After almost five days in Sapporo, I was feeling good. I was ready to quit my job and move to Hokkaido…in the summer. We were a little sad to say good-bye to our new friend Hidetoshi, our Air BnB host. Somehow, with the little bit of language overlap they shared, he and Carl had stayed up late into each night talking politics, gun control, and Bruce Springsteen–you know, guy stuff. This whole time, I’d be sleeping happily for ten hours (hello, vacation!) Could it get any better than this?
Amazingly, we found that it could. We flew from Sapporo to Aomori in a tiny plane and landed just shy of an hour later. From Aomori Airport, a bus ride took us to Hirosaki, a town known as the biggest producer of apples in Japan.
My plan was to stay overnight in Hirosaki, tour their famous feudal castle, then continue the rest of the journey to Aoni Onsen the next day. I’d also hoped to time our trip with Hirosaki’s Snow Lantern Festival, a local festival with lanterns and lots of apples. When we arrived, we found that the Snow Lantern Festival was starting the day we’d be leaving…oops.
The cool upside of this is that we were able to watch workers and local schoolchildren prepare hundreds of snow lanterns for the festival. One sculptor casually flicked at a Darth Vader with a chisel in one hand and a cigarette in another.
The other upside is that we were able to spend more time relaxing at our hotel, which provided “lounging clothes” and slippers for use in the hotel. We saw other guests using them, so we figured we would too! By now, I was all about the sleep, but they also offered free midnight noodles and a good buffet breakfast.
In the morning, we started on a little bit of an involved journey…a shuttle to a train to a bus to Aoni Onsen Shuttle Bus. As we wound around and around a twisty mountain, other guests oohed and aahed at the scenery–it was hard not to. It felt like we were in a wintery movie scene, all the trees completely white and still. Huge mountains topped with white trees peeked at us with every turn.
We checked into our room, which had no electricity and was lit by a single kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling. Each day, workers would sneak in to change the lamps and re-fuel the heaters. In the corner, we found light yukata robes and a heavier robe to cover us from the cold temperatures.
After checking in, I was ready for a bath! Most onsens were separated by gender, with one co-ed. Some baths were outdoor, some indoor, one with a special waterfall view.
About the Onsen
Although I’ve been in onsens before, I’m always a little nervous! There are a lot of reasons people stare at you in Japan as a tourist, and you really don’t want anyone staring at you in a public bath. One of the most interesting reasons to me is because of a tattoo. Because the Japanese mafia (yakuza) flaunt ornate tattoos and used to use bathhouses for meeting places, most onsens now prohibit tattoos. Mine is smaller and I haven’t been accused of being yakuza…yet. I wrote more about onsen rules and my own awkwardness when I went to Tokyo.
Hands down, the best food of our trip. Mostly local and traditional Japanese food, but other than that, I couldn’t tell you what it was that we ate. We ate in a group with three other Japanese couples, and after a few nights, we found an older couple who spoke perfect English. The six of us drank sake together and laughed until the kitchen was ready to pack up–a great experience!
It was incredibly peaceful to be in a place softly lit by only lamps. My schedule for this leg of the trip was: eat, bath, sleep, bath, repeat. All the soreness from skiing worked itself out as I soaked in a waterfall adjacent bath. Aoni Onsen is my happy place.