Tenryu-Oku-Mikawa Quasi-National Park 鳳来寺山と湯谷温泉

by Daniel Simmons

Thirteen centuries ago, long before the advent of cable car ropeways and bullet trains, travelers to Japanese hot springs were often forced to endure long walks into the lonely wilderness in order to reach their final destinations, where they could finally unshoulder their heavy loads and ease their weary muscles in volcano-fed streams. According to local legend, one particular peak-dwelling hermit in the Tokai region decided this mode of travel wasn’t for him, so he reached his favorite hot spring the easy way.  He levitated.

Playing a midflight medley on his flute, his robes flapping around him, the sage Rishu swooped down from the 684m-high Mt. Horaiji to a hot spring source near the Ure River, where his periodic dips attracted the attention of the locals and inspired them to open a bath there, in hopes of being granted similar magical or miraculous powers. (No dice, alas.)

Flying, flute-playing mountain hermits are in short supply in Yuya these days, but this is a place where the supernatural still lingers, if you believe the claim that the local birds (Japanese scops owls) chant paeans to Buddhism in the late spring and summer: “Bu!” (Buddha), “Po!” (sutra), and “So!” (priest).

For us, the magic of this area is not in the water or the hooting of the owls, but in the magnificent surroundings.  A stone staircase winds up Mt. Horaiji through an ancient wood of cryptomeria pines, cedars, and cypresses, the slopes studded on either side with moss-speckled stone lanterns and weather-scarred Buddhist statues.  If you manage to ascend all 1,425 steps to the main hall of Horaiji, the Shingon sect temple that Rishu founded in 703, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous panoramic views of the forested hills and plains stretching away below you, and on a clear day you can see all the way to Mikawa Bay.  (Alas, the Horaiji temple buildings themselves lack the wabi appeal of their surroundings, having been restored and/or rebuilt numerous times over the centuries.)  Here too is a Tosho-gu Shrine built in the 17th century by the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu.  This area is special to the Tokugawa family, as it is said that Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mother conceived her son after praying here.

Five kilometers from the mountain is Yuya Onsen, a popular resort in the 18th century that has managed to retain a rustic, undeveloped charm.  You’ll find no pachinko parlors here, just a clutch of hot spring ryokans, elderly painters practicing their watercolors by the riverside, and a beautiful prefectural park within easy walking distance of JR Yuya Onsen station.  Starting in early November, the forests of the Aichi Kenmin no Mori start to blush a deep crimson and vibrant gold, offering prismatic autumnal backdrops to nature walks.

If you’re disappointed with the medicinal properties of Yuya Onsen’s water (other than sodium chloride, there’s not much else in the way of extra ingredients), you can get your health fix with a stay at the beautiful Hazuki ryokan, where a master chef from Shanghai has designed a kampo-yakuzen kaiseki menu based on Chinese traditional medicine (“Dragon’s Blood” cocktail, anyone?) that will leave you refreshed and restored, and also a little weirded out.  If a night at Hazuki is beyond your budget, there’s an abundance of campsites in this area.  The Youth Travel Village at the base of Mt. Horaiji offers tents and bungalows, as well as auto camping sites.  Closer to the Yuya Onsen station, the Kenmin no Mori campground is also a good option.

Day trippers to the area can prowl the riverside accommodations in Yuya in search of an afternoon bath, and if all else fails a free public footbath in the area will put a spring in your step… if not, perhaps, enough of a spring to let you take to the skies a la Rishu.

Getting There:

From Toyohashi Station, southeast of Nagoya on the Tokaido main line, take the JR Iida line to Yuya Onsen station (about 70 minutes by local train, or 46 minutes on the Inaji limited express). For Horaiji, exit at Honnagashino station instead, then board the annoyingly infrequent Toyotetsu bus to either the Horaiji stop (an easy 15-minute walk to the temple) or the village at the base of the Horaiji staircase. (We recommend getting off at the bottom and earning your return ride with a bit of exercise.)










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