Yamanaka Onsen (Ishikawa-ken) 石川県〜山中温泉〜

by Daniel Simmons

Nestled among forested hillsides halfway between Hakusan and the Sea of Japan coastline, Yamanaka Onsen is that rare thing: an unabashedly touristy hot spring town that somehow feels anything BUT touristy. There’s something here for all visitors, including hiking, haiku, and (of course) hot springs in abundance. There are also museums, shrines, a strong traditional crafts scene, and terrific local sake. That all of this is packed into a few square kilometers without the theme park-like kitsch that attends many other onsen villages is a testament to the decorous restraint of the local tourist association and a cooperative community spirit, which managed to revitalize a once-derelict Yamanaka without selling out its soul.

In the town’s center, along its main arcade, is the public Chrysanthemum Bath (Kiku-no-yu), which for much of the town’s 1300-year-old history was the best place to sample the mineral springs. Nowadays a crop of beautiful inns and hotels (our pick, if you have the money to spare, is the Kayo-tei) offer in-house baths of varying luxury.

“After bathing for hours/In Yamanaka’s waters/I couldn’t even pick a flower,” gushed itinerant poet Matsuo Basho during his visit here in 1689, and who are we to disagree? Basho was so taken with the place that he sojourned nine days in Yamanaka Onsen while composing his poetic travel classic The Narrow Road to the Deep North– it was the longest pit stop of his journey, and in subsequent writings he heralded Yamanaka Onsen as one of the country’s three finest hot springs. Modern-day devotees of Basho have erected in his honor a charming museum here, as well as a little hut in a riverside glade at the eastern end of Kakusenkei Gorge, where poets sometimes convene to keep the haiku tradition alive.

Basho spent many an hour strolling through the Kakusenkei, and 21st-century visitors can follow in his footsteps. We paid a visit here in the summer, marveling at the morning mists rising off the river, the little rapids guarded jealously by watchful herons, the deep, lush green of the surrounding trees, and the more brilliant green of the moss beneath our feet. Crisscrossing the gorge are numerous bridges, one of which deserves special mention: the Ayatorihashi (Cat’s Cradle Bridge), designed by ikebana master Hiroshi Teshigawara (who also worked as a film director– his 1960’s screen adaptation of Abe Kobo’s novel “Woman in the Dunes” is a surreal stunner). Under the light of the midday sun, the sinuous steel of the bridge is Pepto-Bismol pink amid the pines— an incongruous wedding of natural scenery and metal monstrosity that should be a ridiculous eyesore, but somehow manages instead to be an artistic, organic marvel.

In addition to its natural scenery and its baths, Yamanaka Onsen is also justly famous for its lacquerware, a 400-year-old local industry, as well as its Kutaniyaki porcelain, handmade paper, and wood carvings. You can even sign up to try your hand at a potter’s wheel, a wood-carving lathe, or a lacquer painter’s palette.

Overnight guests at the town’s inns will delight in sumptuous Kaga-ryori kaiseki meals, served on exquisite locally-made lacquerware. More budget-conscious trippers can bite into the piping hot ¥100 handmade potato-and-beef croquettes at Izumiya, enjoy the pan-fried fresh gyoza at Chouraku, and slurp up bowls of fish somen noodles at the Ideyu Tea House, where every dining table is an inspired work of art (there’s also a local crafts gallery upstairs). Be sure to sample the local sake– and sake-flavored ice cream!– at the Matsuura brewery. The friendly and knowledgeable staff at the Tsuji liquor shop are happy to pour you an impressive range of local sake, umeshu, and wine by the cup.

Getting There:

The eastern end of both the Kakusenkei Gorge and the main shopping arcade are easy 5-minute walks from the Yamanaka Onsen bus terminal (the bus also stops infrequently at Kiku-no-yu). To get there via public transportation, take a Yamanaka Onsen-bound bus from JR Kaga Onsen station (30 minutes, ¥410).



「山中や 菊はたおらぬ 湯の匂」松尾芭蕉が1689年にこの地を訪れた際にその名湯を称えて残した一句である。「おくのほそ道」の道中、温泉嫌いだった芭蕉も山中温泉を格別に気に入ってここに異例ともいえる八泊もしている。その後に詠んだ句の中でも芭蕉は山中温泉を日本の三大名湯の一つとして絶賛している。その後、芭蕉の信者たちによって「芭蕉の館」が整備されたり、鶴仙渓を流れる大聖寺川沿いの小さな小屋では俳句の会が催されたりしている。






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