A Thai Student's First Onsen Experience at Naruko Onsen

A Thai Student's First Onsen Experience at Naruko Onsen

Miyagi 2016.02.13

In this 7th installment of the series that explores Japan through the eyes of students from Thailand, we will be visiting Naruko onsen, a hot springs town in Miyagi prefecture, also famous for its kokeshi dolls craftsmen.

Translated by MATCHA-PR

Written by MATCHA-PR

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This is the 7th installment in a series that explores Japan through the eyes of students from Thailand. This time, we'll be visiting an onsen (hot springs) town.

This is Ten, a student who wants to try Japanese onsen. She decided to go to Naruko Onsen 鳴子温泉 in Miyagi prefecture 宮城県 after seeing "Naruko Onsen: The Home of Kokeshi" on NHK World TV's "Journeys in Japan."

Naruko Onsen 鳴子温泉

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Naruko Onsen 鳴子温泉 is located in Japan's Tōhoku Region; more specifically, in Miyagi prefecture's town of Ōsaki 大崎.

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It's a small mountain town that rests close to the border between Japan's Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures.

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If you're heading from Tokyo, you'll want to take the Tōhoku Shinkansen Bullet Train to Furukawa Station 古川駅, then transfer onto the JR Rikuu Tōsen Line (JR 陸羽東線) until you reach Naruko-Onsen Station (鳴子温泉駅). The journey takes about 3 hours.

Famous for Japan's Traditional "Kokeshi" and "Onsen"

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The town's specialty is kokeshi, small, cylindrical dolls made of wood. There are kokeshi workshops and souvenir shops scattered throughout the area.

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You can enjoy watching kokeshi by walking through the town.

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In addition to actual kokeshi, there are mailboxes, phone booths, and more structures in the town shaped like the wooden dolls. Trying to spot all the different forms of kokeshi could turn into a treasure hunt of sorts.

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And, as its name implies, Naruko Onsen is also home to onsen hot springs. In wintertime you can see the vapor rising from the springs, creating a unique landscape.

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You can enjoy hot springs by staying at a traditional ryōkan inn, taking a day trip, or using one of the town's many foot baths or hand baths free of charge. It's usual for locals and tourists to chat and bond over a nice, hot foot bath.

This was Ten's first time trying a foot bath.

Ten: "I felt a little awkward taking my shoes off before putting my feet in, but once I did, it felt really nice. I didn't want to step out."

Trying fresh "Onsen Eggs"

Have you ever heard of onsen eggs?

They're basically soft-boiled eggs, but they're boiled in hot springs. You can boil your own onsen eggs at Naruko Onsen. Let's give it a try!

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First, prepare all of your ingredients. You can pick some up at Ojimaya along your way from the station to the onsen egg area. The onsen egg kit comes with an egg, dashi* stock (for flavor), and a spoon.

*Dashi is a type of soup stock made from boiling fish and vegetables.

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Next, head to the onsen egg workshop where anyone can visit for free, and dip your eggs into the boiling water.

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Now, wait about 20-25 minutes. Make sure you keep an eye on your eggs, since it's likely that other people will be boiling their eggs as well. If you get too chilly, there are foot baths and a cafe nearby.

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This is how onsen egg will look like. Add the dashi stock and eat it with a spoon.

Ten: "It looks undercooked..."

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Ten: "Wow, this is so good! It's soft, but warm. I don't like my egg yolks runny, but it's cooked enough for me to enjoy. It has an interesting texture."

Watch Kokeshi Masters at Work in the Kokeshi Museum

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Before heading to the hot springs, we decided to learn more about kokeshi.

We found what we were looking for at Iwashita Kokeshi Museum 岩下こけし資料館. You can learn about the history of kokeshi in Naruko, witness a craftsman creating one, and buy one as a souvenir.

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At the souvenir shop, you can take your pick of traditional kokeshi or more modern ones.

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This is a Naruko kokeshi. The first ones were made by woodcrafters for their children. Over time, its design and purpose became more refined until it eventually became the traditional craft it is known as today.

Tōhoku is a large producer of kokeshi, and their design differs according to region. Naruko's kokeshi are unique in that they emit sound when you turn the neck.

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Of course, this museum has other styles of kokeshi on display as well.

