Hoshi Onsen Chojukan
I see Mt. Mikuni soaring in the distance. Cold air caresses my face as I step out of the bus. I've arrived at one of Gunma's best-kept secrets since 1875.
The Fruit of a Meiji-style Friendship
Have you ever been to a hot spring directly above the source? Even veteran travelers of Japan and onsen enthusiasts will be hard pressed to say they have. The Hoshi-no-yu bath at the Chojukan in Hoshi Onsen is one luxurious example. Deep in the mountains, the historic complex boasts three beautiful baths that are guaranteed to sooth away stress.
Chojukan inn is embedded in the quiet mountains of Gunma Prefecture, a 75-minute jaunt from Tokyo on the Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train. I get on the first of two buses at Jomo Kogen station, which shuttles me through harvested fields and idyllic countryside. I have yet to see another soul outside. The second bus crawls up a narrow single-lane road that twists along a river and into the mountains. The sun gently flutters through the leafless trees, yet to fill out after the harsh winter.
Twenty minutes later, we pull up in front of the inn. I see Mt. Mikuni soaring in the distance. Cold air caresses my face as I step out of the bus. I’ve arrived at one of Gunma’s best-kept secrets since 1875.
I step inside 140 years of history. The wooden surfaces are almost as black as coal. These dark, warm tones contrast beautifully with the plaster-white walls. The building is a part of the nature here. I’m convinced this spot is as peaceful as it was over a century ago. I’m starting to feel more and more calm as I take everything in. The pristine mountain air might have something to do with it.
The staff usher me down a long wooden corridor to my room in the annex. I notice the sun is setting behind the mountain. Shadows blanket the space as I settle in for the evening. I gingerly slide open the window frame, fearing a blast of cold air, but it’s the roaring sound of the river below that captures my imagination. But alongside the river, on the right, I can spot the mixed Hoshi-no-yu bath, one of Japan’s registered tangible cultural properties. And to the left is, Tamashiro-no-yu, a hot spring bath built using fragrant Japanese Cypress.
I waste no time heading for a dip. I rest my head on the log that bisects the bath, completely blissed-out. Tiny bubbles escape from the between the rounded pebbles on the bottom of the tub. They playfully tickle my toes. I look up to admire the extremely high wooden ceiling.
Hoshi-no-yu is an architectural curiosity. It features arched windows, unheard of in other buildings constructed in the Meiji period. I later learn the bath was designed by an English railway engineer around the time when Japan started to modernize and welcome western influences. I’m curious what an English engineer would be doing at a hot spring resort tucked away in this part of Japan.
My host, Mr. Okamura, is the sixth generation of Chojukan innkeepers. He tells me his ancestor that founded the inn was the brother of a village leader in neighboring Niigata Prefecture. Impressed by Japan’s first railway connecting Tokyo to Yokohama, the 30-year-old entrepreneur decided he too would build a railway, one to connect Tokyo to Niigata. He soon struck up a friendship with an English engineer, who designed the bath. The railway plans fell through and the family lost its fortune, but he was able to save the inn.
Mr. Okamura leads me to the dining room for dinner. I’m delighted to hear most of the ingredients used by the chef are local. I have the chance to savor delicacies like Akagi chicken, Jyoshu mugi pork and many other tasty morsels. Chojukan has strong community ties with their food producers. It’s a beautiful thing. The sake that accompanies my meal is brewed with a recipe that dates back to the opening of the inn. And it’s made exclusively for this establishment. The fragrance of the rice spreads across my palate as I take a sip. It’s so smooth I’m sure it will pair with just about anything.
Silence descends from the mountains, enveloping the subdued laughter of the inn’s satisfied guests. I decide to cap my night off with another hot-spring soak. I watch the steam rise from the bath and dissipate into the midnight air. It’s cathartic. I gaze up at the moon, winking from between the trees. I can tell tomorrow will be a great day. But for now, I kiss my stress goodbye. I thank my lucky stars that nighttime in the mountains is a slow-moving train.
by Misako Horioka, translated by Emma Price & Ivy Oldford
April 29, 2016
Hoshi Onsen Chojukan information
|Number of rooms||33|
|Check in/out||in 3:00pm out 10:30am|
Additional Information about Hoshi Onsen Chojukan
Vegetarian menu available
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