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Honzawa onsen is an open-air and mixed hot spring. It is not free, but your are required to pay \500 at the near by Honzawa lodge. Concidering the "simpleness" of this hot spring, I think \500 is way too much. The price should be maximum \100, preferable free.
There is one bath located on a cliff with a quite nice view. The bath tub is all wood build into the cliff. There are no shelters to undress/dress in, but a little level spot just next to the bath tub.
The water is milky white. The temeprature at the source is supposedly
60 degrees C (140 degrees F), but don't worry, the whole bath will never
be 60 degrees hot. Especially not in the winter.
At 2150 meters (7052 feet) Honzawa onsen is the highest lying hot spring in Japan.
Honzawa onsen is located half way up Yatsugate on the east side. At Umijiro take the road leading to Inakoyu. Just before reaching Inakoyu follow the road leading off to the left. Follow this road until you see a sign leading to Honzawa onsen. If you have 4 wheel drive car, continue in the direction of Honzawa onsen, if not, park and walk the rest of the way. If it has been snowing, you will not be able to make it to Honzawa onsen with out 4 wheel drive and winter tires or chains!
Accoring to the last sign leading to Honzawa onsen, it will take you
around 90 minutes of walking if you walk from there, or 60 minutes from
the "gate" if you make it all the way up the last narrow piece of the road.
I was there on the last day in December when there were snow, so I did not drive all the way up to the gate. However, I am convinced that it is possible to make it even in a 2 wheel drive car in the summer unless it just has rained. I am 100% sure i could have done it on my Harley.
It was the 31st of December and I had just gotten back to Japan the day before from my Christmas holiday in Denmark. I had rented a car and planned on exploring hot springs for the next few days. I had long known about Honzawa onsen, and now I was finally going.
It did not take me long to get to the Yatsugadake mountains. Although
it was in the middle of winter, I had not seen any snow on the roads yet.
As I started going up the road on the mountain, I passed a few spots with
snow on the road. Everything went well until I came to a bend which had
not been exposed to sunshine, and where the were a thin layer of snow.
The car slowly started losing speed, and it stopped in the middle of the
road. Luckily for me, it did not start sliding back down. I put the car
in reverse, and I managed to back down to a spot on the road free of snow
and ice. Would this really be as far as I would get, I thought to myself.
I had gone around 200 km only to be stopped by an icy spot on a little
mountain road. I checked the tires, and to no surprise I found that the
car was fitted with summer tires. I also found that the front tires were
almost worn down, with almost no tread pattern left. The rear tires looked
better though. Although they were also summer tires, they had a lot more
tread pattern left. I therefore decided to try and change the wheels. I
jacked the car up and put the rear wheels on the front, and the front wheels
on the rear. It took me a little while and some ingenuity with only one
jack, but finally I was done. If this didn't work, I guess I would have
to try the chains in the yellow box in the back of the car. I had never
put on chains, or driven with chains, so I would do just about anything
to avoid that, except for missing the hot spring.
Unfortunately the change of wheels did not work. I was still not able to get up the road, so I eventually had to put on the chains, and I continued up the little mountain road. I finally got to the end of the road, parked the car, got my equipment and continued on foot. As I got further up the mountain, the amount of snow increased until I was walking around on a snow covered mountain. When I finally got to the hot spring, I saw 3 young men and 3 young girls. The men where in the hot spring, and the girls were outside holding the men's clothes. The water did not seem to be too hot, but now that I finally had come all the way, I was going to get in whatever it took. The men were leaving as I was getting in, and indeed they were right, the water was not hot, but only luke warm. At least it felt better than standing in the snow.
The 3 couples had now left, and it was getting time for me to get back down from the mountain again. I did not have too much time left until the sun went down and it got dark. I got out of the hot spring and realized now how cold it was here at 2000 meters above sea level on a snowy mountain. It was freezing cold! I tried to ignore the cold, which I am usually very good at, but this was too much. Suddenly I was hit by a wind, and jumped back down into the hot spring again to heat up. Suddenly the luke warm hot spring felt so nice and warm. But I could not stay there forever, I had to get out, get in my clothes and get back down from that mountain. On my way up the mountain I could not help but perspire a little. Now that I put my clothes back on, I found that my sweat had frozen, and my clothes were now so stiff it could stand by itself. That just made it more difficult to put it on, and more painful standing there with my bare skin exposed to the freezing winds. By the time I got all my clothes on, I couldn't feel anything in my fingers and toes, and I now started wondering if I had gotten frost bites! To get some feeling back in my fingers, I put my hands in the hot spring, and at first my fingers really hurt, but slowly they came back to normal. But what about my toes? There was no way I was going to put my feet in the hot spring now that I finally had gotten my socks and boots back on. I started running back down the mountain hoping to increase the blood circulation in my feet and get my toes back to normal. At first it did not seem to have any effect, but slowly the feeling in my toes came back also.
The sun had now gone down, and I walked the rest of the way down the mountain to my car in complete darkness enjoying the hike and thinking about my unusual new years eve.
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