Honshu

Tazawako and Nyuto Onsen

Sunset at Lake Tazawa

Lake Tazawa is a beautiful, almost circular, lake in Akita-ken – if you picture the top half of Honshu, from Aomori at the top down to Tokyo, it’s maybe one quarter of the way down. I visited in late 2012.

Getting near the lake is easy: use the Akita mini-shinkansen, which if you’re coming from the south runs together with the main Tohoku line and forks off at Morioka (from the north, change there). But due warning: getting to the lake itself is harder.

Having failed to find a free room at Nyuto onsen (see below), I found one by phoning theRose Park Hotel, which is on the opposite side of the rather large lake. And the lake itself, although less than 3km west of the Shinkansen station, is rather further by road – maybe 5 to 6km. You’ll want a bus (just a few each day), or to rent a car.

There’s a JR Car Rental office at the station, but it’s a small shed-like building and they didn’t have any cars available – I suspect you have to arrange well in advance. Likewise, the Orix branch is actually just a nearby shop, but fortunately the lady there pointed me towards Toyota Rental. This isn’t at the station, but it’s only short taxi ride away, and they gave me a lift back there when I returned – I suspect if you phone they might pick you up, too. Call them on (0187) 43 2100.

Once equipped with four wheels (see here for more information on hiring cars in Japan), getting around is easy.

Lake Tazawa

If coming from the station area, you’ll arrive at Tazawa from the East. En-route, look out for the pizza restaurant and (a surprise to me) the London bus that forms part of Honey’s Cafe – a small place that sells honey roll cake and coffee. Both keep relatively short hours, closing in the evening. As you arrive at the lake there’s a car park on the right, some vending machines and shops – none of which were really open on the day in October that I visited, but I imagine that it’s more lively in summer. The lakeshore here has those strange swan-shaped tourist boats to rent – I managed to resist, but this is a great area to watch the sun set over the lake.

Lake Tazawa

Circling the lake anticlockwise, you’ll pass a rather beautiful lakeside shrine (above), and also a small shop-cum-restaurant where you can sit outside and slurp ridiculously cheap udon noodles with passing motorbike tourers. Further round – roughly opposite the town – is a statue of Tatsuko. It’s not, in my opinion, the greatest statue, but the legend behind it is interesting and there’s a small and rather beautiful shrine nearby. Past that you’ll find a few more shops (again, with very limited hours), and then the Tazawako Rose Park Hotel.

The hotel seems to have changed names a few times (on Google Maps it’s marked as the “El Mirador”, and as closed, but as of October ’14 it’s still taking bookings via Rakuten). It’s slightly old-fashioned, entirely pleasant and my only regret was not arranging to eat there as well as staying – after 7pm or so there’s precious little food to be found nearby, and I ended up driving to a convenience store on the main road.

Continuing around the lake anticlockwise, on the southern shore the road pulls away from the lake a bit, but passes a rather nice area of woodland with some sort of park – sadly I had time only to stop and take a brief walk, but it looks well worth exploring if you’re in the area for longer. Being slightly obsessed with onsen, though, I had another destination in mind – Nyuto Onsen, nearby.

Nyuto Onsen

Directly North-East of Tazawako lies Nyuto Onsen – a cluster of hot springs up in the mountains (in an area where, in winter, you can ski). I’d heard that one in particular – Tsuru no Yu – was worth a visit, and so set off in my (rather cheap, rather small) rental car.

On the way to Nyuto Onsen

To get to Tsuru-no-Yu you go up a main road, down a small road and across a river (shown above), then the road becomes a narrow road with blind U-bends, which becomes a gravel track with huge rocks and potholes, and god help you if you meet another car coming the other way. All of the time, you’re climbing up the mountain. And at the end: half of Japan’s cars are in the car park. Amazing.

The onsen, though, is worth it. It’s incredibly old, and has several baths. Unusually, the largest one – an outdoor bath under the mountain, with white water – is not gender segregated. Nor is it in any way private: the changing rooms have glass, and people walk right past the bath edge. Nonetheless, if you can get past that, it’s wonderful: huge, comfortable, with a range of temperatures from bubbling out of the earth scorching hot to cool at the other end. I spent a good hour or more floating like a sedated hippo.

If you’re male and don’t fancy the rather open bath, though, I’m not sure Tsuru-no-Yu is worth the trip: the two indoor male baths are fine, but rather small. For women there’s a separate outdoor bath around the back – I have no idea if it’s any good, obviously, but at least there’s another option.

If you do head for Tsusu-no-Yu, try putting its phone number into your car’s sat-nav system – it was in mine. Failing that, there’s a map on its English-language webpage here – the onsen is the uppermost red dot (鶴の湯, but it’s hard to read due to the script). If you can’t get that far, or can’t face the hill-scramble to get there, I passed a few other onsen on the way up.