Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gaga Onsen, Zao (峩々温泉,蔵王,宮城)

Snow, snow, snow. I don't ski. I don't snowbo. I don't skate (on anything). Snowshoeing, icefishing, no. Truth is, I don't like being cold. (Or hungry, as you may have noticed.) But I love seeing snow through a clear window from the comfort of a warm room. And as I learned many years ago, an even better way to appreciate snow is to remove that whole 'window' constraint and get closer. I really love seeing snow through clear air from the comfort of a warm bath. Naked.

That's what found someone and I in the back of a thoroughly chained-up van, slowly working up the slope of the mountains outside Zao in the company of half a dozen other customers who, like us, had been picked up by the Gaga Onsen staff for a night of the usual. There was just too much snow, they said, so they'd pick us up down the hill, in the parking lot of their German-themed sausage factory and restaurant. Things started off lightly-dusted and pretty...

But rapidly approached OMG-I'm-so-glad-I'm-not-driving levels. The road over the mountains here is called the Echo Line. It's closed in winter, shortly after this turnoff to Gaga. The little road that leads to Gaga (and nowhere else; it's a loop created just for the onsen) should be closed too. We passed another van stopped on a steep grade with two guys looking at the back wheels. One of their chains had broken. One of the guys was wearing shorts. Our driver honked his horn to make them move, then drove slowly past without making eye contact. They're hard people in the Zaontains.

And they have to be, because this is where they live - Gaga Onsen. It really is 'tucked in' to a tiny valley. If you go in a more hospitable season, it would be delightful to walk around the area, see the waterfall they made in the river, explore the forests. But at this point, all we could think about was getting inside.

The warm, inviting front room of the lobby was one of the last warm, inviting things about this place. Boy was it cold.

But they served us tea in the lobby while we checked in. It's nothing complicated - the usual onsen check-in is just "What time do you want dinner?" and "Breakfast is from X to Y." Here, they didn't even mention breakfast times.

Still, the temperature was probably well above freezing in Tokyo. This is kinda cool.

Phew. I'm glad I'm inside as I type this.

The building is nice - they've renovated what I imagine was a quite shabby deep-mountain onsen so that it's more in the Nagano mountain-lodge style. Not quite Karuizawa standards, but not far off. The lobby also has a bar, and every day they brew coffee for after-breakfast relaxation.

Checked in, we made our way up to the room. And 'made our way' and 'up' are both very appropriate. The building in this picture is the lobby / dining / baths building (hence the lack of snow on the one part). For some reason they installed all the day's guests in the highest of the three buildings, meaning we had to walk up 6 staircases to get between the room and anything else. As far as I could tell, they didn't heat the corridors. Nor did they really light the ones that weren't in use. At night, it was positively Shining.

So yeah, Woodrow tells me this is all par for the course (I did find this place through the 'hidden onsen association' after all). My expectation of a pleasant hotel buried in snow may have been a little off base. We had called to inquire after rental baths and were told we could just reserve when we showed up. When we arrived, they admitted they didn't really have such a concept, and said we should just go over to the (unheated, unlit) east building, pick one of the baths, and put an "In Use" sign on the door. This is snow piled up against the window on the way over there. I'll spare you the picture of snow that had blown in a crack and drifted on the stairs; that was actually in the hall of the main baths.

Hey, the bath didn't turn out too badly. As will happen with a wooden bath, wooden deck, and wooden walls, it was all a little slimy from the heat and moisture. The water makes your skin very smooth, and the temperature was just the right side of bearable.

The view out the window was pretty good too.

Largely impossible to see, here's the men's indoor bath. Hey, it's hard to take pictures when the air (and camera) is cold, but there's steam everywhere. There was a funny little extra-hot bath off to the side also, but the deck was so slimy that I didn't want to go over there.