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Here is Ten browsing for a suitable souvenir.

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Ten: "This one is adorable! I'll go with this one."

This kokeshi is called "Mujaki" (2,300 yen).

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Another museum attraction is the opportunity to watch a craftsman creating a kokeshi live. This craftsman has his own workshop.

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We watch Mr. Suzuki, who has over 40 years of experience crafting kokeshi.

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Ten: "Wow! It's transforming into a doll!"

Using this turning lathe and a special cutting cool, the wood starts to take the form of a kokeshi doll. Watching this average block of wood transform in such a short time was like seeing magic.

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By the way, we should mention that the cutting tool used for this kokeshi was made by the craftsman himself. Master kokeshi makers also need to learn the art of forging.

Mr. Suzuki: "It feels like an extension of myself since it's something I made. I wouldn't be able to use anyone else's cutting tool, and no one would be able to use mine."

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After carving comes polishing. Here, he uses a traditional polishing plant called tokusa.

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Then it's time to decorate. He rotates the doll as he gently colors it. If he strays even 1mm off track, all of his hard work will go to waste. It's work that requires much attention to detail.

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Now all he has to do to complete the body is add the head!

Ten: "Just watching is making me nervous."

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Mr. Suzuki made these miniature koma 独楽 (traditional Japanese spinning tops) between demonstrations. You can see how tiny they are by holding them in the palm of your hand. It takes real skill to be able to craft something like this.

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Kokeshi masters need at least 10 years of practice under their belt before they can call themselves a craftsman. You can't sell your works before you've reached that point, so you can't earn money from your craft for a long time. Perhaps that is why it's so rare to find budding kokeshi artists nowadays, even here in Naruko.

Ten: "They're so cute. It's sad to think they're becoming more and more scarce..."

Make Your own Kokeshi!

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Now that we've witnessed this dying art in person, it's time to make our own. To do this, we went to Kokeshi no Sugawaraya.

Ten: "There's no way I can make one myself!"

After witnessing the art of making kokeshi a few moments ago, Ten wasn't feeling too confident.

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But there is no need to worry. At "Kokeshi no Sugawaraya", a pro will be at your side to guide you every step of the process. Even beginners won't have too much trouble making one themselves.

Ten: "Using even a little bit too much pressure will throw off the whole shape. It's difficult, but it's fascinating to watch it take form right in front of my eyes."

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After the initial carving is done, you can start painting it. You should sketch out your design on paper before trying it on the doll.

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Ten works diligently on painting her kokeshi. Can she make it look like her sketch?

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We're finished! Ten's kokeshi doll is on the left, and its original form is pictured on the right. We did a pretty decent job!

Ten: "This will make a great souvenir!"

The Full Onsen Experience at an Acclaimed Japanese Ryōkan

Of course, no visit to Naruko Onsen is complete without actually going for a dip in the hot springs. The standard ways to do it are either to stay at a traditional ryōkan, or come on a day trip. We opted for the ryōkan and came to Ganso Unagi Yu no Yado Yusaya 元祖うなぎ湯の宿 ゆさや.

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Yusaya's history dates back 400 years, when samurai still roamed the land. The current owner is the 17th one.

Savoring Japanese Cuisine at its Finest

Before entering hot springs, one must first prepare one's stomach. Yusaya offers a particularly lavish meal to its guests.

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This is the dinner spread. We were left speechless at the number and beauty of the dishes.

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This magnificent course includes a taste of not just Naruko, but a little bit of everything from Tōhoku: shabu shabu with Sendai beef, sansai tempura, tokobushi shellfish, iburigakko (smoked and picked daikon root), and more.

Ten: "Wow, I feel like a princess!"

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Ten: "What is this??"

What Ten is holding between her chopsticks is "hoya". It's a type of shellfish famous in Tōhoku. It's distinct taste, reminding one of the ocean, pairs perfectly with Japanese nihonshu sake.

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Next, we dip the thinly sliced meat into the boiling water. Its soft, sweet flavor is what makes it such high quality beef.

Ten: "It's so different from beef in Thailand! I could eat this every day."

At Last, Onsen Time!

After you've had your fill of dinner, it's time to climb into the hot springs. Yusaya has two large hot springs: one indoors and one outdoors. There's also a public one next to the building that guests of the ryōkan can enter for free.

