The healing waters of Tamagawa (Photo: Manuel VUILLERME)

Tamagawa Onsen

A special milieu in the heart of the Honshu mountains

The healing waters of Tamagawa (Photo: Manuel VUILLERME)
Bonson Lam   - 4 min read

I am writing this article from a tatami matted room in an Onsen or hot springs town in the mountains of northern Honshu. Its name - Tamagawa Onsen.

Tamagawa Onsen is a hot springs town in the mountains of northern Honshu. After cycling from the far north of Hokkaido in Abashiri, this part of our journey was hilly again. Although early September, we went through every shade of grey during the day, with the skies filled with clouds.

Soon we left Lake Towada, rode a few kilometres into the mountains, and back down to the Kusano plains, before rising to over 1000m along a beautiful valley surrounded by flowers of all kinds, it was a beautiful trip at just over 80km.

At the top of the last mountain pass, the weather suddenly warmed up, with the smell of sulphur telling us that we have arrived at the Onsen. We had all the trouble in the world last night trying to book a room at the spa where we were staying near Lake Towada. Clearly, the owner and the reservations team at the health resort wanted us to stay here. We did not understand why, but he strongly insisted that we got that triple room, in what looks like the "Mecca" of the Onsen.

It goes without saying that hospitality here is really attentive, even though the facilities can accommodate a lot of people in the high season. There were porters waiting to take your luggage, with ample parking for coaches and space for bicycle storage.

Upon arrival, we see a parade in uniform (consisting of yukatas and somewhat unsightly sandals), and dozens of spa guests in various states of relaxation in a corridor that served a maze of tiny tatami rooms. To reach ours we had to go left at the bottom and then right at the top, and then down to the upstairs baths, then up at the bottom. You cannot go wrong at room 618.

Soon afterwards, we headed to the source of the sulphur that fed into this particular hot springs, where we were the only Westerners (Actually, it has been like this since the start of the journey 16 days earlier).The atmosphere was surreal: between the vapors, colors, the sound of volcano blasts and the sight of people lying around, it was somewhere from another world.

Some spa guests came to enjoy the warmth of the place with the sulphur being good for their ailments. They lie under the canvas or on the path, or on a small straw mat. They are quiet, their eyes closed and remaining there as long as possible in this strange setting.The idea of an onsen treatment is to warm the body and breathe in until you feel your temperature rise. Then stop and have a break. While the process of curing your body feels a little foreign, we took the direction of the hot bath. It was in a huge wooden building, with whole tree trunks supporting a magnificent structure. The baths were all made of wood. Some with 100% sulphur water, others 50%, etc. We tried them all, what happiness!

As always in these places, the atmosphere was completely serene. In the steam faces emerge, and Jybe, Francis and I were now feeling a little weightless. We appreciated the opportunity to be here, in a place so unexpected and heavily infused with Japanese culture. We leave here tomorrow, to cycle around Daisen and continue our journey to the south, but this stop will remain one of the most beautiful.

Bonson Lam

Bonson Lam @bonson.lam

I knew my future was destined to be with Japan the moment I flew from Sydney to experience the atmospheric laneways of Kyoto last century.  I am humbled to have met many distinguished people during this time, especially the national living treasures of Japan, such as the doll maker to the Imperia...