Culture, crafts and hot springs: Three onsen towns to visit on a day trip from Tokyo

JAPAN – In the south-west corner of Ishikawa, a verdant prefecture hugging the Sea of Japan, traditional craftsmanship thrives alongside contemporary art and architecture in the small towns that make up Kaga City.

Three of these towns – Katayamazu Onsen, Yamashiro Onsen and Yamanaka Onsen – are famous for their onsen, or hot springs.

In centuries past, monks and merchant seamen made pilgrimages to these restorative waters. The 17th-century haiku master Matsuo Basho even penned two poems on a visit.

Japanese tourists still flock to Kaga’s onsen towns every autumn, when the leaves turn fiery and snow crab is in season. But few foreigners find their way here, in part because the journey from Tokyo has not been easy.

That changed in March. A new extension of the Hokuriku Shinkansen, the high-speed train that rockets passengers from Tokyo to this region, now includes a stop at Kagaonsen station. The trip takes less than three hours on a single train.

When I first came to Kaga in 2015, the journey took two trains and nearly four hours from Tokyo. There was little English signage at the station and Google Maps did not yet list the (infrequent) local buses.

I had come to apprentice at a bar in Yamanaka, where I met people who craft wooden bowls, brew sake and make paper from mountain shrubs.

Enchanted, I returned to write a book about how their work weaves into the vibrant local culture and community. By the time it was published, Yamanaka had become my home.

I set out in 2024 to be a tourist in my adopted home, looking for places that express the unique character of each of Kaga’s three onsen towns.

Katayamazu: Where retro meets modern

culture, crafts and hot springs: three onsen towns to visit on a day trip from tokyo

Sunrise over Shibayama Lagoon, viewed from the public bathhouse in Katayamazu. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In Kaga, public bathhouses – segregated by gender – are so ingrained in daily life that many homes were built without a shower or bath. I lived for a time in such an apartment, enjoying the daily ritual of showering among the softly echoing voices of neighbours and soaking in a communal pool of onsen water shrouded in steam.

Katayamazu, a fading red-light district, is the least traditional of Kaga’s onsen towns. Its public bathhouse, a glass and steel box, gleams along the edge of Shibayama Lagoon.

The building was designed by Yoshio Taniguchi – the architect of New York’s Museum of Modern Art expansion – as part of a revitalisation effort. It stands in contrast to Katayamazu’s dated hotels and shuttered shops, remnants of an exuberant domestic tourism boom from the 1960s through the 1980s, followed by decades of economic stagnation.

I frequented the bathhouse on odd-numbered days, when women get to bathe on the side overlooking the lagoon. In winter, it is possible to spot migratory Mandarin ducks gliding across the reflection of snow-capped Mount Haku, the tallest peak in Ishikawa.

A cafe upstairs overlooks the same panorama, but I prefer the coffee across the street at Mie Coffee, served in local pottery.

culture, crafts and hot springs: three onsen towns to visit on a day trip from tokyo

A breakfast at Besso in Katayamazu highlights local ingredients such as sansai (mountain vegetables) tempura and Kaga boucha (roasted twig tea). PHOTO: NYTIMES

I stayed one night at Besso, a spare but cosy inn converted from a massage parlour, and walked along silent streets to a bar called Kikko, a 1970s time capsule with stained-glass windows draped in red velvet, jazz and soul albums decorating the walls and a record player in the corner. The barman, 85-year-old Tokio Kameya, jokes that “even I am retro now”.

A group of amateur sumo wrestlers were wrapping up a karaoke party as I sat down.

Kameya-san poured me a Japanese whisky over perfectly clear ice and played a bossa nova record as he tidied up. He told me his bar caters to locals – it is cash only, no written menu and no English spoken – and he does not think Katayamazu has much to offer tourists. But, to me, the town’s charm is its anachronistic mix of modernity and kitsch.

Yamashiro: A meditation on art and fish

culture, crafts and hot springs: three onsen towns to visit on a day trip from tokyo

One of two communal onsen at Beniya Mukayu, a ryokan in Yamashiro. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Onsen go hand in hand with ryokan, Japanese inns where guests luxuriate over elaborate seasonal meals and soak in mineral-rich baths.

In January, as snow blanketed Yamashiro, I checked into Beniya Mukayu, a 16-room ryokan tucked into the woods.

