With its meditative hot springs, tranquil waterside location and resplendent views, Katayamazu Onsen has the ability to cleanse the soul. It is a serene town on the shores of Lake Shibayama. Small boats wend their way along the still waters, but the only sounds are the odd plop of a duck diving for fish. The mesmerizing backdrop of the Mount Hakusan rising majestically in the distance is akin to a stage set. On clear days, the sacred mountain is brilliantly reflected on the surface of the lake.
When the sun sets, Lake Shibayama glows a brilliant deep orange. In fact, the water appears to change colour several times a day, imitating the sky. As twilight settles the lights of Katayamazu twinkle on its western shore, and all is calm.
The Discovery of the Hot Spring
Katayamazu Onsen’s mineral-rich baths are fed from a hot spring at the bottom of the lake. The spring’s discovery came about later than the two other onsen towns of the Kaga City area (Yamanaka Onsen and Yamashiro Onsen), in 1653, at the beginning of the Edo era (1603-1868). It is attributed to a local feudal lord who, while practising falconry near the lake, noticed that the waterfowl congregated at a specific point on the water. He spent many years trying to excavate the spring, but to no avail. It wasn’t until almost two centuries later in the Meiji era (1868-1912) that the spring water could be extracted and for Katayamazu Onsen to be known as the onsen town that it is today.
A Bath With a View
Katayamazu Onsen’s magical vistas can be soaked up whilst soaking. Several lavish ryokans (Japanese inns) line the water’s edge and offer beautiful, communal hot spring baths overlooking the lake, as does the town’s public bathhouse (known as the soyu). Unlike the bathhouses of Yamanaka and Yamashiro Onsen, Katayamazu Onsen’s soyu is a striking, contemporary sensation. Designed by celebrated architect TANIGUCHI Yoshio (also responsible for the remodelling of the Museum of Modern Art in New York), it stands in stunning contrast to the natural surroundings.
From the outside, its floor to ceiling glass windows dramatically reflect the sky. On the top floor is Machi café, a stylishly modern space that offers breathtaking views across the lake and alfresco dining on the rooftop veranda. Downstairs, the baths too are modern and minimalist, in perfect contrast to the natural panoramas displayed through their wide windows. They offer either earth or water views: a woodland area brimming with plantlife, or the vast lake and mountain backdrop. (Which view depends on the day, as men’s and women’s baths change regularly.)
Katayamazu Onsen’s sodium and calcium-rich hot spring water is said to have insulating properties. In the winter months, a short dip in the waters can keep you warm long after you’ve left the bath. The peaceful town is therefore great for an onsen excursion in the colder months.
A Stroll About Town
Beginning from the back of the soyu, a path meanders its way along the edge of the lake. It leads to a small pier, where a small pavilion, known as Ukimido Temple, perches at its tip. By day, visitors can take in the views and observe the flocks of waterfowl dozing and preening themselves on the wooden pontoons. By night, the pier, pavilion and a fountain in the centre of the lake are illuminated, and an air of magic descends on the town. From the pier, the path curls around into the town’s centre, where a small park awaits. At its edge lies a long, sheltered foot bath which draws water straight out of the ground from the source. For those without the time to fully submerge in one of the town’s baths, a dip of the feet in the foot spa, with views of the pretty park, can be just as comforting.
Set back from the lake, perched on top of a hill is the pretty Aizenji Temple. It’s a short climb up a set of old stone steps, and from the top sweeping views across Lake Shibayama to the peaks of the Hakusan mountain range can be enjoyed. Once situated in Kanazawa, Aizenji Temple was transferred to Katayamazu during the Meiji era (1868-1912) to guard over the hot springs.
Other Activities in Katayamazu
Whilst Katayamazu Onsen is an excellent choice for onsen bathing in winter, it is an enchanting place to visit all year round. The lake and the views can be enjoyed with a cycle around its edge via a 6.5km bike trail. From spring to autumn, boat rides and fishing excursions take place. In celebration of the area’s splendour, firework displays throughout August light up the lake. These are magnificent to watch from the gardens of a ryokan or aboard one of the nightly cruises.
Just beyond the town centre is the fascinating Museum of Snow and Ice. It celebrates the work of renowned scientist NAKAYA Ukichiro (1900-1962), who devoted his life to the study of glaciology. Here, intriguing videos and hands-on experiments teach us what we never knew about snow!