Tsuru-no-yu, Tazawako and Kakunodate

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Fancy bathing in ‘milk’? The silky turquoise waters at the famed inn of Tsuru-no-yu will help any aspiring Cleopatra to at least pretend to bathe in some milk for a night or two, possibly with much better outcomes for the skin. Better yet, with a galaxy of stars for company. The mixed baths of Tsuru-no-yu have been on my onsen radar for a long time so I was really excited to finally soak in its waters. This is not your polished onsen resort so forget about fancy kaiseki meals and posh en-suite facilities. It is very rustic in many ways but trust me, these opaque waters are well worth the journey. Nearby is the deep blue expanse of Tazawako, Japan’s deepest lake and a mere hop away on the shinkansen are the old samurai houses of Kakunodate, making this part of Akita well worth a couple of nights.

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After we left Hakodate, the shinkansen took us back to Morioka where we switched to another shinkansen which would take us to Tazawako station. Greeting us as we stepped off the train is a huge dragon statue, grinning in welcome. Lake Tazawa or Tazawako is steeped in legend – chief among which is the story of Tatsuko, a woman who craved beauty so much that she drank from a sacred spring, turning her into a dragon now said to reside in the depths of the lake.

We didn’t see any dragon but who knows right? Tazawako is said to be more than 400m deep, certainly deep enough to house a dragon in slumber. Almost a perfect circle, it takes about 20min to drive a complete round of the caldera lake without stopping.

The first stop we made after picking up our rental car from Tazawako station was the lake’s souvenir store, about 10 minutes drive away. Not to pick up any kitschy keychain but to see the adorable resident Akita Inu dogs. I remembered meeting them years ago on a media trip and knowing that my dog-mad kids would love to meet them, we made a quick stop. There were three of them and they were kept in kennel-cages with their names, genders and personalities written up on small signs next to their cages. These regal bear-like dogs were magnificent and so friendly. I think the dogs are well taken care of but it felt sad to see them enclosed like this.

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After saying goodbye to the dogs, we headed for the other side of the lake where the famous statue of Tatsuko stood a distance away from shore in the water. Nearby is the tiny shrine of Kansugu, known as a shrine for match-making. The shrine juts out over the lake and it’s as tiny as shrines come but like all Shinto shrines, there are omamori and goshuin to obtain if you wish. We came at a time when there were few people around so no crowds to jostle with to get this shot of Tatsuko:

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From here, we drove to Nyuto Onsen, the collection of onsen inns among which is the oldest establishment of the lot – Tsuru-no-yu. Following the instruction of the GPS we drove deeper and deeper into the mountains. Each time we thought we had arrived, the GPS told us to keep going. The road became narrower and bumpier, the foliage thicker and thicker. Just when I was beginning to wonder if the GPS had gone bonkers, it smoothly announced that we had arrived.

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Nondescript and unassuming, the inn was a series of black cladded wooden buildings set charmingly with the backdrop of hills and a gurgling stream. The clack of a water wheel was soothing background music, fitting accompaniment to this onsen experience. Our rooms were in a double-storey block, almost dormitory-like with no ensuite toilets; these were clustered at the end of the block. The rooms were small with a max of three people in one room. It felt like I was 11 again and back in school camp. Nostalgic in all ways.

In our yukatas, we explored the eight baths scattered around the property. While there are baths restricted to genders, the prettiest was a mixed bath. This one:

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Yes, this is where you let it all hang out; boys and girls alike.

I’m not squeamish about konnyaku or mixed bathing. But I was mindful that we were going as a family this time. But the beauty of this bath is its discreet, separate entrance for women and once you’re chest deep in the water, no one can see anything important. Going at night when visibility was reduced to the light from kerosene lamps made it even less stressful.

Yes, all of Tsuru-no-yu is lit by kerosene lamps outdoors. Electricity is only provided indoors. Which makes light pollution minimal, allowing the stars in the night sky to shine. Atmospheric and authentic, just the way I like it.

Tsuru-no-yu has been around for more than 400 years. The wooden buildings are old and creaky in parts but beautifully worn. Dinner is kept simple but delicious with mountain roots and vegetables and hearty stews. It doesn’t look like much but like all Japanese meals, little adds to a lot.

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Post dinner, we hit the onsen again, heading for the mixed bath and then, warm from the bath, we hung out outside just listening to the insects chirp and the stream gurgle away before calling it a night.

There was another beautiful outdoor bath – this one reserved only for women. I made it a point to rise early at 4am to access this, hoping to get it all to myself. At 4am in early summer, the sun was just peeking out even though the moon was still high in the night sky. It is that liminal slip in time when the sun, the moon and the stars were all in the same space at the same time. Magical to soak in the velvet heat of the onsen, the mist of the early morning mingling with the steam.

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After my 4am bath

We left Tsuru-no-yu and Nyuto Onsen the next day for Kakunodate. It wasn’t far to drive to Kakunodate but we headed for Tazawako first; this time to visit a shrine we had passed the day before but hadn’t had time to explore.

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The drive to Kakunodate (thanks to the GPS which seemed to love taking us through very obscure routes where roads are more like one-way tracks) was beautifully green. We stopped at rivers, went past rice fields and old farmhouses, drove under emerald canopies of tall cedars and passed very little traffic.

Here’s a quick slideshow of the lush countryside we passed on our way to Kakunodate. I daresay this was probably more of a highlight for me than Kakunodate itself.

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Kakunodate is actually best seen in spring when the samurai quarter bursts into pink blooms of cherry. In the heat of summer, it was not quite fun to tramp through one samurai house after another. Would also recommend getting a guide who can better explain the history and stories behind the houses and the samurai families (some of whom still live in these houses).

What was interesting for me was to see a display of tsuba (the guard between the grip and the blade of a katana). I never knew these were so intricately carved. There must have been so much meaning behind each image. There’s a certain poignant irony for these beautiful pieces of art to stand between the hand of the swordsman and the blade that would cause certain death.

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At Kakunodate, we returned the car and then hopped on another shinkansen back to Morioka, then headed south for Sendai before we caught another train for our next onsen adventure in Sakunami Onsen and the 1000-step epic climb up to the mountain top temples of Yamadera!

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