An Idyllic Bolthole
Hidden in the mountains, on the banks of the Daishoji river, sits the scenic town of Yamanaka Onsen. One of three famous onsen towns in the Kaga City area (alongside Yamashiro Onsen and Katayamazu Onsen) it has been lauded by visitors for centuries, and it’s easy to see why. Yamanaka Onsen is a place entwined with nature. The dramatic Kakusenkei Gorge, celebrated as one of the most beautiful in Hokuriku (the region that comprises Ishikawa, Toyama and Fukui prefectures), carves its way through the town, flanked on either side by thickly forested hills. The town itself has a quaint and tranquil village feel. In an open square, near the public bath house, a charming marionette clock chimes the hour, and beyond, Yamanaka Onsen’s main street is dotted with pretty souvenir shops.
Admired For Centuries
The onsen town has attracted a steady stream of visitors over the centuries, including the celebrated poet MATSUO Basho (1644-1694), who fell in love with the place. He championed the healing properties of Yamanaka Onsen’s waters, and in one haiku he likened the hot springs to a chrysanthemum – a symbol of eternity in Chinese folklore. Consequently, the town’s public bath houses are known as ‘Kiku no Yu’, or ‘chrysanthemum hot spring’.
The sodium and sulfate-rich waters are said to help a plethora of ailments, not least quelling aches and pains. Visitors can find the Kiku no Yu in an open square in the middle of the town, on the same site it has been for 1300 years. There are separate houses for men and women; both are elegant buildings containing large communal pools, as well as showers. In the men’s bath, visitors can enjoy beautifully illustrated tiles depicting Yamanaka’s history. An outdoor footbath sits just outside the women’s bath house entrance and visitors can also cook their own ‘onsen eggs’ in a designated pool in the square.
Onsen bathing opportunities exist elsewhere in the lavish ryokans (Japanese inns) scattered about the town, some of which offer day bathing options for non-guests. These communal baths come in a range of styles, some with stunning panoramic views out onto the forest or across the gorge.
The sumptuous-looking lacquerware of Yamanaka Onsen has been a sought-after commodity since its conception in the 16th century. Delicately crafted silken bowls, vases and cups can be found in shops and galleries throughout the town.
Yamanaka lacquerware is an important, traditional craft that has been carefully preserved. While lacquering as a craft is prevalent throughout Japan, Yamanaka Onsen is one of the last remaining places in the country to carve the wooden bases. The production of Yamanaka lacquerware uses many of the same methods today as it did centuries ago, with some artisans still using foot-powered lathes and an array of hand-made tools to carve the wooden bases. The process requires immense precision. The application of the lacquer is similarly meticulous, and is only understood by a handful of craftspeople in the area. The resulting final pieces of lacquerware are inimitable and awe-inspiring.
Visitors to Yamanaka Onsen can watch these talented artisans at work, as well as experience wood carving themselves, in some of the town’s workshops.
Dating back 1300 years, Yamanaka Onsen was discovered by wandering Buddhist monk Gyoki (668-749). The story goes that Gyoki encountered a Buddha of medicine who encouraged him to unearth the warm, rejuvenating waters flowing beneath his feet. This marked the beginnings of the area as a hot spring destination, but a short time later the springs were abandoned due to local wars and eventually forgotten about. It wasn’t until several hundred years later that the area began receiving visitors again and Yamanaka Onsen gradually took the shape of the resort town it is today.
The Nature of Yamanaka Onsen
Yamanaka Onsen’s scenery is some of the most spectacular in the region. Just a few blocks from the town’s centre the Daishoji River rushes through the magnificent Kakusenkei Gorge. Three unique bridges traverse the gorge, each differing in style from the next and each proffering breathtaking views down the ravine and of the surrounding flora. Striking new perspectives are offered season to season: spring-time brings the delicate pinks of the cherry blossoms; in summer the forest is alive with vivid greens; in autumn gold and red hues soften the landscape, and in winter Kakusenkei Gorge transforms into a crystalline wonderland.
At the river’s edge, a walking trail runs the length of the gorge. It offers a peaceful immersion into nature as it passes sparkling waterfalls and moss-covered rock pools. Along this magical path, visitors can find the hut that commemorates Yamanaka Onsen’s famous devotee, MATSUO Basho (1644-1694), as well as a sublime riverside café known as Kakusenkei Kawadoko. Here, tea and sweets can be enjoyed on tatami platforms beside the clear, swirling waters.
It is these waters and the cool, mountain air that makes Yamanaka Onsen a sweet spot for sake production. The town is renowned for its variety of high-quality sake made using the clear, mineral-rich spring waters fed from the nearby mountains. Artisanal sake is produced at one of two local breweries, and can be sampled at any number of Yamanaka Onsen’s izakayas (bars), restaurants or in the ryokans.