April 15, 2018

Popular hot spring towns near Fukuoka

Fukuoka(福岡)is located at the tip of Kyushu island(九州), which is known for volcanoes and hot springs. Majority of the most popular hot spring towns on Kyushu are easily accessible from Fukuoka, the main transportation hub.

On the northern part of Kyushu, the more well-known hot spring towns would be Beppu, Yufuin and Kurokawa Onsen. For hot spring enthusiasts, it is possible to cover all 3 of them in 3D2N or 3D3N comfortably, as they are quite near and well-connected to one another. It would definitely not be a waste of time as the vibe and experience are very different. (More information on recommended route below)

For those who do not intend to spend so much time on onsen, you may want to choose 1 or 2 places depending on interest. If you like artsy vibes and cafes (think Otaru and Karuizawa), Yufuin will be a good bet. For traditional hot spring (ie Kusatsu Onsen and Kinosaki Onsen) experience, Kurokawa Onsen will be an ideal choice. Beppu has more sights to see and more types of baths to try.

1. Beppu(別府)

Beppu in Oita prefecture(大分県)adjacent to Fukuoka prefecture has 8 hot springs, altogether producing the most amount of hot spring water compared to other hot spring towns in Japan. It is known for the Hells of Beppu "Jigoku 地獄" (8 special hot springs for viewing, 7 of which are covered by the combination ticket). They can be covered on foot, after taking a 15-minute bus ride from Beppu station.

Hot spring lovers will also be pleased to know that there are several public bath houses here that offer the more uncommon types of baths, such as sand baths, mud baths and steam baths.

Famous ones include Kannawa Onsen Resort's steam bath (mushi-yu), where you lie down on medicinal herbs in a stone chamber filled with onsen steam, and Takegawara Hot Spring's sand bath which has been around for more than a century!

A trip to Beppu is often combined with Yufuin nearby, another popular hot spring town in the region. Usuki(臼杵), known for stone Buddhas which have been designated as national treasures, is also popular with visitors to the vicinity, especially domestic tourists. It also has a preserved samurai district.

Access from Fukuoka:

1. JR limited express train from Hakata station in Fukuoka to Beppu station (2 hours)
2. Nishitetsu bus from Hakata/Tenjin station to Beppu Kitahama bus stop (2.5 hours)

2. Yufuin(湯布院)

Yufuin is an attractive hot spring town with small boutiques, cafes and art museums lining both sides of the street (approximately 1.5 km) directly in front of the train station. The vibe is somewhat like Karuizawa(軽井沢)in Nagano and Otaru(小樽)in Hokkaido. Especially for those who like zakka 雑貨 (lifestyle goods) and confectioneries such as fresh cream roll cakes, you are in for a treat~ Some of the cakes are so popular they are sold out by noon!

As for hot springs, there are several ryokan 旅館 (Japanese inns) scattered across the area, away from the main street. Some of them are opened to non-staying guests. There is only one public bath facility visitors can use called Shitanyu(下ん湯), located at the end of the main street where Lake Kinrinko(金鱗湖)is.

For those who want to experience Yufuin's hot spring, staying 1 night is recommended due to the lack of public baths, and that most of the ryokan with notable onsen facility are quite a distance from the main street. Some of them provide pick-up service from the station for staying guests, if not they should be accessible by taxi or rental car within 10 to 15 minutes from the station. For non-staying visitors, rental bicycles can be considered too.

A trip to Yufuin is often combined with Beppu in the same prefecture.

Access from Beppu:

1. Kamenoi Bus from Beppu station (50 minutes)
2. Kyusanko Kyushu Odan Bus from Beppu station (1 hour, low frequency)
3. JR train from Beppu station via Oita station (80 minutes)

Access from Fukuoka:
1. Bus from Hakata station/Tenjin bus center/Fukuoka airport (2 hours)
2. Train from Hakata station, currently only via the Kokura + Oita route (3 hours) (Passes through Beppu)

3. Kurokawa Onsen(黒川温泉)

Kurokawa Onsen, located in Kumamoto prefecture(熊本県)in the middle of Kyushu, is a traditional hot spring town similar to Kusatsu Onsen(草津温泉)and Kinosaki Onsen(城崎温泉). It has a compact town centre dotted with public bath houses, shops, cafes and ryokan.

