Wiping the sweat off my brow, I laid aside my axe and tossed the last two split logs up on the pile. What once had been an unused, empty warehouse with aged and buckling iron beams propped up here and there with scrap wood pillars and heavy machinery, was now half filled with a pile of wood more than three meters high and more than 100 cubic meters in volume. All this was accomplished by a mere group of local volunteers, using trees donated by local land owners, which they laboriously cut down, transported and hacked away at nearly every day for four months straight. It takes something very special to inspire men to move so passionately. And that something was Mrs. Watanabe.
Fluent in Nepalese, proficient in English, maker of incredible Indian curry and chai tea, with a heart that dwarfs her 130 cm height, Mrs. Watanabe is without a doubt one of the most genuine and inspirational people you will ever meet. Long dreaming of running her own bathhouse, she gave up her life in Sapporo and came to Nakatombetsu in 2010 to purchase Koganeyu.
At the time, Koganeyu had been closed down for more than five years. Most people believed its resurrection into a viable business impossible. It needed new tile, new plumbing, new paint, new furniture, a new boiler, and lots of new customers. But in the end, all it really needed was Mrs. Watanabe. With her wit, charm, and indefatigable motivation, she galvanized the entire community into action. And so where the strength of one little woman may have been insufficient, the strength of everyone working together made it impossible not to become a success.
Koganeyu is unique in that it is one of only a few bathhouses in all of Japan that uses a wood fired boiler. But it's the ability of Mrs. Watanabe as a host to interweave the outside world to the community that really makes it one of a kind. As you walk through the door, she greets you with a radiance that rivals the flames burning in the boiler room. And stepping up into the sitting area you are immersed in the warmth of her hospitality, enveloped in the subtle fragrance of wood smoke.
Sure there are bigger and more extravagant hot springs around. But Koganeyu has an intimate, human quality that money just can't buy. If you have ever driven through a small town and wondered what goes on there, Koganeyu in Nakatombetsu is a gateway where you can enter and find out. Even if your destination is elsewhere, one can always use a cleaning in a wood fired bath. And incidentally, wood fired boilers are really just big wood fired ovens, great for baking pizzas, cakes, sweet potatoes and countless other delicious things...
Koganeyu is open every day, except Thursday, from 4-9pm. Adults are ¥400, middle schoolers are ¥200, and children are free when accompanied by an adult. Forget your soap or towel, no problem. Mrs. Watanabe has some available. If you go, which is highly recommended even if you live in Okinawa, tell her you saw this article. Who knows, though there is always free tea and candy available in the sitting room, there might be something extra awaiting you after your bath.