Let's look at the food. Is this mountain-onsen style? The top-left picture is the whole spread, which was waiting when we arrived. I was convinced that they would bring other stuff - onsen at this level always have stew or hotplate or both, and bring some other courses while you eat. Not here. The little drink bottom right of that shot is an aperitif they make themselves from tree buds (some kind of kinome; not sansho, I think). Going left to right and down, that mixed sansai plate was great; sweet potato marinated in something sweeter, himetake bamboo shoots in sake lees, chestnuts in something else, half a candied kumquat, chicken meatloaf, green things. The sashimi was just fine considering the mountain location; snapper, yellowtail, sea urchin. The little dumplings with miso, one was made from buckwheat; the tiny cucumber and the taranome came with miso. Sort of a luxury Spring kyuri-miso, although it ridiculous to be eating spring sprouts like taranome in the zountains in January. The single dumpling was made from daikon and very fluffy. It was one of the best elements, maybe just because it was hot. The fish was delicious - they had taken out all the guts and most of the bones and replaced them with vegetable miso. Finally, the soup actually deserves special mention - just when we were wondering if there was enough food on the table (really, we were), they said the truly excellent rice and soup were refillable. That's quite a hearty soup, isn't it? You'd be happy to get that as a lunch in the city too. Delicious.

The whole point of the trip was to sit outside in the bath and get snowed on. So I should casually mention at this point what they casually mentioned when we checked in - "Oh, the outside mixed bath is closed. There's too much snow."

Mmmm hmmmm, that's the awesome rocky bath in the pictures. Meaning we were relegated to these separate men's and women's outside baths. I wonder what it means to be closed; the water's still hot, after all. The snow there is cleverly piled up to cut off access to the external bath, which I didn't realize until later. In retrospect though, it may have been too cold to venture out there. There was a high wind the whole time, which was whipping the powdery snow around; even in this sheltered bath, it kinda stung your face.

Oh, and I almost killed myself slipping on the stairs down to the bath - which were covered with ice. Brrr. Need to warm up after that.

There's a bit of liquor selection at the restaurant (including German wine), but we forewent it for health reasons. After bathing there was time for a nightcap of 'Climbing Dragon' from local Zao Brewing (which we had cleverly packed in with our supplies; as I like to say, "Leave only footprints, drink only ginjo."). It's a decent beverage; if I knew anything about sake I'd try to describe it to you.

The snow had actually stopped by morning, but big icicles were everywhere. The snow is so powdery that it was blowing continuously, right to left, which had cleared off the roof in this picture.

Saying icicles were 'everywhere' is perhaps an overstatement, because wags in the audience might think "What even in your room?!" Har, har, smart guy. I've reminded myself that there was, in fact, ice on the inside of the window. The portable oil heater somehow didn't keep the big, high-ceilinged room warm.

Again, I confess to some disappointment over this breakfast. One was hoping that a German-tinged operation who run a sausage and bacon factory would serve something terribly hot and hearty for breakfast. One would be wrong. The foreign-style breakfast was 'eggs benedict'. I know you're thinking this is lovely because it's white, just like the snow, but guess what - it's also cold just like the snow. The egg was barely cooked, the foamy horseradish sauce was pleasant, the muffin was...untoasted, and the whole thing was as cold as the snowdrift it looked like.

The other warm thing of the morning was sitting in front of this picture window again. I think the Japanese people were too polite to take these chairs, which were more comfortable, right in front of the nice window, and also right next to the heater.

At the lobby bar they also brew a daily globe of Dutch Process coffee - the 4-foot tall distillation apparatus that makes coffee from cold water? That. It's true, it extracts less bitterness from the grounds. I was convinced that they were going to serve the coffee cold too. Fortunately wrong about that.

Well, there you have it. You'll need to go to this place with the right frame of mind - mountain exploring - and not expect many big-city comforts. I'm not a sleep-in-a-hut guy like some readers, so winter was perhaps not the ideal time to go out here.

But ahhhhh, the snow... It lasts until May, they say.

Well, all too soon it was time to get on the road again.

Actually none too soon. With so much snow, there was no opportunity to walk around, so I was ready to go by checkout time. They drove us back to their restaurant in town, and we hit the road. Having a rental car, you might as well go somewhere else, and what we picked took in Lake Kamafusa, where the car navigation system attempted to make us drive off the edge of the dam...

And Akiu Falls, reputed to be one of Japan's 3 most beautiful. It's bigger than it looks in the photo, and I can report that on this day it was certainly one of Japan's coldest, with a high wind forcing us to trudge back to the warmth of the car pretty much as soon as I took this picture.

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