There are 2 public bath houses, however those belonging to ryokan are larger and have rotenburo 露天風呂 (outdoor baths). Many ryokan guests stroll around the town in yukata (Japanese summer kimono provided by the ryokan) and enjoy "onsen-hopping" among ryokans opened to non-staying guests. Visit to 1 bath costs 500+ yen and a pass for 3 baths over a 6 month period can be purchased for 1300 yen.

Access from Fukuoka:
1. Highway bus from Fukuoka to Kurokawa Onsen (2.5 hours)

Note: Kurokawa Onsen does not have a train station. JR pass holders may want to save money by taking JR train from Hakata station to Hita station, then transfer to the bus above. (75 + 70 minutes)

Kurokawa Onsen can also be accessed by Kyusanko Kyushu Odan Bus from Beppu (2.5 hours), Yufuin (1.5 hours), Aso (50 minutes) and Kumamoto (3 hours). However frequency for this bus is low.

3D2N Itinerary for Beppu + Yufuin + Kurokawa Onsen:

For those who are using public transport and thinking of going to all 3 hot springs, here's one route you may consider:

Day 1:

Morning: Take the JR train/highway bus (depending on transportation pass used, reservation required for bus) from Hakata station to Beppu station (2 hours)

Afternoon: Beppu's Hells (2 to 3 hours, can take bus) + Public Sand/Steam Bath (1 to 2 hours)

Evening: Travel to Yufuin by Kamenoi bus (1 bus per hour, latest around 6 pm) (1 hour)

Night: Stay in a ryokan in Yufuin.

Day 2: 

Morning: Walk around Yufuin.

Afternoon: Take the bus to Kurokawa Onsen (Kyushu Odan Bus at 2.50 pm, reservation required) (1.5 hours)

Evening: Walk around Kurokawa Onsen's town center.

Night: Stay in a ryokan in Kurokawa Onsen.

Day 3:

Morning: More onsen at Kurokawa Onsen.

Then take the bus to Aso (Kyushu Odan Bus at around 10+ am, reservation required) (1 hour)

And the trip continues. Either spend time in Aso or head straight to Kumamoto.

I followed this itinerary when I visited the region, pace was comfortable for me. Personally, I feel that Beppu is worth visiting because of the attractions, but Yufuin is the one I'd want to return next time :)

For traveling around the region, Kyushu Rail Pass is recommended for those taking trains often, while Sun Q Pass covers almost all buses (inclusive of highway buses) in Kyushu. For those going to Kurokawa Onsen which is not on the rail road, you may want to consider getting the Sun Q Pass and maximise it by taking bus instead of train for the longer journeys such as from Hakata to Beppu. For just the above itinerary, getting the 3D pass for Northern Kyushu (7000 yen if purchased outside of Japan) would be worthwhile for those heading straight to Kumamoto from Kurokawa Onsen.

4. Ibusuki Onsen(指宿温泉)

Ibusuki is in Kagoshima prefecture(鹿児島県)at the southern end of Kyushu, most famous for its sand baths. One of the most popular/larger facilities is Saraku Sand Bath Hall(砂むし会館砂楽)which many ryokan/hotel in the area partner with. Guests change into yukata provided and get buried under naturally heated sand, followed by the usual hot spring bath after showering.

Sand bath can also be experienced in other parts of Kyushu such as in Beppu, hence it would only make sense for visitors to Kyushu to come here if they are covering Southern Kyushu. Of course, Southern Kyushu has many places worth visiting too, such as Chiran Tokko Museum(知覧特攻平和会館)on kamikaze pilots, Senganen Garden(仙厳園)and Yakushima island(屋久島)in Kagoshima prefecture, to name a few.

