Time to bid farewell to Tokyo until we return later, and head out into the Japanese countryside. We packed, checked out, and headed straight for the JR office in Tokyo station, where we activated our JR Rail passes and got tickets to the first of several stops on the way to Yunishigawa-onsen station. Finding the first station was the trickiest – well, Tokyo station is one of the busiest in the world and it was rush hour – but after asking at another office we found our train, a very comfortable ‘green car’ (the equivalent of first class) which was quiet and luxurious. Unfortunately this leg of the trip was quite short, and our next train was far less impressive. In fact the trains got less modern and fancy as we travelled deeper into the country.
At the next station, Utsunomiya, I bought a bento box (a pre-packed lunch in a decorative box) and we got coffees, but I didn’t have a chance to eat until we got to Tobo Nikko station, Nikko. There we waited for a while for a train to Yunishigawa-onsen. Carol struck up a conversation with a lovely older Japanese woman who was learning English, and we had a really friendly chat. She said goodbye and left, but then returned a bit later to talk some more! She has been learning English for ten years, and told us about the challenges of getting the grammar right.
A pretty long ‘suburban’ train ride into the mountain valleys took us to Yunishigawa-Onsen, the air getting colder as we followed a river gorge, where in places apartment blocks clung to cliffs on the edge of the river. At the lonely station that was our destination we caught a bus which headed up winding roads and through modern tunnels, past a huge dam and road-building project, and eventually to the village of Yunishigawa Onsen itself, dropping us at the door of Honke Bankyu ryokan.
Our jaws dropped as we entered through the sliding entrance doors. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, and this one was like a set from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The interior was all ancient dark wood and exposed roof beams, with an upper gallery and a long metal chain suspending an ornate metal fish and teapot arrangement over a hot coals in a large central sandpit.
What a fantastic place to stay – perfect choice by Carol. The hotel is over 350 years old and built on the Yunishi river, and a suspension bridge entwined with vines leads over to the dining hall. We took off our shoes and donned slippers, and a staff member first announced our arrival by beating a drum, then took us to our room, where just inside the sliding door, we took off our slippers to step onto the soft woven tatami mats, and moved through another sliding door into our room. Huge wooden beams frame the space, and large sliding windows open directly out above the river.
Late afternoon, we put on the yukata robes supplied (being careful cross the left side of the robe over the right as you should), and were guided downstairs to our private onsen, or hot spring bath (we have a small in-room bath, but we booked the special private one). We soaped and washed sitting on little wooden stools, then lowered ourselves tentatively into the very hot water. A little too hot for Carol, but she braved it for a little while. The onset opened right above the river, with a bamboo screen for privacy. A magical spot.
At 6pm it was time for dinner. Carol was very nervous about this, being a vegetarian eager not to offend, but once they knew they brought out more vegetarian dishes. We walked across the bridge, lit up and leading, it seemed, to some kind of fairy grotto across the river, bathed in pools of torchlight. A wide staircase led to a dining building and to our private room, where the most beautiful presentation of food I have ever seen awaited us. Carol is by no means a foodie and found it a bit uncomfortable, but I was in heaven. There was a shabu shabu hotpot arrangement, sashimi (complete with staring fish head), blocks of melt-in-the-mouth beef to cook on a little skillet pot, and a central fire pit with skewers arranged around burning coals. The food never seemed to end.
What an incredible place. Truly worth the effort of getting here, and an experience I’ll never forget.
When we returned to our room (after both wandering around for a while taking photos) our futons were laid out on the floor for us. Very cosy and comfortable.
Before we went to sleep, I read Carol a Japanese ghost story from Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn.