When a group of three families with three children aged 3-5 decided
to take an autumn holiday together in Japan, a crowded tourist
attraction like Kyoto was out of the question.
chose to escape the urban scene and enjoy the autumn colors at onsen, or
hot springs spa. The decision afforded us a memorable journey, with
breathtaking scenery, a relaxing environment, delicious food and
non-stop photo opportunities.
Day 1: Gero
Located in Gifu Prefecture, Gero has been celebrated as a famous hot-springs center since the 10th century.
with Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture near Kobe and Kusatsu Onsen in
Gunma Prefecture, Gero Onsen is honored as one of Japan’s “three famous
The Nigorigo Onsen there, open all year around, sits
at the highest altitude of any spa in Japan. It has long been a dream
of mine to bathe in a natural hot spring, surrounded by crimson maple
and yellow gingko leaves. Maybe I was influenced by the romantic scene
in a Japanese movie where the heroine immerses herself in the open-air
spring and a maple leave wafts down to land on the water.
springs are said to help cure neuralgia, skin complaints and rheumatism.
The Gero Onsen attracts more than 2 million visitors from around the
world, according to the local tourism board. Even the emperor and
empress of Japan have visited the spa city twice.
Best of all, you
can enjoy the magic waters anytime, anywhere in the city’s many venues.
Try the ashiyu, or foot bath. The term is a combination of the
character ashi (足), meaning “foot,” and yu (浴), meaning “hot water.”
Strolling around the city, it’s easy to find a fountain-style venue and
soak fatigued feet for a quick refresher. Most of the ashiyu venues are
free, but some may charge a fee usually less than 200 yen (US$1.62). Be
sure to check before taking off your shoes.
The most unforgettable
ashiyu experience during our trip occurred in the courtyard of the
Onsenji Temple, which is a short walk up the hill from the town center.
Since our hotel was nearby, we visited both at dusk and in the early
morning, not only have a nice foot bath in the quite Zen-style
courtyard, but also to enjoy fine views of the Mashita River valley
Legend has it that after a strong earthquake in 1265, the
hot spring in Gero dried up until a white heron led the villagers to a
new source. The heron, having shown the villagers the new hot spring,
flew up to sit in a pine tree. At the foot of the tree, villagers found a
Buddhist image shining brightly. Later the grateful residents built a
temple on the site.
There is a small Buddha statue in the
courtyard, and believers say you should pour water on the statue with a
wood spoon three times to pray for health. The temple also features an
artistic in-house courtyard with elegant Zen bonsai.
Hida River traverses Gero, there’s an open riverbed with huge rocks and
small waterfalls that allows visitors to get up close to commune with
nature. With parental supervision, our children frolicked in the natural
playground, almost making us miss dinner.
Where to stay:
is a long-standing ryokan (Japanese-style inn) in Gero Onsen. The
ryokan was established in 1931 and has had the honor of hosting two
emperors. The more than 80-year-old wooden structure is in traditional
sukiya-style and was built by local artisans famed for their
craftsmanship. The building is designated as a National Tangible
Remember to pick a kimono with your favorite
flower patterns — a service offered by the hotel for mainly women who
want to try out traditional Japanese dress. The hotel has separate onsen
for men and women. Both are open-air ponds surrounded by woods.
Gero Onsen Yunoshimakan
Address: 645 Yunoshima, Gero City, Gifu Prefecture 509-2207, Japan
Tips for onsen:
many visitors, both Western and Asian, the onsen culture is somewhat
unfamiliar territory. There are traditions to be observed in bath
etiquette. Here are some tips:
• Wash carefully before entering the water.
Don’t bring anything into the hot springs. No towels or soaps, though
it’s okay to wrap your hair in a towel while in the water.
• No splashing, diving or swimming. This is a spot for quiet soaking and contemplation.
Day 2: Takayama
meaning “tall mountains,” is popularly known as Hida-Takayama in
reference to the old Hida Province and to differentiate it from other
places named Takayama. It is the hometown of Hida beef.
people regale Kobe beef when talking about Japanese food, true
aficionados revel in Hida beef, which comes from a black-haired Japanese
cattle breed that has been raised in Gifu Prefecture for at least 14
months. Famous for juicy tenderness, Hida Beef also has a beautiful
marbled appearance. Barbeque, steak or hot pot. You name it. Any cooking
style produces a reward for your taste buds.
Walking down the
streets of this city will evoke imagery of the Edo or Meiji eras in
Japan. No wonder local people call the city “little Kyoto.” Visitors can
easily lose themselves in streets lined by old houses and shops.
the sights of latticed bay windows and the linked eaves of merchants’
houses in Sanmachi Suji, the enduring historic temples and shrines of
Higashiyama, and the reproduction of Hida’s traditional mountain farm
villages of sloped-roof houses at Hida Folk Village.
One of the
must-sees is Takayama Jinya, a local governor’s office during the Edo
period, which was in official use from 1692 to 1969. There once were
more than 60 similar buildings in Japan; however, Takayama Jinya is the
only one remaining today.
Before going there, I strongly recommend
visiting the morning market. The Jinya-mae market started more than 300
years ago, originally started by silk farmers who sold mulberry leaves.
an enchanting hour in the market, tasting the fresh produce and
chatting with hospitable farmers is a reward for early birds. By that, I
mean, arriving before 8:30am. My daughter ate a whole box of small
tomatoes and told me they were the best she had ever tasted.
market is but a 5-minute walk from Takayama Jinya. Like many traditional
shrines and indoor museums in Japan, visitors should take off shoes
when entering. An attendant supplies a plastic bag for you to carry your
The building complex includes a residential area
where officials once lived and storehouses for rice once paid as tax.
According to the museum guide, the building mainly housed officials
whose main jobs were legal proceedings and tax collection in the Edo
If you prefer something a little less touristy, try the
Higashiyama Walking Course. We were lucky to see it when autumn foliage
was in full color. We didn’t complete the whole course because we kept
stopping to snap photos of all the trees in resplendent color. There are
also a dozen temples and shrines along the route.
We wrapped up a
long day at Sanmachi Suji, a traditional neighborhood with narrow
streets and old wooden houses. The rich atmosphere of the Takayama
castle town still lingers in this Nationally Recognized Important
Historical Building Preservation Area. You can even see original sake
breweries and merchant houses.
Crystal clear water from the
Miyagawa River flows through flagstones along both sides of the street.
Here you can find a variety of traditional snacks, which go down well
after a long walk. It’s also a great place to buy souvenirs.
Where to eat:
the “best Hida beef in town,” this restaurant typically attracts long
queues. But the succulent and tender meat is definitely worth the wait.
Anyone who has not tried Hida beef should give this eatery a go. I
strongly recommend BBQ style, which keeps most of the beef’s original
a two-hour flight to Nagoya from Shanghai. Then take the Shoryudo
Highway Bus to Takayama — a trip of about two-and-a-half hours. Tickets
are available at a booth located at the entrance to the JR and Metro at
Nagoya airport. To travel from the airport to Gero, take the JR fast
train for a one-hour, 35-minute trip.
There are transit buses between Gero and Takayama. Check bus schedules at the town’s bus terminal.