Access from Fukuoka:
JR shinkansen to Kagoshima-chuo station, then transfer to JR local train to Ibusuki station (3 hours)

For more information on what else to do in the same prefecture:
Beppu/Yufuin: Oita Prefecture
Kurokawa Onsen: Kumamoto Prefecture
Ibusuki Onsen: Kagoshima Prefecture

First post of this series on Popular Hot Spring Towns near Tokyo.
Second post of this series on Popular Hot Spring Towns near Osaka.

January 23, 2018

Popular hot spring towns near Osaka

This second post of the onsen (hot spring) series will be on onsen towns in the Kansai region~

1. Kinosaki Onsen(城崎温泉)

Kinosaki Onsen is located at the northern end of Hyogo prefecture(兵庫県), which is not exactly near Osaka/Kobe city, but many visitors to the Kansai region still make their way there for the fun of going around the traditional hot spring town in yukata (summer kimono) and trying the various public baths. The town is also picturesque with willow trees lining both sides of a river.

Most visitors stay here for one night, not simply due to the rather long journey from the city, but also because the ryokan (Japanese inns) here offer delectable local specialties such as crab (seasonal) and Tajima beef. Moreover, most ryokan provide passes to visit the 7 public baths for free. For those who do not stay here for the night, the pass would cost 1200 yen.

As Kinosaki Onsen is located on the coast of the Sea of Japan, visitors can consider combining the trip with other attractions at this end of Honshu, such as Tottori's sand dunes on the left, and Kyoto's Amanohashidate 天橋立 (1 of the 3 best views of Japan which also has hot spring facilities) on the right, instead of making separate trips from the city. Both are about 2-hour train journey away from Kinosaki Onsen. Ine(伊根), known for its boat houses, can also be accessed by a 1-hour bus ride from Amanohashidate.

Another attraction is Takeda Castle(竹田城跡)aka Japan's Machu Picchu, which is on the way to/from Osaka.

Access from Osaka/Kyoto:

1. JR limited express train from Osaka/Shin-Osaka/Kyoto station (2.5 hours)
2. Zentan bus from Osaka (3 hours, low frequency)

The train journey is covered by JR pass (nationwide) and JR West Kansai Wide Area Pass.

2. Arima Onsen(有馬温泉)

Arima Onsen is probably the most accessible hot spring town from Osaka/Kobe city. It is 1 of the 3 oldest hot springs in Japan (日本三古湯), frequently visited by Japan's second great unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 16th century.

Arima Onsen is well-known for its brown-colored Kinsen 金泉 (gold water) and clear Ginsen 銀泉 (silver water). The former has iron deposits believed to be good for the skin and muscle aches, while the latter has radium and carbonate for relieving muscle and joint pains.

Due to its accessibility and compact size, many visitors come here as a day trip. Several onsen ryokan are opened to non-staying visitors. There are also 2 public baths, one with Kinsen and the other with Ginsen.

One of the most famous/popular facilities is Taiko no Yu(太閤の湯), which I have been to twice. It has over 20 types of baths (both Kinsen and Ginsen), massage services and restaurant. Admission fee is slightly pricey at around 2500 yen, but discount packages are often launched with the Kobe subway, reducing total cost of traveling here for hot spring. Discounted admission tickets are also available at discount ticket shops in Kobe.

Many visitors to Arima Onsen also combine the trip with Mount Rokko, the highest peak in the mountain range near Kobe city. It has a few small attractions such as music box museum, botanical garden, pasture with flowers & sheep, and art exhibits in autumn. It is also one of the places to see Kobe's night view, known as 1 of the top 3 in Japan.

Access from Osaka:

Hankyu/JR bus from Hankyu Umeda/JR Osaka station (1 hour), via Shin-Osaka station (50 minutes)

Access from Kobe:

1. Subway from Sannomiya/Shin-Kobe station to Tanigami station, transfer to Shintetsu Arima-Sanda Line and alight at Arima-guchi station, transfer again to Arima Line and alight at Arima Onsen station (40 minutes)
2. Hankyu/Shinki bus from Sannomiya station (50 minutes), via Shin-Kobe station (35 minutes)
3. JR bus from Shin-Kobe station (50 minutes), via Sannomiya station (30 minutes)

Access from top of Mount Rokko:

Bus from top station of Rokko Cablecar to top station of Rokko Arima Ropeway (10 minutes), take the ropeway to Arima Onsen (12 minutes)

The "Rokko Arima Katamichi Joshaken"(六甲有馬片道乗車券)ticket consists of one-way ride on the cablecar and ropeway, plus unlimited bus rides on Mount Rokko.

For Taiko no Yu, shuttle bus services are provided from Arima Onsen station and Ropeway Arima Onsen station.

3. Shirahama Onsen(白浜温泉)

Shirahama Onsen located at the southern end of Wakayama prefecture(和歌山県), south of Osaka, is also 1 of the 3 oldest hot springs in Japan. Many ryokan dot the coastline and offer baths with panoramic sea view, similar to Atami Onsen(熱海温泉)at the other side of Japan.

Another draw of Shirahama Onsen is the many attractions in the vicinity, sufficient for 2D1N at least. It is especially suitable for families with young children, because of the amusement parks and zoo such as Energy Land and Adventure World. There are also rock formations and public baths, including Sakinoyu, an outdoor hot spring right on the shore!

Nanki Shirahama Toretore Market sells fresh seafood and local specialties. Most of the attractions in Shirahama can be accessed by a bus that runs from Shirahama station.

If these are still insufficient, take the train southwards to Kumano Kodo(熊野古道), pilgrimage routes designated as UNESCO heritage site. Enjoy hiking through the forests to the 3 sacred shrines (Kumano Sanzan), with nice views of waterfall, valleys and mountains on the way.

Access from Osaka:

JR limited express train from Shin-Osaka station (2.5 hours)

4. Awaji Island(淡路島)

Awaji island at the south of Kobe, is the largest of the Seto Inland Sea islands. This laid-back island is home to a few hot springs such as Sumoto Onsen(洲本温泉), Minami Awaji Onsen(南あわじ温泉)and Iwaya Onsen(岩屋温泉).

Attractions on/near the island include famous architect Tadao Ando's Yumebutai Gardens(淡路夢舞台), Naruto whirlpools, monkey center, parks with seasonal flowers (daffodils, sunflowers, rape blossom, tulips etc.) and activities such as horse-riding and blueberry picking. Food is also something to look forward to, as Awaji island is known for high-quality onions, dairy products, beef and seafood.

The island can be accessed by ferry or bus from the mainland, though the most convenient way to explore the attractions on the island is by car.

Access by ferry:

Akashi Port (near JR Akashi station in Hyogo prefecture) to Iwaya on Awaji island (13 minutes)

Access by bus:

From bus terminal at JR Maiko station in Hyogo prefecture (14 minutes to about 1 hour, depending on alighting point)

There are also buses that run from JR Osaka, Shin-Kobe and Sannomiya stations, but the frequency is lower and journey is much longer than taking the train to Maiko station and transferring to the bus.

Other notable hot springs in Kansai include:

Yumura Onsen(湯村温泉):

Traditional hot spring town located higher up in the Hyogo prefecture. It is slightly less accessible compared to Kinosaki Onsen, requiring a bus transfer from the nearest train station. Direct buses (3 hours) from Osaka and Kobe are also available.

Kasumi Onsen(香住温泉):

Situated along the Sea of Japan in Hyogo prefecture, near Kinosaki Onsen. Known for delicious crabs, food offered by ryokan in the vicinity is as sumptuous as those in Kinosaki Onsen. There is nothing much to do in this tranquil seaside town, but the beautiful sea views (especially during sunset) pretty much made up for it.

Kurama Onsen(鞍馬温泉):

For those who can only afford a day-trip from Kyoto city, the most viable option would be Kurama Onsen, a ryokan in a rural town in the northern mountains of Kyoto city. It has an attractive rotenburo (outdoor hot spring) offering greenery/snow views depending on season. Other than onsen, visitors can also take the cable car up to Kurama-dera (temple) for mountain views.

