After a day on the slopes or hiking along the coast, there’s nothing better than the soothing heat of an onsen. The Japanese have been enjoying these natural hot-spring baths for both health and pleasure for more than a thousand years, the mineral-rich waters being said not just to relax the mind and ease tired muscles, but also help with a diverse range of illnesses and ailments. In Miyagi, there are magical old onsen towns for travellers to discover.
In Akiu, 30 minutes from Sendai, you can experience bathing culture in the classic way with a night at one of the town’s many ryokan, or traditional inns, where guests stay in private tatami mat rooms and have access to communal indoor and outdoor public baths. Quiet and calming, a night at a ryokan typically also includes a multi-course kaiseki dinner, which goes deep into Japan’s culinary traditions with a succession of small dishes featuring seasonal produce and artistic arrangements on rustic ceramics and fine lacquerware. In Akiu, you can recharge and unwind beyond the baths and inns with a trip to the local winery or craft centre, or a 15-km bike ride through nature to Akiu Otaki, a 55-metre-high waterfall that is especially attractive when engulfed by summer greens or the red and yellow foliage of autumn.
Elsewhere in Miyagi, Naruko does autumnal colours just as well. About an hour from Sendai, Naruko is a pretty onsen town wedged between dense forest and the meandering Oyagawa River, and not far from the spectacular Naruko Gorge, which in October burns a fiery red and gold as the leaves reflect the changing season. Stay at one of the inns in town and you can do like local travellers, changing into a yukata cotton gown and wooden sandals to stroll between the craft shops, cafés and galleries that line Naruko’s narrow streets, or trying the different baths at the many inns and hotels that open to non-guests. Whichever, it’s an extremely relaxing and very Japanese way to spend a day or two.
However, if you’re feeling more active, from Naruko Onsen Station you can get a sweat on hiking the Oku no Hosomichi trail, retracing the nine-kilometre route through the woods that Edo-period poet and haiku master Matsuo Basho is said to have walked on his trek around Tohoku in the late 1680s. Or hop on a bus to see nature in action at Jigokudani (“Hell Valley”) in Naruko’s Onikobe area, where steam jets shoot through rock faces and the stream bubbles with geothermal activity in what is otherwise a serene forest. Rob Goss