A lullaby of snow melting in Minakami

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April 14th 2012
Published: April 17th 2012
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It was at least a few hours worth of trains, including a stint on the Shinkansen (the famous bullet trains of Japan), to arrive at Minakami, a town in mountainous Gunma Prefecture famous for their onsens (hot springs). We had been looking forward to this weekend stay at the ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) of Takaragawa Onsen for a good while. Japanese people have been using the onsens across the country over the centuries for the relaxing and healing qualities of their mineral-rich waters. Traditionally, clothing is not permitted in the onsen, but a towel to conceal certain parts may be used while walking around. We had lunch at a casual restaurant near Minakami station as we waited for the shuttle bus to the ryokan. Once again, we were impressed by the food, which consisted of hand-cut soba noodles with a tempura of local vegetables.

Upon our arrival at Takaragawa we chose our yukata (a casual kimono), which we would wear during our stay at the ryokan, and got settled into our room. We were excited to see the large size of our room and nice view from sizeable windows, but I think best of all was the unmistakeable sound of the rushing river below us, which provided an instant calming effect. We decided to sample the onsens before dinner was served. Part of the reason we chose Takaragawa was due to their availability of co-ed spas, which is rather rare among onsens these days. We found a little corner to relax on the rocks and take it all in. It was similar to a giant hot tub, but with superb scenery and no bathing suits. This was definitely the highest concentration of naked penis I had ever been witness to. Some men covered up, but some didn't. The women however, wrapped the towel around their bodies, so I wouldn't say they were totally naked. This is not the case in the women's only section of the onsen, which is totally separate from the other spas on the grounds, they free-boobed it there. After successfully boiling our ailments away, we returned to be served dinner in our room, Japanese style. As the hotel staff rolled out the food, I couldn't believe the endless variety. It was truly an epic meal. The dishes were all traditional Japanese with concentration on locally available foods. Along with some beer and sake, we grilled our own fish and mushrooms, crunched some tempura, savored small pickled condiments of identity mostly unknown, enjoyed sashimi of carp and trout, simmered beef shabu shabu style in tofu milk, and even ate the local specialty of bear soup. After overindulging, it was a while before we could muster up the energy to carry our now giant stomachs back down to the spa for a night soak. When we decided to go to bed, the static sound of snow melt rushing downriver was a perfect lullaby to sleep by. The next morning, we enjoyed a Japanese style breakfast which consisted of various items including sweet beans, pickled plum, natto from locally grown soybeans, fish baked in foil packet, miso soup, rice, and an onsen egg (a style of soft-boiled egg, very delicate). Personally, I wouldn't trade my coffee, eggs, bacon, and toast for it, but it was enjoyable.

On our bus back down to Minakami, we enjoyed gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains, which still had touches of snow here and there. As it was a gorgeous day, we set out to explore Minakami by foot, first stopping at a small aquarium with exhibits focused on the native fishes of the Tone River. Besides having its source near Minakami, the Tone is the second largest river in Japan and is a major water supply for the Tokyo region. It is popular amongst trout fishermen and whitewater rafters. We walked along the river on a concrete sidewalk, enjoying the sunshine and views of the rapids gathering over the rocks. On our way back through town we lunched on tasty oven-fired pizzas of mushroom and seafood at a cafe called La Biere (a rarity in Japan due to the lack of quality cheese).

As we made our way back to Yokosuka, the scenery gradually changed from agricultural/mountains to industrial to mega-city, not forgetting the spatterings of sakura blossoms throughout. During the ride I came to realize that I had misplaced my Kindle (an electronic reader) at some point between Tokyo and Takaragawa on the previous day's travel. Upon our arrival via shinkansen to Tokyo I began an attempt at recovering it. As Japanese people often turn in items due to their level of respect, I knew there was a good chance that it may be at the lost and found office. After a humbling experience of language barriers, I received a negative answer and am now officially kindleless. I was bummed, but determined not to let it ruin my day as we continued on to Yokohama to check out the Chinatown section. We arrived at sunset and joined the crowds roving the streets. I could not believe my eyes, it has got to be the largest concentration of restaurants I have ever seen. Many of them specialized in a certain food, whether regional Chinese, shark fin soup, or a common street food such as steamed buns, but so many also seemed to be exact replicates of each other, I'm not sure how that works. The Kanteibyo Temple was electrifyingly colorful, I loved the dragon designs. We finally decided on a restaurant with roasted duck hanging in the window, it was good, but I don't remember the name. After dinner, we made one last stop at the Bashamichi Taproom of Baird Brewery in Yokohama where we sipped on a couple of frosty brews and listened to a live jazz ensemble type of American and Japanese musicians. All in all, it was a fabulous weekend out and about in Japan, celebrating my lovely man's birthday.

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18th April 2012

Takaragawa and Minakami
Takaragawa is actually the largest outdoor onsen in Japan! There are plenty of other great onsens in Minakami but the scale of Takaragawa is awesome. Traditionally Minakami was just an onsen town but recently outdoor adventure sports are huge, especially during the green season. The rafting and canyoning are the most popular tours, but there is a massive range of adventures on offer.

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