Guests who stay at least two nights can book experiences with artisans – making paper, shaping Japanese sweets or roasting tea – but I would happily spend days of quiet contemplation in the ryokan’s communal spaces. I hardly saw anyone as I soaked in a hinoki-wood onsen that frames a vignette of swaying bamboo, its rustling leaves harmonising with the sound of running water.

In Yamashiro’s town centre, I followed the trail of Kitaoji Rosanjin, a sought-after engraver and calligrapher who came here to study ceramics in 1915. His pottery is now in collections around the world.

I visited a cottage called Iroha Souan, where Rosanjin stayed and carved signboards for nearby ryokan. Guests of Araya Totoan can view his work, including a painting of a crow composed of loose brush strokes, in the ryokan’s lobby.

Next, I took a dip at Kosoyu, a bathhouse rebuilt to look as it did during Rosanjin’s time. Sunlight poured through stained glass onto Kutaniyaki tiles, Kaga’s style of brightly painted porcelain. Kosoyu is for soaking only, so it is best to arrive freshly bathed. There are showers at Yamashiro’s main public onsen across the street.

culture, crafts and hot springs: three onsen towns to visit on a day trip from tokyo

With stained-glass windows and local Kutaniyaki tiles, the Kosoyu bathhouse in Yamashiro recreates the atmosphere of Japan at the turn of the 20th century. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Rosanjin was known as a gourmand as much as an artist – he became the creative force behind an exclusive restaurant, pairing ceramics and food – and he was said to have enjoyed the exceptional freshness and variety of ingredients in Kaga.

These days, tourists and locals line up for unpretentious 2,000-yen (S$17) lunch sets at Ippei Sushi. On a recent visit, the chef, Yukio Nimaida, showed me three kinds of local prawns he had sourced early that morning. The rice he used, a bouncy sweet cultivar called Koshihikari, grows nearby in paddies fed by clean mountain water.

I asked Nimaida-san what he hopes visitors to Kaga will experience. “Hot springs and fish,” he said. “That’s all you need, isn’t it?”

Yamanaka: A pathway through woodlands and lacquerware

culture, crafts and hot springs: three onsen towns to visit on a day trip from tokyo

Guests in the cafe at Mugen-an, a house-turned-museum that overlooks the Kakusenkei gorge, in Yamanaka. PHOTO: NYTIMES

With Kiku no Yu public bathhouse at its heart, Yamanaka’s downtown stretches along one side of the Kakusenkei gorge.

On the other side, a peaceful walking path meanders beside the icy aquamarine river.

I walked there often, especially in spring, when wildflowers emerge from lush tufts of moss.

Yamanaka is also known for wooden tableware and teaware finished with lacquer made from the sap of urushi trees. The best of this lacquerware is not for sale in the souvenir shops along the main street, but on display in small museums and in service at tearooms, bars and ryokan.

One such place is Mugen-an, a house-turned-museum near the south end of the Kakusenkei walking path. Its shoin-style architecture – including paper doors decorated with gold and rare spalted persimmon-wood railings, naturally streaked with black – reflects the status of its original residents, a former high-ranking samurai family.

The most immersive experience of Yamanaka’s distinct culture is a stay at one of its high-end ryokan, like Kayotei, where owner Masanori Kamiguchi has spent decades cultivating appreciation of local crafts and ecology among his guests.

culture, crafts and hot springs: three onsen towns to visit on a day trip from tokyo

Lunch served on Yamanaka lacquerware in the cafe at Mugen-an. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Across the street, Hanamurasaki ryokan’s young proprietors Kohei and Manami Yamada pursue a similar vision.

Visitors do not have to stay overnight to reserve afternoon tea in their sabo, a tearoom designed by Tokyo-based restaurateur and designer Shinichiro Ogata to feature locally quarried stone and Japanese paper, along with teaware in shades of charcoal and porcelain.

“I believe that in order to pass down something traditional it has to fit into modern life,” Kohei-san told me.

Manami-san added: “Ryokans have always been cultural salons.”

This kind of hospitality encourages patronage of local crafts, and brings new people and ideas to small towns. Visitors who come on the extended Hokuriku Shinkansen can be part of that legacy, helping Yamanaka, Yamashiro and Katayamazu thrive. NYTIMES

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