Gunma Prefecture Minakami Hoshi-Onsen

Split logs float in a grand quartered tub

If I were asked to choose the cream of the crop of large communal baths, the one that would spring to mind is Hoshi Onsen’s Hoshi no Yu. This bath is in Chojukan, an onsen inn situated in the middle of nowhere on the border of Gunma and Niigata Prefectures. The defining feature of this onsen is the large solemn rectangular public bath, divided into four sections in a genuinely classic style and impressive in its sense of audaciousness without resorting to frivolous interior design tricks, allowing one to forget the minutiae of life and surrender one’s body to a sense of security and relaxation. Going clockwise, the water to the far left of the entry is at the lowest temperature, and while each consecutive bath is warmer, even the warmest one is still rather lukewarm.

A split log crossbar is laid across each tub. These act as supports for bathers’ heads or feet while they are submerged. Because the logs are not fixed in place, bathers can adjust them to suit themselves. After securing the ideal situation, you can make yourself comfortable and relax as long as you like. The wellspring bubbles directly up between the pebbles on the bottom; there are no pipes. Above the spring rises splendid architecture.

The building housing Hoshi no Yu is an imposing wooden structure erected in Meiji 28 (1895). This space, with the semicircular arches of the window frames, the height of the ceiling, and the natural light streaming in, is just like a church. It is said that Mitsugu Okamura, the onsen’s founder, was so inspired by the architect Kingo Tatsuno’s design of Tokyo Station that he had Hoshi no Yu modeled on its design.Okamura, who had contributed to the laying of the Joetsu railroad, frequently traveled between this site and Tokyo, where he served as a member of the Lower House. The current owner is in the sixth generation of this founding family.

Certainly there is something in the architecture here that reminds one of the majesty of Tokyo Station, but the moss-covered roof blends well into the mountains and rivers of this region. The inn’s buildings line both banks of a small stream, and the connecting corridor is positioned as if it were straddling the murmuring flow. The view of the inn itself is also pleasant, whether from the window of the guest rooms or the passage. Records from the past are also fascinating, like the one that shows that the important feminist author and poet Akiko Yosano (1878-1942), who traveled to all of Japan’s famous places, visited here by palanquin, over steep and rugged roads.

The description, “nestled in the mountains” fits this place perfectly; here, where water flows in torrents and greenery grows with abandon, you feel the natural features of Japan in your gut. While walking to a nearby waterfall, wearing geta provided by the inn, to my surprise, I found some land-leeches attached to my ankles. Outside the inn’s site is a national forest, and, thanks to the inn’s policy of keeping pace with the surrounding nature without felling trees on its site, it is protected by layer upon layer of deep nature.