Monday, February 22, 2010

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

Going to hot springs, or onsen (温泉) in Japanese, is one of the favorite national pastimes of us the Japanese.

For those of you who don't know what's so special about hot springs in Japan, you get to stay at a very traditional Japanese hotel called ryokan (旅館) where you can gorge yourself on traditional Japanese cuisine cooked with SUPER fresh ingredients (usually locally grown) and bathe in these really cool, picturesque baths with hot spring water that makes your skin supple like pudding and drives away all physical tiredness.

There are literally thousands and thousands of hot spring spots all over Japan and it's always a pain in the ass to find a very good one at a reasonable price.

So here is one really good one in Gunma Prefecture, which is like two prefectures away from Tokyo and three to four hours away on the train (4 hours and about 3,000 yen if you take the local train, and 3 hours and about 6,000 yen if you take the express): Yamada-ya.

Located in Manza-Kazawaguchi, it's about 15 minutes away from the train on foot and they can come pick you up at the station if you call them. Although they only have 10 rooms, all the rooms are big and really clean, and they have three FREE PRIVATE open-air baths on top of two large public baths.

Let me explain the significance of this.

I'm NOT talking about a stupid bathtub in the room. I'm talking about those really slick and traditionally Japanese outside baths with real hot spring water that you usually have to pay extra elsewhere to use.

On top all this, they have SUPERB customer service even by the most exacting Japanese standards and their food is really good. These are all small things, but it's the details that count. When you go in, for example, they give you coffee and really fresh milk while checking in; they give you a reminder call for dinner and breakfast; and they deliver you fresh milk in the morning. To my delight, they also have kotatsu (a table with an electric heater underneath and covered by a quilt) in each room. During winter time, this is a MUST-HAVE in any Japanese household but rare to have one at hotels.

Anyways, we stayed in the cheapest rooms (at 16,8000 yen, or about $150 a night) and I have to say I'm fully content with the experience.

Here's my little journey in photos:

We left Tokyo at about 11a.m. and got to the destination at around 3:40:

The hotel from the outside (nothing spectacular, but appearance is always deceiving):

The hotel's front:

The coffee and milk we got at our check in (they are in a very cool two-way cup):

The room (sorry, I forgot to take pictures - to be addressed):

One of the three free private outdoor baths:


But there's more. The hotel has these little things that are, let's just say, very interesting.

Stay tuned. More to come in the next post.

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