Where the heck is Hijiori Onsen?
A week ago today I was in Hijiori Onsen.
Hijiori where? Most Japanese don't even know where it is, so I'll tell you. Take the Yamagata shinkansen (bullet train) to the end of the line (Shinjo). Next, take a local bus another hour to the end of that line: Hijiori Onsen. Hijiori Onsen is so small that the only butcher in town has beef just twice a week. We were there for 4 days and didn't see a single other non-Asian face.
It snows a lot in Hijiori. Rolly-bags don't work so well in the snow. They tend to collect snow behind them, like a reverse plow, making every step harder than the last. Since we were mis-directed getting off the bus, we walked about 10 times further than we needed to...over a bridge and up a hill before we stopped to ask for directions.
Yamagata-ken (Yamagata prefecture) is famous because every town has at least one hot spring. Hijiori Onsen has more than I could count. We stayed at the Maluya Hotel, a ryokan (inn) that dates from 1868 and has 4 baths: a family bath (for a single group at a time), 2 larger, shared baths that alternate between men and women, and a rotemburo (an outdoor tub). People come to an onsen town to take the waters, and the mineral content of each bath is posted outside the tub. Even if the signs hadn't been in Japanese, I wouldn't have understood their significance. But that didn't keep me from enjoying the water.
Personally, I'm fond of the rotemburo because there's nothing like sitting in a hot tub while snow falls on a Japanese maple ten feet away. We also visited two of the public baths in town. For less than $3 you can soak to your heart's content, naked, with all the local ladies. We bathed 3-4 times each day, showering before each soak. Bathing became our occupation. In between baths we walked, read and wrote in the ryokan's cozy library, shopped for food, and cooked. Most ryokan guests get breakfast and supper with their room, but as toji guests, we'd signed on for something different.
Toji guests make an extended stay, cooking for themselves and taking the waters. It's a time to relax and recuperate from whatever has worn you down. The hotel kitchen was on the first floor, right near the front door. I can say with absolute certainty that every guest that walked into that ryokan was quite surprised to see two gaijin (foreigners) cooking their own supper. Let 'em stare...we had a blast.
Equipment was limited: there were 2 coin-
operated, gas burners; 10 yen gave us 10 minutes of heat. Cayce and I love to cook and we were up to the challenge. We ate well, shopping for local mushrooms, persimmons, and pork, making daikon pickles, rice pudding, and wait for it...cheese! Our food smelled so good that the ryokan cooks came out to see what we were doing.
After 4 days of snowy weather and intensive hydro-therapy, Cayce and I got back on the bullet train and headed to Tokyo, then Okinawa. Quite a change from a rotemburo in the snow.
P.S. Two of the pictures w/me in them were taken and contributed by Cayce Hill! (The third, w/me & Cayce together, was taken by Dora, the attendant at one of the public baths in Hijiori Onsen.)