Friday, February 26, 2010

Traveling in Japan: Hot Springs in Gunma-ken Part III

At Ikaho Hot Springs, located at the top of a mountain where air was pure and roads were covered in snow, we decided to spend the night there, but after eating the famous Mizusawa Udon (水沢うどん) in Mizusawa, which is about five minutes on the bus from Ikaho (NB: the bus stop is next to a large hotel called Todoroki, or 轟).

We chose Tamaruya (田丸屋), a renowned Udon Shop in the district. When we got there around 1:30, there were about 9 groups waiting ahead of us. But no matter, we decided to wait. The place was HUGE, built in the traditional Japanese mansion style you'd see in movies. The floors were all laid with tatami mats and the waitresses were all dressed in some sort of informal kimono.

The shop was famous for two different kinds of sauce - soy-sauce-based one and sesame-based one - and so I chose the udon set with tempura and both sauces at 1,575yen.

Let me just say one thing about this set. The mushroom tempura was OUT OF THIS WORLD. Gunma Prefecture, if you didn't know, is famous for its mushrooms and this mushroom tempura lived up to the glory of its prefecture. I would count it among one of the best mushrooms of any kind I ate in my life. The rest of the tempura was also good, but nothing you can't get in Tokyo.

Now onto the udon. The famed Mizusawa Udon is supposed to be super fresh and juicy with rich texture. But it really wasn't. Someone who knew the Udon most told us that it was usually A LOT better. We ascribed this let-down to how busy the shop was. They probably couldn't get around to doing their best for each one of us customers flooding the shop.

So I advise you to NOT go to the famed Tamaruya for delicious Mizusawa Udon and instead go to Yamamotoya (山本屋 ). That's where the bus drops you off from Ikaho. According to our friend, the Udon there was bombshell.

Having gorged on the local specialty Udon, we next chose our lodging for the night: Hotel Tenbo (天坊). Our decision was based primarily on the price and customer ratings. This large hotel has top-notch customer services at a very reasonable price of 7,000 yen a night. It comes with free public onsen and buffet breakfast.

A word of caution, though. There is NOTHING around the area and the only place we found for dinner was this Japanese bar (飲み屋) with EXPENSIVE nibbles like fried chicken and dumplings, and only a few healthy, reasonably priced dishes that can fill you up. So if you are staying at this hotel, find something to eat elsewhere for dinner!

Also, once you take a bath, you wrap yourself in a Japanese bathrobe called yukata (浴衣) that's so comfortable that you pretty much would want to stay in it as long as you can. The outside, however, is cold as s**t, so I advise you to either get something to eat before you take a bath and wear yukata, or, like us, throw a jacket over it and forge into the cold and risk looking like a novel experiment in fashion (or, depending on the fashion sense of the observer, an idiot).
The onsen was good. It's huge, but public. If you're not used to seeing others prowling around naked in there, well, just suck it up and take it in stride like a grown-up. It's part of the experience. Make fun of it all you want, but WE TAKE AND HAVE BEEN TAKING BATHS NAKED AT PUBLIC BATHS, just like, let me add, the good old Romans.

After eating dinner that was surprisingly decent both in terms of taste and price, we trudged to the nearby convenience store that was about 300 meters uphill, got our snacks, and played pool (1000yen/hour). A relaxing night.

Next morning, we crammed down as much food at the breakfast buffet and retreated from the dining hall before our bellies burst. The eggs there was simply fantastic. Since the checkout was 11, we squeezed in one last bath and checked out, intending to head to a near by diary firm where we wanted to drink fresh milk and eat fresh ice cream, but alas, the place was closed from Monday through Friday during winter.

So we decided to go to the famous shrine at the top of the mountain, and no, we did not hike up there but took a local bus from across the hotel. The shrine and the well-known Stone Stairs was nothing impressive, so if you're staying there, I'd advise you to just enjoy the onsen and not venture out into the cold and get not much out of it but a bruised butt from falling on the slippery snow and sour muscles in the legs from climbing all those stairs.

And this ends our little onsen trip. The whole irony was that although we went there to RELAX, we were exhausted on the train back although our skin was markedly more supple and healthy-looking. Here's to the salubrious waters of onsen!

No comments: