Sakunami Onsen and Yamadera

P1090721In between the cities of Sendai and Yamagata, accessed by the local Senzan train line, sits a modest village known for its waters, infused with legendary healing power, so clear and so pure that it contributes to a famed Japanese whisky distillery which produces Nikka whiskey. Little Sakunami Onsen sits off the radar for most international tourists, attracting a more domestic clientele. Yet, its onsen tradition dates back hundreds of years and its genesis story of healing waters is as mystical as Nyuto Onsen. Not far from Sakunami Onsen is the venerable Yamadera, a cluster of temples perched high above a mountain and accessed by huffing and puffing your way up 1000 steps. Who said the way to the gods is easy right?

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Sakunami Onsen is served by several big onsen hotels but we chose to stay at the sprawling but elegantly faded Iwamatsu Osenkaku, the original first mover of onsen ryokans in this area. Getting to and from the ryokan is easy. Shuttle buses await guests at the railway station, whisking them to the ryokan in less than 15min. There is a certain old-school elegance about the Iwamatsu ryokan with its sprawling reception area, high ceilings and old-fashioned gracious courtesy of its staff. It felt like a well-kept, slightly faded grand hotel of days gone by.

Run by the same family who founded the first ryokan here more than 250 years ago, the ryokan still boasts traditional konnyaku bathing. The mixed baths are at the riverside, accessible by the original atmospheric, covered wooden stairway built more than a century ago.

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If parallel worlds existed, the clatter of geta sandals and chatter of bathers in yukatas makes it easy to imagine other invisible bathers of times long gone by, clacking their way up or down to the baths.

For ladies who prefer not to bathe with the men, midway down the stairs takes you to the ladies’ bath, the Koka No Yu, with generous windows overlooking greenery and the whisper of the river far below.

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The room at the ryokan was huge and all five of us could comfortably sprawl around the tatami seating area. As with all traditional ryokan, the futons were laid out when we were at dinner. Dinner was a buffet with our favorites – sauteed beef being the most frequently refilled and loads of sashimi and sushi. As with all ryokan stays, sleep comes deep and restful after a warm bath and filled bellies, the sound of the river far below a lullaby.

 

The next day after a yummy Japanese breakfast, we hopped off to Yamadera. We were lucky to find storage lockers at the small station where we stuffed our bags before making the trek across the river and up the mountain.

Yamadera is a holy mountain, a place of pilgrimage, dotted with shrines, stone lanterns, grave markers, moss and temples. Yes it is a 1000-step climb to the top. If you’re unfit like me, you will ache the next day as your legs go on strike. But otherwise, it is an interesting walk if you pause to take in the details that surround you.

Jizo, patron saint of travellers and lost babies, shows up at every corner, like a run marshal at a marathon gently smiling and encouraging you to keep moving.

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Jizo, to me, is always a poignant sight, usually bibbed and capped in red, accompanied by children, babies, offerings of toys, and colourful windmills, a reminder that he takes care of the little ones and protects them from nasty demons hell-bent on demolishing their rockpiles and accumulation of merit. Throughout my walk in Yamadera, these beautiful windmills were everywhere:

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Here’s another tiny shrine dedicated to Jizo, more of a cabinet in the woods but no less colourful, wistfully adorned by a baby’s rattle, soft toys and a tiny toy car:

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I took my time to slowly make my way up. The children had merrily skipped their way up (youth!) way ahead of me. Rather than ‘chiong’ (zoom up the steps), I was happier to just appreciate the stillness, the sound of the cicadas (said to be one of the top 100 soundscapes in Japan) and inhale as deeply as I could, the fresh green scent of cedar.

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Say “konnichiwa” with a smile and a nod – after all, we’re all pilgrims trudging along life’s path up to the summit. Along the way, I passed cheery elderly men and women with walking sticks; all unfazed and determined to make it all the way up. They really put me to shame with their smiles and their energy.

Once we made it to the top, the views are gorgeous and helps to take the deep ache off the legs. Far below, the roofs of toy-sized houses in the town and further beyond, low-hanging clouds wrapping themselves around blue hazy hills.

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This is the view from the observation deck of the Godaido Hall. All shades of green in summer, the view would look markedly different and so beautiful cloaked in autumn hues or wintry snow. This was, pun intended, the high point of our climb.

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There are other halls to access on what is more or less a ‘plateau’ of sorts without the steep stairs which took up most of the climb. I visited every single one to fill the pages of my goshuin.

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A long but fruitful day. Heading down is a lot easier than going up and we took a much shorter time in the descent. Back at the station, while waiting for our train, I browsed a small antique and curios shop. I love all things vintage and a beautiful cream-coloured vintage leather handbag caught my eye. I can’t be sure, but it looks like something out of the 60s. I bought it for the grand total of 1200yen. Could hardly believe my ears when the shop-keeper told me the cost. I think it is easily one of my best buys.

From Yamadera, it is easy to catch a train back to either Sendai or Yamagata and then connecting back to Tokyo, which is what we did. We spent the next few days in Tokyo, highlights of which I’ll talk about in the next post. But this last stop in Yamadera, was for me, the end of our Tohoku adventure.

From the Sanriku coast, up to Hakodate, the beautiful waters of Tsuru-no-yu and now the climb up Yamadera, what a beautiful journey it has been. Certainly Tohoku is really big and we have not covered everything we wanted to see. But that only gives me an excuse (not that I need any!) to return again and again.

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a last look at Yamadera, with the tiny hut for sutras overlooking the valley

 

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