Arashiyama Onsen(嵐山温泉):

Unknown to most people, the scenic Arashiyama region is also a place to enjoy hot spring. There are a few ryokan offering natural hot spring baths, though most of their accommodation plans are rather pricey.

For more information on what else to do in the same prefecture:

Arima Onsen/Kinosaki Onsen/Awaji Island/Yumura Onsen/Kasumi Onsen: Hyogo Prefecture
Shirahama Onsen: Wakayama Prefecture
Kurama Onsen/Arashiyama Onsen: Kyoto Prefecture

First post of this series on Popular Hot Spring Towns near Tokyo.
Third post of this series on Popular Hot Spring Towns near Fukuoka.

September 10, 2017

Popular hot spring towns near Tokyo

Being an onsen (hot spring) fanatic, I always add an onsen town to my itinerary every time I visit Japan, regardless of the season. I enjoy exploring what each onsen town has to offer, learn about their differences and list down those I like most.

However, from what I gather from friends around me, choosing which onsen to go can be a little daunting, especially for first-time visitors to Japan. Most people are keen to visit one that is not so far from the city they are flying to, but do not know what are the options, or even if they do, not sure which would be more suitable for them. So instead of just listing all the famous onsen towns, I will be grouping and comparing the more popular/famous ones based on their access from the main cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka etc.)

I will not be going into too much detail about the onsen quality, since most of us will only be there for a day or two, so there wouldn't be much health benefits.

In this first post of the onsen series, I will focus on onsen towns near Tokyo~

1. Kusatsu Onsen(草津温泉)

Kusatsu is arguably the most famous hot spring town in Gunma prefecture 群馬県 (northwest of Tokyo), often topping nationwide onsen rankings. It has the largest flow of hot spring water in Japan, and the quality of the water is also known to be good.

Kusatsu has the vibe of a traditional hot spring town, with shops surrounding Yubatake(湯畑), one of the town's main sources of hot spring water, also the symbol of Kusatsu. It is common for visitors to walk around the town in yukata (summer kimono provided by the Japanese inn) and enjoy soaking in the public baths. Visitors can also go to Netsunoyu Bath House to watch Yumomi performances, a traditional way of cooling down hot spring water by using long wooden paddles, and even try it themselves!

1D1N is sufficient for Kusatsu as it is a rather small onsen town. Book a night's stay in one of the Japanese inns there, then move on to Karuizawa(軽井沢)by bus, where there are plenty of things to do such as outlet mall shopping, art museum and cafe-hopping. Nature lovers can also check out separately Mount Shirane's(白根山)baby blue Yugama crater lake by bus from Kusatsu bus terminal. From Karuizawa, there is direct Shinkansen train back to Tokyo in 2 hours.

Access from Tokyo:
1. Direct bus from Shinjuku in Tokyo (4 hours)
2. Limited Express train from Ueno station in Tokyo to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi station + bus (3 hours)
3. Shinkansen train from Ueno/Tokyo station to Takasaki station + local train to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi station + bus (3 hours)

Many of the JR East passes cover the train journeys above, some inclusive of Karuizawa.

Other hot springs in the region include Manza(万座温泉), Shima(四万温泉), Ikaho(伊香保温泉)and Minakami(水上温泉).

2. Kinugawa Onsen(鬼怒川温泉)

On their east, and also to the north of Tokyo, is Kinugawa Onsen in Tochigi prefecture(栃木県). This onsen town did not leave a deep impression on me, but for visitors to Nikko(日光)who want to experience onsen in the same trip, it is a highly convenient option.

Sightseeing places include Nikko Edomura (theme park about feudal Japan), Tobu World Square (world landmarks in mini size) and Grand Maze (large-scale maze). There are also more remote hot springs such as Okukinu Onsen(奥鬼怒温泉)for those who prefer to go off the beaten path.

Kinugawa Onsen can be a one-night stopover after visiting Nikko (known for its grand temples and shrines), or 1N1D inclusive of the attractions listed above.

