The roaring of the nearby waterfall filled my ears as I settled back in the warm waters. Before me I could see a canyon lit by floodlights, with scraggly snow covered trees dotted along the slope. Snow blew through the air, sometimes dancing into the alcove the bath was situated in. Beams of light shone through a slatted ceiling through the steam and snow, subtly illuminating the scene. One wall was open, showcasing the winter vista of the snow covered canyon. One word floated to the top of my consciousness, magical.
Japan is so geologically active that hot water bursts from the ground just about everywhere. In the mountainous regions it can be hard to find a town that doesn’t have a hot springs bath nearby, but as always some places are more famous than others. The town of Aizuwakamatsu, in the northern prefecture of Fukushima, is justly famous for its onsen baths.
Bandai-san, a massive active volcano that erupted explosively in the late 1800s, looms near Aizu, and helps keep the area well supplied with natural hot water. The particular set of baths we found was in the onsen resort area of Higashiyama, within walking distance of central Aizu. From the road we could see the steam billowing out from the near river level outdoor baths below and we knew that this was a good place for hot bath in the snow.
The interior was pure high class modern Japanese hotel. Lots of wood and white paneled walls, with broad windows overlooking the river and a well stocked bar welcomed us inside. Because it was a hotel onsen, there were no lockers in the changing room, so we had to leave all our valuables at the front desk.
Our group of four ranged from myself, a regular visitor of Japanese bathing establishments, to a total onsen newbie who said she felt nervous butterflies of the type you get when you stand in line for a roller coaster.
The offerings on the men's side were one very hot indoor bath, one tepid indoor bath and two medium heat baths outside exposed to the elements. One of the outdoor baths was large enough to fit a fair number of people, and one was just a deep barrel, only large enough for one. The temperature was very well balanced, with the outdoor baths being warm enough to withstand the snowy weather but cool enough that you didn’t overheat. Many places have a cold bath to cool off in, though usually the cold bath is truly frigid. This one was more tepid than cold, and provided a nice way to cool off without being a major shock to the system. We reconvened outside after almost two hours in the baths, and everybody agreed it had been a fantastic time. The hot water was the perfect antidote after a long snowy day of tourism.