next stop is the onsen temple, called Onsen-ji. We arrived in 5 minutes by cab, but climbing more than one hundred steps to the temple washed all my thoughts away. Gero lays before us in the best sunlight on this crystal clear day, as we catch our breath and appreciate the wonderful view. Peacefully surrounded by evergreen trees, the venerable main building of the almost thousand-year-old temple stands before us. We admired the beautifully decorated buildings with their impressive woodwork, while someone recited his mantras from the main building. The people's affection for the onsen could be seen in every corner of town, including here at the temple. People pray for good health and that the hot springs will free them from any ailments, a beautiful idea in my opinion.

On the paths of ancient Japan

Zensho-ji Temple with its symbolic pine tree

We're now on our way to Nakatsugawa, which is approximately an hour's bus ride from Gero. We wish to see Nakatsugawa since it has a lot of cultural richness. We got into a cab and talked to the friendly driver, who recommended visiting a temple called Zenshō-ji. After a ten-minute drive, we arrived at the temple which stood in front of an impressive pine tree.

Zazen session in the Zensho-ji temple

The monk explained to me that the temple's most popular activity was Zazen and invited me to try it. The "za" in zazen means to sit and "zen" means to empty the mind. After a detailed explanation, we tried it ourselves and realized that it can be divided into three phases. The first step is to sit in a unique lotus posture, which we should keep as long as possible.

The gentle tap on the shoulder reminds you of the correct sitting posture

Close your eyes slightly, maintain an outstretched back, and gently bring your hands together on your knees to form an oval shape. Then control your breathing, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, just like in yoga. By constantly concentrating on these two points, you can enter a meditative state. Here, the worries of daily life vanish. Zazen is quieting the mind to see the truth of things and existence and to get rid of extraneous thoughts. Sure, we pay a little nerve to maintain the posture of seiza all the time. However, the monk kindly reminds us of this as soon as we lose that focus. After a while, I feel mentally refreshed and full of anticipation for a new adventure. The monk tells me that there are other temples close by where you can enjoy calligraphy at the Kofuku-ji temple and tea ceremony at the Iio-ji temple.

Entrance to Nakasendo near Ochiai-Juku

After visiting the temple, our next destination was the Nakasendo Road. Nakasendo is an old Japanese highway that runs from Tokyo to Kyoto through the mountainous areas of central Japan. Today, we will start from the post town called, Ochiai-juku and walk along the well-maintained road to Magome-juku.

Traditional style inn along the hiking trail

Even though the path is well maintained, it is still a path through the evergreen forest that the samurai walked in the past to reach their destination. Every turn is a discovery. Small shrines, rivers with clear mountain water, and villages, and from their fields offer spectacular views of the Southern Alps. It is a five-kilometer walk along a mossy, stone-paved path. It is an easy hiking course.

Stone pavement of Nakasendo

When I imagine that the samurai spent months marching along this road to reach their destination, it reminded me of how difficult life must have been for the Japanese in the past. We took a break at a tea store along the way, ate the last mochi (rice cakes), and headed back to Magomejuku.

Main path through Magome-Juku village

Traditional inns, restaurants, and small cafes line the street. Along the way, small waterways ripple, and in places, small or large water wheels turn slowly. It is as if you have stepped into an old samurai movie. What you see here is the image of the Nakasendo in feudal Japan. The stores selling Japanese sake and crafts will bring you back to reality, but it is a convenient place to find small souvenirs during this beautiful hiking tour.

Waterwheel in Magome-Juku

Traditional inns, restaurants, and small cafes line the street. Along the way, small waterways ripple, and in places, small or large water wheels turn slowly. It is as if you have stepped into an old samurai movie. What you see here is the image of the Nakasendo in feudal Japan. The stores selling Japanese sake and crafts will bring you back to reality, but it is a convenient place to find small souvenirs during this beautiful hiking tour.

We rested for a while on a bench, with the best view of the mountains in front of us, before the sun sets again and casts its last rays on the cozy mountain village.