Hiking the Old Road to Houshi OnsenJan Heine
A few weeks ago, we went back to Houshi Onsen, my favorite hot springs in Japan. Our friends had taken Hahn and me to this wonderful place on a ride that coincided with a typhoon hitting Japan. Despite the torrential rain and lashing wind, we took the old road that travelers used centuries ago, when they crossed the mountains to arrive at the ancient inn that was built around the hot springs.
We wrote about that adventure in the latest Bicycle Quarterly. Riding on narrow trails and portaging our bikes over stairs made from wooden logs was memorable and fun.
This time, we hadn’t brought our bikes, but went hiking in the snow instead. Instead of torrential rain, we enjoyed a sunny day, as we climbed up the same wooden steps.
I was a bit afraid that the trail, which had seemed so adventurous in the typhoon, would appear benign on a sunny day. Instead, the trail was much steeper and narrower than we remembered. “Did we really carry our bikes down this in a typhoon?” we kept asking with incredulity.
The trail was a reminder how geologically active Japan is. The steep slopes keep sliding downhill. Trees tilt as the soil moves, but they always grow upward, so over time, their trunks develop pronounced curves.
We saw some spectacular needle ice, which occurs when the air is below freezing, but the water in the soil remains liquid. It was straight out of a geomorphology textbook: When the ice needles thaw, they’ll fall over and transport the soil that is on top downslope – very effective soil erosion.
We were the only ones out on the trail, except a fox who’d left footprints, and a horde of monkeys who scattered excitedly as we approached. Their handprints were easy to make out in the fresh snow (above).
After climbing 300 m (1000 feet) in just 2.4 km (1.5 miles), we turned around to a gorgeous view of the mountains, with Houshi Onsen cradled deep in the valley. During the typhoon, it was raining so hard that there was no view at all. Back then, we hiked into the unknown…
That time, we rode through the tunnel that pierces the mountain, and I regretted a little that we didn’t go over the old pass. Now was our chance to redress the balance!
As we gained more elevation, the snow got deeper and deeper. It was fun to run up the trail, but after a while, we had to turn around, since the days are still short, and we wanted to get back before darkness.
We returned to the ancient inn, where I visited the oldest, smallest bath for the first time. (The baths alternate between men and women, so everybody can enjoy each bath.) After hiking in the cold, it was wonderful to soak in the hot water…
… before enjoying a fabulous dinner.
The next morning, it snowed even more, and the entire valley was covered in white. It was a view like a postcard, capping a great visit to one of my favorite places in Japan.
Click here for more information about the Winter Bicycle Quarterly.