By Tim Hornyak
One of the greatest pleasures in traveling through Japan is learning the art of getting soaked. By that, I mean bathing in a hot spring (onsen), a pastime Japanese have enjoyed for centuries because of its many benefits for mind and body. Japan is a volcanic archipelago blessed by more than 27,000 hot springs, and one of the most celebrated is Nyuto Onsen in the Tohoku region. This seven-spring spa with traditional inns (ryokan) is located in rolling foothills about 45 minutes by car from Tazawako Station on the JR Akita Shinkansen Line. I recently visited Nyuto Onsen and met with Kyoko Sato and Kazushi Sato, two innkeepers who are committed to traditional onsen ryokan hospitality.
Coming up from an elegant bow, Kyoko Sato looks resplendent in her kimono. It’s sky blue with a pink and lavender floral pattern, matched with a cream-colored obi kimono belt. At 75 years old, Sato looks every inch the akita bijin (Akita beauty) and smiles demurely through crimson lipstick when she told so.
“Can you believe I was wearing this kimono in my twenties?” she chuckles, suddenly noticing a stray thread and pulling it out. “Oh, a tacking stitch! How rude! I’m so sorry.”
Vivacious and irrepressible, Sato is a force of nature. She’s the okamisan, or proprietress, of Taenoyu, a deluxe hot spring inn (onsen ryokan) at Nyuto Onsen in Akita Prefecture. Equal parts charm and hospitality, Sato seems to embody everything enjoyable about Taenoyu, a secluded establishment on the banks of the Sendatsu River. In 1991, Sato took over Taenoyu from her family after her grandfather established the inn in 1942. A devout Buddhist who prayed under local waterfalls in winter, he named the inn after the Lotus Sutra; a statue of Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy, stands outside the bathing area.
Guests come to Taenoyu to enjoy the rotenburo outdoor baths, including reddish-brown spring water and a large mixed-gender bathing area overlooking a roaring waterfall. The waters here are renowned for their beautifying effects on skin. In winter, the onsen is especially cosy as snow piles up as high as four meters outside.
“In particular, I wanted to create a place where hardworking women can relax and feel at home,” says Sato. “As long as the people want to come, I’ll be here to welcome them.”
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