Hello! I am Crista Priscilla, a writer, and photographer based in Tokyo. I am passionate about exploring and discovering the lesser-known parts of Japan and sharing the journey through my Instagram. Last winter, I found one of the most beautiful rotenburo (hot mineral outdoor bath) nestled among the lush frosty forest of the Aga region of Niigata — one of the most unexplored areas in Japan. To be there and to stay in that old quaint ryokan was truly a humbling opportunity to experience Japanese winter in an exceptional way. It’s a joy to be able to share why a Japanese ryokan should be your next travel destination to the Local Milk readers, and I hope it’ll inspire you to travel deeper and to opt for the road less traveled because what awaits will surely be rewarding.
Our Journey to Ryokan Furusawaya
I cannot really remember how I found Furusawaya, but I am sure I was looking for something else. Deliberately allowing myself to roll down the ‘clicking rabbit hole,’ and ended up staring at the picture of their rotenburo (hot mineral outdoor bath), the Aga river blanketed in white powdery snow and the skies behind beaming orange. To me, rotenburo is the most determining luxury a ryokan can offer, and so, based on that image only, I booked a night stay in a little town I never heard of.
It was the peak of the winter season, and the road to Niigata, the prefecture where Aga is, was covered in slippery snow. We were welcomed by a heavy blizzard when we were approaching the town. The plan was to ride a traditional boat cruising along the river after lunch. But after some hard negotiation, the boatmen in their peculiar uniforms disagreed with taking us on board. “It is too risky,” one of them told us, squinting his eyes and tilting his head sideways, a typical Japanese gesture for rejection, “the wind is too strong, please try again tomorrow?” Before we left hopelessly, he told us that ‘tomorrow’ was not a guarantee either.
We parked our car in front of the ryokan’s building. The ground was covered in knee-deep snow, and our car seemed not to be able to make the turn. My husband tried so hard to maneuver, but the tires were rolling on the same spot. Suddenly a middle-aged man came toward us and checked on the tires. His face was puzzled. “These are not snow tires!” he said in shock, looking at our own shocked faces. We thought the car came automatically with the snow tires. “How did you make it here with these tires?” he continued, still perplexed. We were wondering the same thing. He encouraged us to go inside the ryokan while he helped with the car.
Finding Home Somewhere Far Away
Just as we rushed our way inside, an old lady greeted us with her biggest smile, as if she was relieved we finally arrived. She asked us to follow her to our rooms. I walked behind her, trying to digest this awkwardness. Why did this feel like coming home, instead of coming as a stranger? She stopped in front of a large shoji door. “This is the room,” she murmured. She took off her slippers, stepped inside, and grabbed our bags so we could get in easily. The room was already warm as if it knew we were coming shivering with cold. Outside the large window, we could see the frozen Aga river surrounded by towering mountains, and the snowfall pouring unceasingly. She asked us to sit on the tatami mat while she served us hot tea. I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenery outside the window. It was like a painting. A Japanese romance of winter season, inked in black and white.
Before she left the room, she let us know that we could use the private rotenburo from 4 PM for an hour, perfect for the sunset time. “What time would you like to have dinner, then?” she asked. “7 PM will be good,” I said. “7 PM then”, she closed the door and disappeared. Not long after that, my husband came inside. “It was the ryokan’s owner.” He was talking about the middle-aged man who insisted on helping us. “He will drive me to the nearest car repair shop, so I can buy the tire chain. I’ll be back before dinner.” I would have totally forgotten about the car if he hadn’t suddenly entered the room. I guess being presented with such a view made it easy not to think about anything else.
I looked out the window again and caught snatches of persistent mist stealing up those frozen mountain slopes, now obscuring, then revealing a sky blue that was invisible only ten minutes ago. The hot tea was already cold in my hand, and yet my mind had not settled soundly. “A shock of arrival,” Pico lyer called it.