Access from Tokyo:
1. Tobu Railways' Rapid train from Tobu Asakusa station to Kinugawa Onsen station (140 minutes) Note that the train decouples and go separate ways at Shimo-Imaichi station, so make sure to be in the correct car.
2. Tobu Railways' Limited Express train from Tobu Asakusa station to Kinugawa Onsen station (2 hours)
3. JR Limited Express train from Shinjuku station to Kinugawa Onsen station (2 hours, low frequency)

Options 1 & 2 are covered by some Tobu Railway passes. Most JR East passes cover the whole journey for Option 3, but not the Japan Rail Pass (nationwide pass) as part of the tracks are owned by Tobu Railways.

3. Hakone Onsen(箱根温泉)

There are also several onsen options to the west of Tokyo. The nearest would be Hakone Onsen in Kanagawa prefecture(神奈川県).

There are MANY activities to do in Hakone, and much effort for planning is necessary, as the attractions are accessed by different modes of transportation, such as ropeway, bus, train and ship.

Notable places include:

-Owakudani(大涌谷): crater of Mount Hakone that emits sulfurous fumes, known for "black" egg and views of the top half of Mount Fuji when weather is good
-Hakone Glass no Mori: Venetian glass theme park
-Kowakien Yunessun: hot spring amusement park with coffee, green tea, red wine etc. mixed in the tubs
-Gora Park (botanical garden)
-Art museums
-Odawara castle, on the way from Tokyo to Hakone
-Gotemba premium outlet mall, accessible by bus from Hakone

I do not think it is possible/necessary to cover everything in one trip. Day onsen packages are available but visitors to Hakone should at least stay a night there.

Access from Tokyo:
1. Odakyu Railway from Shinjuku in Tokyo to Hakone-Yumoto station (85 minutes for Limited Express train, 2 hours for Express train)
2. JR train (Shinkansen or Rapid/Local train depending on the type of JR pass you have) from Tokyo to Odawara station + Odakyu Railway or bus to Hakone-Yumoto station
3. Odakyu Hakone Highway Bus from Shinjuku to Lake Ashi area in Hakone (2 hours)

Purchasing the 2D or 3D Hakone Free Pass by Odakyu Railway which covers the different modes of transportation in Hakone is advisable for Option 1. There is also a cheaper version of the pass for visitors who opt for Option 2, starting and ending the trip at Odawara station.

4. Lake Kawaguchiko(河口湖)

Further west, there is Kawaguchiko (Yamanashi prefecture) and Atami (Shizuoka prefecture). The former is at the north of Mount Fuji while the latter is at the south. Kawaguchiko, the most developed/accessible of Fuji Five Lakes, is not exactly a hot spring town, but it has many Japanese inns with onsen facilities. Spring would be a good time to come here because there are several places to appreciate cherry blossoms + Mount Fuji up close (depending on weather) + lake view together.

The area is also packed with attractions. 2D1N is feasible, but for visitors who want to cover the area more comprehensively, especially those combining attractions around nearby Lake Saiko(西湖), 3D2N is highly recommended.

Notable attractions in the vicinity include:

-*Kubota Museum: museum featuring kimono artist Kubota Itchiku's works
-*Kachi Kachi Ropeway: offer nice view of Mount Fuji and lake
-*Music Forest: small theme park about music box
-*Herb Hall, Gem Museum
-*Iyashi no Sato: open air museum and traditional craft village with weeping cherry blossoms in spring
-*Bat Cave, Ice Cave, Wind Cave
-Fuji Shibazakura Festival: famous for its pink moss with Mount Fuji in the backdrop in May
-Fuji Q Highland: amusement park famous for crazy roller coasters
-Oshino Hakkai: small village with traditional houses and ponds fed by snow melt
-Chureito Pagoda: famous for its pagoda + Mount Fuji + cherry blossom view

*Accessible by Retro (loop) buses that run from Kawaguchiko station. 2-day pass (unlimited rides) is available.

