My friend pulled into a driveway of a tall, elegant looking building which I had assumed to be our hotel for the night.
“How pretty!” I said, in Japanese, but she had made a mistake and pulled out of the driveway. The white, fancy building was not our accommodation for the night. We drove down the road about five minutes more and pulled into a different parking lot. Rising above the lot was a tall, orange, grungy looking building. “Okay, so we are checking into a cheap motel,” I thought to myself. Oh, but how wrong I was.
We had arrived to Hotel Taikan, one of the many inns that host bathing areas of the Tsunagi Onsen, a hot spring (onsen) resort in between Morioka and Shizikuishi in Iwate. It sits in the countryside on the shores of Lake Goshoko, where you can experience views of Japan that you only see in pictures and relax in the baths. Each of the various hot spring inns maintain a traditional feel to them so that travelers can get a full experience. Hotel Taikan is the biggest one of the inns.
As soon as we approached the front doors, two women in kimonos came out to assist us. They gathered our bags and ushered us into the hotel, no questions asked.
Before we knew it we were following one of the staff into an elevator up to the 3rd floor of the hotel and into our Japanese-style room. The floors were made of tatami mats, and the windows had sliding covers made of thin rice paper rather than curtains. It definitely looked like we were staying in Japan.
As soon as I walked into the room my first thought was, “So… where do we sleep?” Like many traditional Japanese inns (ryokan), futons were provided, but they were tucked away in the closets until we were in need of them. In the meantime, a coffee table with cushioned floor seats were provided for drinking tea, smoking cigarettes, and hanging out for good conversation with friends.
It was time for the hot spring or onsening (is that a word?) and what better way to feel like you are in Japan than to dress in traditional clothing? We stripped down to our undies and put on the yukata (a more casual version of the kimono) provided. I needed some help from my Japanese friend for this since this was my first yukata and doing it wrong would mean I am dressed like a corpse.
There are several different options for bathing whether it is outside, behind glass walls, or with a massaging waterfall so I tried them all. The hot spring water left my skin feeling silky and it was not as scorching hot as some onsens tend to be.
After everyone had gotten a nice bath in, we prepared for dinner. One of the many nice perks of staying at a hot spring hotel is that you have the option of one or two meals included.
We had dinner and breakfast included with our stay. With a big group like ours, we had a banquet room reserved for dinner where we were served food and drinks for two hours. If you do not use the banquet hall, there are also onsite cafes and restaurants that guests can choose from.
While we were eating, drinking, and being merry, the hotel staff had snuck into our rooms and prepared our bedding. We returned to several neatly made futons laid out on the floor ready for us to make use of its inviting sheets and while we did not use them for a full eight hours of sleep, the few hours we did use them for had us all passed out. It felt like a normal bed to me.
At 07:30 the next morning, we headed down to the breakfast buffet which had several Japanese options, but also some western options like scrambled eggs and sausages. We made sure to stuff our faces with as much food as humanly possible before we had to prepare for our check-out at 10:00. From the buffet we had a nice view of outside: the sun was rising in the sky, lighting up the surrounding mountains and reflecting off of Lake Goshoko. It was a great start to the morning and the stay overall was my favorite hot spring experience in Japan.
So, while the hotel looks like a large run-down apartment building from the outside, it actually contains attentive staff and the waters of a popular hot spring of Iwate that leaves the skin feeling smooth and the guests feeling refreshed. As they say, never judge a building by its outer appearance… or something like that.
If you’re looking to check out the countryside, Tsunagi Onsen is an excellent choice and well worth the trip. It is a two hour ride to Morioka from Tokyo by bullet train, and only a half hour bus ride from Morioka. If you would like to make a reservation, they do have an English option on their website. Happy onsening!