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Getting away from the tourist crowds in Japan
By Xia Ruirui

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.

Instead, we 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.

Along 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 hot springs.”

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.

The hot 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 below.

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.

Where the 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:

Yunoshimakan 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 Cultural Asset.

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

Tel: +81-576-25-3131

Tips for onsen:

For 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

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.

While most 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.

Enjoy 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.

Spending 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.

The 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 shoes around.

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 era.

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:

Maruaki (丸明)

Boasting 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 flavor.

Address: 506-0025 Gifu Prefecture, Takayama, Tenmanmachi, 6 Chome−8

Tel: +81-577-35-5858

If you go

Take 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.


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