Access from Tokyo:
1. Bus from Shinjuku or Shibuya station (2 hours)
2. Bus from Tokyo station (low frequency)
3. JR train from Shinjuku station to Otsuki station + Fujikyu Railway train to Kawaguchiko station (around 2.5 hours)

There are also several special passes available depending on place of interest, such as Fuji Hakone Pass which also covers Hakone, Fujigoko Enjoy Ticket which combines round-trip bus from Tokyo and retro buses, Fuji Q Highland Plans for those who intent to go to the amusement park and Fujisan Fujigoko Passport which provides unlimited rides on retro buses and Fujikko bus that connects Lake Yamanakako.

5. Atami Onsen(熱海温泉)

Atami, often listed on nationwide onsen rankings, is a seaside resort town with many hotels/Japanese inns with onsen facilities. It does not offer many activities to do (art museum, Atami castle museum, old shopping arcades). However, many onsen facilities here provide panoramic views of the sea, and on one day a month (more days in summer), fireworks shows lasting for approximately 30 minutes are held. During such weekends, there is a need to book accommodations early due to limited lodgings in the area (especially for those on a budget). In the case that you are too late, fret not, many hotels/Japanese inns provide day packages for their onsen facilities. Enjoy sightseeing and onsen in the day, fireworks at around 8+ pm, then head back to Tokyo or stay in a nearby city in the same prefecture such as Numazu and Shimizu.

Access from Tokyo:
1. JR Tokaido Shinkansen (45 minutes)
2. JR Tokaido Rapid/Local train (2 hours)

JR East passes only cover Option 2 but not Option 1. For visitors without Japan Rail Pass (nationwide pass) and still want to go by Option 1, purchasing tickets from discount ticket shops will provide around 10-20% savings.

More information about these onsen towns and what else to do in the same prefecture:
1. Kusatsu Onsen: Gunma Prefecture
2. Kinugawa Onsen: Tochigi Prefecture
3. Hakone Yumoto Onsen: Kanagawa Prefecture
4. Lake Kawaguchiko: Yamanashi Prefecture
5. Atami Onsen: Shizuoka Prefecture

Second post of this series on Popular Hot Spring Towns Near Osaka.
Third post of this series on Popular Hot Spring Towns Near Fukuoka.

June 18, 2017

Cycling on the Shimanami Kaido

When friends around me are thinking of climbing Mount Fuji, my only interest is to cycle on the Shimanami Kaido(しまなみ海道). It is a 60 km toll road that links Japan's main island Honshu(本州)to Shikoku(四国), connecting 6 small islands in the Seto Inland Sea(瀬戸内海). It is also traversable by foot/bicycle, though the route is longer at 70 km.

I finally managed to make an attempt in April 2017. Actually, autumn would be a better choice, as spring weather tends to be unpredictable and showers are common. Of course, summer would be too hot and winter too cold.

Experienced cyclists should have no problem completing the whole journey in a day, but since I'm an amateur, intended to cover the route in 2 days, staying in a ryokan (Japanese inn) on the 3rd island (Ikuchijima) on the 1st night. However, it was raining all the time on both days, so I was left with the option of covering half the journey on another (sunny) day, or postponing it to my next Japan trip, due to lack of time.

Of course, since the ryokan stay had already been booked, I had to go ahead with it. This wasn't an issue, as there is a ferry that connects the starting point, Onomichi(尾道)in Hiroshima(広島)to Setoda port(瀬戸田港)in Ikuchijima(生口島), and Ikuchijima has sightseeing spots that are worth visiting even for non-cyclists. Indeed, flexibility is important when planning to cycle on the Shimanami Kaido.

There are 2 cycling terminals near Onomichi station for bike rental, and I chose to go for the cheaper one. It costs 1000 yen a day and another 1000 yen deposit that will be refunded if the bicycle is returned to the same terminal. Making a reservation in advance is possible but not necessary. Electric bicycles are also available at a higher rate, but the cycling route is constructed such that the inclines are not too steep, so non-electric ones are actually fine (gear adjustment is sufficient). Before bike rental, heavy belongings can be deposited at lockers or baggage service counter on the ground floor of the adjacent building.

Small tolls along the way (500 yen in total) are waived till 31 March 2018 to promote tourism. From Onomichi to the 1st island Mukaishima(向島), the most common way is to take the short ferry ride (110 yen for 1 adult + 1 bicycle).

