Oku-Hida Onsen 奥飛騨温泉郷

photos & text by Daniel Simmons

For those seeking a warm weekend escape this winter, the northern Japan Alps might at first seem like a counterintuitive, not to say ludicrous, travel destination. To be sure, the heavy snowfalls along this central mountainous spine of Japan make the Chubu-Sangaku National Park a wonderland for skiers, snowboarders, and hardcore mountaineers, but those who prefer their ambient air temperatures north of zero would probably sooner hibernate under their kotatsu for weeks on end than head for the Nagano-Gifu border. This is a shame, really, because although the surrounding 3000m-high peaks may be covered in snow, the lifeblood of these mountains runs hot just beneath the surface. Snow country is also onsen country, and travelers who brave the remote, rime-lined roads to the Alps will find the perfect haunts in which to soak away their winter woes.

One such mountain oasis is Oku-Hida, in Gifu Prefecture, just across the mountains from the hikers paradise of Kamikochi. A clutch of high-altitude hot spring villages (奥飛騨温泉郷) first arose here in the mid-16th-century, when according to legend the troops of warlord Shingen Takeda spotted a wizened monkey nursing its wounds in the local spring water. Each of the five villages (Shin-Hotaka 新穂高, Tochio 栃尾, Shin-Hirayu 新平湯, Fukuchi 福地, and Hirayu 平湯) boasts a communal mixed open-air bath, which are either free of charge or cost a pittance—perfect for passers-through who are weary of the wintry roads and want to savor a dip before moving on.

Better still, if you’ve got some money to burn, stay a night or two at Fukuchi Onsen’s enchanting and stunningly atmospheric Yumoto Choza ryokan. Although the inn itself is only forty years old, it was built from the timbers of far older farmhouses, sake breweries, and Niigata homesteads. Traditional craftsmanship is everywhere in evidence. Hinoki cypress baths and stream-side open-air baths compete with irori hearth-cooked mountain cuisine (bear meat nabe, anyone?) as the main attraction here.

There is precious little to do in Oku-Hida outside of bathing, eating, drinking the local spirits, and drinking in the mountain scenery. This is, in a nutshell, the place’s appeal! But there are a few other area attractions including a 64m-high, 6m-wide frozen waterfall, illuminated at night between February 15-25 as part of the Hirayu Otaki Keppyo Matsuri. A free shuttle bus will transport you to the falls from Hirayu’s bus station, and while you’re waiting for the shuttle you can sample the local sake at an “igloo bar” constructed in the station parking lot. Visitors to Shin-hotaka Onsen can ascend a full vertical kilometer in altitude on the Shin-hotaka Ropeway to an upper terminal station with breathtaking views of the surrounding snowy peaks.

Getting to Oku-Hida: Take a bus from Matsumoto (1.5 hours) or Takayama (50 minutes) to Hirayu Onsen, which acts as a transportation hub for the other Oku-Hida villages. There is also a direct bus (4.5 hours) for travelers coming from Shinjuku






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