A Foreign Place Becoming Familiar
After beginning our journey with a failed plan to cross off that much-awaited scenic boat ride from our list, followed by a puzzling possibility that we could have gotten here in much worse condition because of the non-existent snow tires. Then an avalanche of unexpected warmth welcomed us in this out-of-nowhere place. The overjoyed smile, the generous hands offering help, the silent and thoughtful gesture in a heated room, and this cup of hot tea. There was also this ever-changing majestic view outside that messed my screen-addict brain, unable to register that this was the real thing and not just large-scale imagery.
“No drug I can imagine, few love-affairs I might dream of, can match that simple, shocking excitement of arriving in a truly foreign place.”
Yet this foreign place had disguised itself into the familiar. Or was it actually the familiar disguised in the foreign? I was never sure, but they made us feel that we were not just some strangers staying for a night.
We spent the rest of the afternoon dipping in the rotenburo that stole my heart. It stopped snowing for a while. The skies cleared up, and quickly the blue turned into blush. The clear, steamy mineral water made the frosty mountains look less freezing from afar. Even a branch of Aga river that separated us from those mountains seemed to feel as warm as our hot bath.
Before we left the next day, and after a hearty seasonal breakfast, they stuffed us with, the middle-aged owner sat down with us while we made our payment at the front desk. In our naive admiration of the place, we asked him if he had any more ambitious plan to grow this business. “I am not married, I don’t have children. To be honest, I am not even sure how long this ryokan will survive,” he replied. In the low season, he often had to send some of his employees home due to the lack of guests, and hence, avoiding the unnecessary overhead cost to save the ryokan’s finance.
Why I Will Always Choose A Ryokan Over a Hotel
There is a quality of dreaming to our arrival after the long journey, and with all that had been lost and gained. A misfortunate plan that led us to a heartfelt homecoming, gloomy sky liner that turned into beaming dusk. We arrived without defense into a province of imagination, of wonderment about a place we never heard of. To our wide-awakeness, we would not want that place to eventually stay merely as a dream or a hazy memory that will be erased by time. We would want this place to survive too, exists in reality for generations, for many other strangers seeking warmth to come, just like how the Furusawa family had in mind when they first built it.
Furusawa san – the middle-aged owner, bid us farewell in front of the ryokan’s signage. I still could see his waving hand as we drove away, now with chains around our tires. On our return to Tokyo, that taste of arrival in Aga still lingered strongly. The town that once unknown to me now has become a dear memory. A foreign place once only seen from a screen has now turned into a familiar space that gave us faces we look forward to coming back to. This rarest kind of encounter in our travel is the moment I often rethink my decision to choose a ryokan stay over some starred hotel chain. And in that faint sight of Furusawaya behind us disappearing inside the white Kirin mountains, I relished that wise choice I made, and undoubtedly, will make again soon. I will always choose a Japanese Ryokan as my next travel destination over a hotel.
Crista’s Japanese Ryokan Recommendations
Location: Aga town, Niigata prefecture
Location: Gunma prefecture, 50 mins. from Tokyo by bullet train
Best time to stay: Autumn and Winter
Location: Niigata prefecture, 80 mins. from Tokyo by bullet train
Best time to stay: Anytime of the year, but the winter season offers ski opportunities. Niigata is known for being the region that receives the heaviest snow in the winter.
Location: Kaga city, 1hr 50 mins. from Kyoto by bullet train, or less than 1hr from Kanazawa by bus
Best time to stay: Spring and Autumn
Location: Shimoda, Shizuoka prefecture, 2hr from Tokyo by bullet train
Best time to stay: Summer and Autumn
Location: Oku Nikko, Tochigi prefecture, 4hr from Tokyo by Tobu limited express train
Best time to stay: Anytime of the year. The warmer seasons allow hiking opportunities around the national park.
Crista Priscilla is a writer and photographer based in Tokyo. She is passionate about exploring and discovering the lesser-known parts of Japan and sharing the journey through her Instagram.
Want to explore more Japanese ryokan’s? Check out Beth’s 2015 journey to the Ryokan Sanga near Mount Aso.
Photos edited with the Local Milk Instagram Preset Collection.