And finally, the actual journey started! Blue and white lines are painted on the road for cyclists to follow, so there is no need to worry about getting lost. It was around 13 degree Celsius when I started my journey at 10 am, rather cold but actually just nice after cycling for around half an hour, thanks to the sun!

When I was there, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, adding to the already picturesque sceneries along the way~

Crossing the first bridge (Innoshima bridge) to Innoshima island(因島)! Cars above, cyclists and pedestrians below~

Going up the bridges was the toughest part. Once or twice I had to get down and push the bicycle, but just for a while~

Innoshima is the island of Hassaku(八朔), Japanese citrus hybrid similar to an orange in color but with the size/taste of a grapefruit.

It was nice enjoying rural scenery on my left and coastal scenery on my right. There are plenty of convenience stores along the way for food/drinks/toilet, and a few eateries/cafes. I had lunch in a ramen shop beside the first Lawson that I saw. The tachiuo(太刀魚)shio(塩)ramen was average but good comfort food for me~ Also tried some Hassaku products, since they are the local specialty.

Crossing the Ikuchi bridge to Ikuchijima(生口島). The bridge is uncovered, offering unobstructed views of the Seto Inland Sea!

Ikuchijima is the island of lemons~ Notable attractions on this island include Ikuo Hirayama Museum of Art(郁夫平山美術館)and Kosanji temple(耕三寺), which I checked out separately on another day. Kosanji is more impressive than I had expected, and the compound is rather big, probably takes around 2 hours to cover everything in a comfortable pace. The highlights of this temple include a hill of marble-- Miraishin no Oka(未来心の丘)and a 350 m long cave with countless statues that depicted the Buddhist version of hell, as well as Buddha statues. There are also replicas of famous Japanese temple buildings and a small museum across the street from the temple. Kosanji also holds cherry blossom festival in spring.

Since I did not intend to cover the whole journey, I turned out towards Setoda port at the Kosanji road junction, cutting through しおまち商店街, an empty shopping arcade with some food/fruit shops, and took the 3.10 pm ferry back to Onomichi with the bicycle as planned. (1350 yen, 40 minutes, 8 departures a day) My pace of cycling was moderate/comfortable, though the only rest stop I had was lunch (45 minutes).

30 km in slightly more than 4 hours was just nice for me. Due to my lack of stamina/exercise/experience, completing all 70 km in a day would be very tough. I am also not sure if I am able to do the remaining 40 km on the 2nd day if I were to follow my original plan. In fact, my knees were quite painful the next day and I had to spend most of the time sitting down. I guess my advice to similar travelers would be to book a night's stay on Ikuchijima, and judge for themselves whether they are still able/keen to complete the whole journey after covering the first half. Those who are fine with not covering all 70 km can also start the day earlier, do some sightseeing after reaching Ikuchijima, before taking the ferry back to Onomichi in the evening.

As for accommodation options on Ikuchijima, there are a few places to consider near Setoda port, depending on budget. The pricier ones are ryokan 旅館 (Japanese inn) such as Tsutsui(旅館つつ井)and Suminoe(住之江旅館), followed by minshuku 民宿 (family-run/budget version of ryokan) such as Hiyoshi(民宿旅館ひよし)and Sazanami(御宿さざなみ). For the budget-conscious, there is also Setoda Private Hostel.

I stayed in Tsutsui to pamper myself with its lemon-bath (hot spring bath filled with slices of fresh lemons!) after a day of exercise (which didn't happen :P) This lemon-themed ryokan is located just behind Setoda port terminal. It costs 14000 yen for a night's stay inclusive of 2 meals, expensive for an accommodation on the island, but average for a ryokan. Glad it welcomes solo travelers!

Dinner was sumptuous as expected! Breakfast was simple yet delicious~

It was really fun exploring the islands in Seto Inland Sea by bicycle, and I wouldn't mind doing it again, or covering the remaining journey next time! In fact, there are also many sightseeing spots in Omishima(大三島), though they are mostly not located near the cycling route. Let me train my knees first :P