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We decided to try the indoor "Unagiyu" first. The room has a high ceiling, so it feels very spacious. The source-fed waters are always pleasantly steaming.

If you're interested in learning the proper way to enter hot springs in Japan, consult this MATCHA article on public baths (Japanese).

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Have you noticed the color of the water? It's unique to Naruko Onsen. The sulfur in the water makes it change color depending on the temperature.

Its refreshing waters leave your skin feeling soft and supple.

Next, we tried the outdoor bath, "Akane no Yu." First, you come to a small wooden hut up a little hill just outside the ryōkan. This is the changing area.

Ten: "It looks like we have it all to ourselves. This is awesome!"

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Ten: "Look! It's beautiful!"

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This is "Akane no Yu." Its waters are clear, and you have a picturesque view of the mountain on all sides. The steam rising from the hot springs creates a magical landscape in winter.

Ten: "It's like I've stepped into another world. I would like to watch the snow forever."

And with that, Ten's first onsen experience was more than satisfactory.

In Conclusion

So, what do you think? Naruko Onsen is a great onsen town full of exquisite scenery, craftsmanship and food. Its peak season is in autumn, so it should be relatively open during the winter. The number of visitors from Taiwan and Thailand has been increasing lately, but anyone traveling from abroad will undoubtedly enjoy their stay here as well.

If you've never had the real onsen experience before, we recommend starting with Naruko Onsen.

We recommend this movie on Naruko Onsen>>>「Journeys in Japan Naruko Onsen: The Home of Kokeshi

Photo by Junichi Higashiyama

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In Collaboration with NHK WORLD TV(Journeys in Japan)

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Journeys in Japan

A program presenting the attractions of Japan through the eyes of foreign visitors.Previous editions of the programs are available as VOD (Video on Demand).

Information

Naruko Onsen Map

Official website: Naruko Onsen(JapaneseSimple ChineseTraditional ChineseKorean)

Iwashita Kokeshi Museum 岩下こけし資料館
Address: Miyagi-ken, Ōsaki, Narukoonsen Furutomae 80
Business hours: 8:00-17:30
Closed: N/A
Wi-Fi: N/A
Credit cards accepted: JCB, VISA, MasterCard
Main language: Japanese
Other languages available: -
Nearest station: JR Rikuu Tōsen JR陸羽東線 Line "Naruko-Onsen Station" 鳴子温泉駅
Access: 15 minutes from Naruko-Onsen Station
Entrance fee: no charge
Religious affiliation: -
Phone: +81-0229-83-3725
Official website: Iwashita Kokeshi Museum (Japanese)

Kokeshi no Sugawaraya こけしの菅原屋
Address: Miyagi-ken, Ōsaki, Narukoonsen Kami-Naruko 135
Business hours: 08:00〜17:00
Closed: open for business all around the year
Wi-Fi: N/A
Credit cards accepted: VISA,JCB,MasterCard,AMEX
Main language: Japanese
Other languages offered: N/A
Nearest station: JR Rikuu Tōsen Line JR 陸羽東線 "Naruko-Onsen Station" 鳴子温泉駅
Access: 13 minutes from Naruko-Onsen Station
Class fee: 1,080 yen per doll
Religious affiliation: -
Phone: +81-0229-83-3664
Official website: Kokeshi no Sugawaraya (Japanese)

Ganso Unagi Yu no Yado Yusaya 元祖うなぎ湯の宿 ゆさや
Address: Miyagi-ken, Ōsaki, Narukoonsen Yumoto 84
Business hours: check-in from 14:00, check out until 10:00
Closed: irregular holidays
Wi-Fi: Yes
Credit cards accepted: VISA, JCB, MasterCard, AMEX, Diners
Languages offered: English and Japanese
Nearest station: JR Rikuu Tōsen Line JR陸羽東線 "Naruko-Onsen Station" 鳴子温泉駅
Access: 4 minutes from Naruko-Onsen Station
Price range: starting from 11,000 yen (varies according to season and room type)
Religious affiliation: -
Phone: +81-0229-83-2565
Official website: Ganso Unagi Yu no Yado Yusaya (Japanese)

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