Sunday, 22 September 2013

Ikaho Onsen

I like ladybugs. They're considered lucky almost everywhere and they generally plod along in an unassuming manner that's fairly soothing to watch. While Daddy gazed steadily at the horizon, anxiously waiting for our bus, I sat on the bench at the bus stop and watched this small harlequin ladybug traverse the length of my bag strap. 

When we found ourselves back at Ikaho Onsen, we realized we didn't quite know what to do with the rest of our time there, so after admiring the mountains in the distance for a bit, we consulted the tourist map that conveniently takes up a panel at the bus station. As maps go, it's far from accurate - you only get a sense of where the locations (Rendered in a rounded, cutesy style) are in relation to one another. But still, it was enough to convince us to visit the Kajika-bashi, a brilliantly lacquered bridge just off the main town area. 

From the bus stop, we took the shortcut to the top of the Ikaho Stone Steps. 

From there, we followed the signs leading to the Ikaho Rotenburo (Ikaho Outdoor Bath), which was in the same general direction as the bridge. We still don't believe it was only 450m away from this sign. Along our stroll, we passed by a holiday residence of the Japanese Emperor (!), which looked thoroughly modern from the outside. Well, if the springs are good enough for the Emperor, they're good enough for us. 

After walking a great deal more than the sign advertised, we reached the Kajika Bridge, which was every bit as lovely as the guidebooks said. But we were still far too early for the impressive riot of autumnal colours that mark most of the promotional pictures coming out of Ikaho, so we had to make do with the one tree that had skipped ahead of the rest. 

Further up, we saw a stream of mineral-laden water that had stained the riverbed bright orange: Kogane no Yu, the golden-coloured hot spring water Ikaho has been famed for since the 7th century. 

A small pavilion nearby had a covered well where spring water was gushing out, and the water is piped to the Onsen town from here. 

Bamboo pipes from the mountain carried two different kinds of water, one the warm mineralized water for bathing in, with a sign saying "Don't Drink This Water!" in Japanese and another with cool, delicious mountain water for thirsty travellers. 

By this point, breakfast had passed long enough for us to consider lunch, and all that walking had made us peckish, so on the way back to town we stopped by a small eatery (Yumoto Cha-ya/湯元茶屋a stone's throw away from the Kajika-bashi. We were drawn in by the smell of Oden cooking in a pot outside. 

There was a small seating area outside consisting of a bench and some cushions for those only having a quick snack, but we were looking for something a bit more substantial, so we went inside for noodles.

It was a really quaint little place overlooking the river below, filled with pictures and little knick-knacks.

We usually only go for hard boiled eggs and chunks of radish when we go for convenience store Oden, so we had to go way out of our comfort zone here, because only skewers of konjac balls and fishcakes were available. But I thought they were really good, so I ended up finishing D's skewer after he decided it wasn't quite to his tastes. 

We also ordered a basket of eggs, hard boiled in Onsen water. They're supposed to impart health benefits, but we really just eat them because we like hard boiled eggs. M & D ordered two each, then tried to fob their second ones on me. I wasn't having any of it. 

It always interests me to see the kinds of garnish provided with the dipping sauce. Once again there was grated ginger flower, but the roasted sesame seeds were new. Chives and a dollop of wasabi are mandatory everywhere. 

We'd all gone for something simple - piping hot vegetable tempura (Shiso leaf, aubergine, lady's finger and maitake mushrooms) with cold noodles. I'd opted for udon, while M & D had soba. 

After our good meal, we passed the extension next door which sold salt-grilled fish.

We made our way back down the Ikaho Stone Steps, that had been first carved in the 15th century during Japan's warring states period. If you study the steps carefully all the way up (Or down), you can see all twelve zodiac signs in metalwork on the floor. They're not in sequence, which I suppose makes the hunt more exciting. 

Even after looking round the shops lining both sides of the steps, there was enough time for me to have a last-minute foot bath in the Kurogane no Yu pool at the bottom of the stairs. 

On our way to get our bags we saw possibly the first of the falling autumn leaves. 

It's a lovely little place to visit, though such a shame we missed the full extent of the autumn foliage. One of our last sights out of Ikaho Onsen was Manju Man (Whose actual name is Ishidan-kun), out for a day of promoting traffic safety in the town. Manjus originated from Ikaho, where the golden-brown exterior of the buns are reminiscent of the golden spring waters, so it wasn't much of a stretch to have him as their mascot. The design of the costume is great - notice the steps that make up his outfit? And the hat he's wearing looks just like the pail used during hot spring baths. 

As we drove off, Manju Man blew kisses and waved goodbye. 

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