Hiking the Old Road to Houshi Onsen

Hiking the Old Road to Houshi Onsen

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.

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Comments (8)

  • marmotte27

    Very nice post.
    Interesting how similar environments lead to similar constructions even in very different cultures: The wooden steps and bridges on the path, timberframed houses with large roof overhangs covered in snow, very reminiscent of the Alps, say. (Of course the typical japanese windows give it away before you happen on a sign written in Kanji, hot springs or monkey footprints…)

    January 20, 2016 at 7:17 am
  • Peter

    Your description of the soil movement brought me back to my earth and soils science classes, I know there was a term for it, so i looked it up. Solifluction:Mass movement of soil and regolith affected by alternate freezing and thawing. Characteristic of saturated soils in high latitudes, both within and beyond the permafrost zone in *cold/subpolar climates.

    January 20, 2016 at 10:03 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Solifluction is indeed the term. I used to teach all kinds of geology and geomorphology classes as a Ph.D. student, before a NASA fellowship allowed me to focus solely on my research. I especially enjoyed field trips, and Houshi Onsen would have made a great one.

      January 20, 2016 at 4:01 pm
  • Dan

    What beautiful country!

    January 20, 2016 at 10:04 am
  • Guy Washburn

    Nice piece. I like how you focus on the small details.
    Is Hiking Quarterly for behind???

    January 20, 2016 at 11:35 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You won’t find hikes like this one in Bicycle Quarterly, but we do feature cycling in all its wonderful variety. Some of the best rides can involve as much walking as hiking – just think of the great “Rough Stuff” tradition in the UK.

      January 20, 2016 at 4:50 pm
  • Tim Clark

    Thanks for posting this. I was at this Onsen last year for a “work” trip.
    We arrived at night in a snow storm, ate a fabulous meal, soaked, slept (a little) and departed to the next spot before sun up. Very surreal experience! Walking through the old ambling structure was really memorable.
    I see now what I missed for lack of daylight!
    Next time!
    Tim C

    January 22, 2016 at 7:05 am
  • Paul Ahart

    It’s just so great seeing you back on your feet after your near-catastrophic accident. The photos and descriptions are wonderful. Makes me wish I had time to visit Japan, especially rural Japan.

    January 22, 2016 at 3:48 pm

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