Naruko Hot Spring Resort: Waters and Dolls in Northern Miyagi

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Eight kinds of spring water are found at Naruko Hot Springs. The Miyagi Prefecture resort area is also known for makers of kokeshi, traditional wooden dolls.

Five Hot Springs with a Variety of Waters

Located on the upper reaches of the Eai River as it flows through the Ōsaki region in the north of Miyagi Prefecture is the Naruko Hot Springs Resort. Believed to have been established over a millennium ago, this area encompasses five springs in all: Naruko, Higashi-Naruko, Kawatabi, Nakayamadaira, and Onikōbe.

The area is distinguished by the variety of its waters. Japan recognizes 10 different kinds of hot spring waters; fully eight of these types bubble up here from some 400 springs. It is common for a source spring to be divided among several surrounding businesses, but in Naruko, many inns and communal baths have some of these springs on their own premises. Some have more than one, allowing visitors to choose to luxuriate in many kinds of hot springs while staying at a single lodging, as opposed to going from one ryokan to the next to sample the different offerings.

The elegant frontage of a <em>ryokan</em> in the hot spring area. (Photo courtesy Yusaya Ryokan)
The elegant frontage of a ryokan in the hot spring area. (Photo courtesy Yusaya Ryokan)

The Land of Kokeshi

Naruko Hot Spring, located in the heart of the resort area, is numbered among the three great crafting centers for the cylindrical wooden dolls called kokeshi. As such, there are a number of workshops where artisans make the Naruko-kokeshi dolls that are traditional handicrafts of this locale. Originally made to be good-luck charms infused with wishes for children to grow up healthy, these dolls became popular souvenirs over time, beginning in the Taishō era (1912–26). Near the train station is a street with the unique name of Kokeshi-dōri, lined with shops selling these souvenirs. All manner of public fixtures are shaped like kokeshi as well, including mailboxes and phone booths, providing plenty of Instagrammable scenes for the tourists walking the streets.

 This mailbox, outside the post office, is styled to look like a <em>kokeshi</em> doll. (© Shoe Press)
This mailbox, outside the post office, is styled to look like a kokeshi doll. (© Shoe Press)

The gorge Naruko-kyō, 10 minutes’ drive from Naruko Hot Springs, is known for its views of autumn leaves. Visitors can see the forest’s brilliant colors from the observation decks and walking trails from mid-October to early November.

Walking trails and observation decks give visitors an easy way to enjoy the splendors of Naruko-kyō. (© Shoe Press)
Walking trails and observation decks give visitors an easy way to enjoy the splendors of Naruko-kyō. (© Shoe Press)

Great Baths and Historic Inns

The Naruko Hot Spring has a particularly large number of springs, accounting for over 300 of the entire area’s 400 natural sources. This makes it one of the three renowned bathing areas of Ōshū—an old name for the region spanning the Pacific coast of Tōhoku—the others being Akiu Hot Spring, also in Miyagi, and Iizaka Hot Spring, in Fukushima Prefecture.

While there are many lodgings in the hot spring area, one not to be missed is Yusaya Ryokan, the original unagi-yu (“eel bath”) inn. (This odd name comes from the beautifying effects of the slick, slippery waters of one of its baths.) Founded in 1632 and traditionally held to mark the beginnings of Naruko Hot Spring, this ryokan has the prestige of having been commanded by the lords of the Date domain to be the caretaker of the Taki-no-yu bath, which is a popular communal bath to this day. The wooden two-story main hall and storehouse were chosen in 2000 as registered tangible cultural properties for their historical significance.

Elegant rooms allow relaxation in comfort. (Photo courtesy Yusaya Ryokan)
Elegant rooms allow relaxation in comfort. (Photo courtesy Yusaya Ryokan)

Visitors can immerse themselves in three kinds of baths at Yusaya Ryokan: the alkali waters of the Unagi-yu (eel bath), the sulfur waters of the Taki-no-yu (cascade bath), and the Akane-no-yu (madder herb bath). The last of these is an outdoor bath available by appointment. Particularly renowned is the Unagi-yu, also distinguished by its changing color, which, depending on the weather or the ambient temperature, may be opaque or an emerald green, among other possibilities.

The slightly elevated Akane-no-yu may be reserved for free by paying guests of the ryokan for 30 minutes at a time. This liberating outdoor bath, surrounded by natural scenery, offers an exceptional experience of bathing while watching the seasons go by.

DATA

Yusaya Ryokan
  • Address: 84 Yumoto, Naruko-onsen, Ōsaki City, Miyagi Prefecture
  • Access: Four minutes’ walk from JR Naruko-onsen Station
  • Contact: Phone (in Japan) 0229-83-2565
  • Room rates start at ¥13,950 per night, including two meals
  • English- and French-speaking staff available (as of February 2019)

Many visitors come specifically for the Unagi-yu, or “eel bath.” (Photo courtesy Yusaya Ryokan)
Many visitors come specifically for the Unagi-yu, or “eel bath.” (Photo courtesy Yusaya Ryokan)

Footbaths: A Convenient Hot Spring Experience

Day trippers visiting Naruko may also indulge in the convenient communal baths and footbaths. While the latter are free to use, towels are not provided. Either bring your own or purchase one from a local shop.

Other communal baths aside from Taki-no-yu include Naruko-Waseda-Sajiki-yu in Naruko Hot Spring, Kawatabi-Onsen-Yokujō in Kawatabi Hot Spring, Shintoro-no-yu in Nakayamadaira Hot Spring, and Supa-Onikōbe-no-yu in Onikōbe Hot Spring. Locals use these baths too. Feel free to strike up a conversation to make your visit that much more memorable.

There is a footbath near the JR Naruko-Onsen Station too. (Photo courtesy Naruko Spa Tourist Association)
There is a footbath near the JR Naruko-Onsen Station too. (Photo courtesy Naruko Spa Tourist Association)

Doll Shopping at Sakurai Kokeshi

The giant <em>kokeshi</em>  doll out front makes it easy to find Sakurai Kokeshi. (© Shoe Press)
The giant kokeshi doll out front makes it easy to find Sakurai Kokeshi. (© Shoe Press)

The Sakurai Kokeshi workshop has been handed down through six generations since Ōnuma Matagorō, the reputed originator of Naruko-kokeshi. In addition to these traditional wooden dolls, the shop makes and sells highly original kokeshi and kijibina (another type of traditional Japanese wooden doll) in more adventurous, updated styles. Visitors can also try their hand at painting Naruko-kokeshi, pen-holder kokeshi, or dolls designed to hold messages inside.

DATA

Sakurai Kokeshi
  • Address: 26 Yumoto, Naruko-Onsen, Ōsaki City, Miyagi Prefecture
  • Access: Three minutes’ walk from JR Naruko-Onsen Station
  • Contact: Phone (in Japan) 0229-87-3575
  • Open 8:00 am to 7:00 pm; subject to closing without notice
  • Web: https://en.sakuraikokeshiten.com/ (pamphlets also available in English)

(Originally published in Japanese. Reported and written by Shoe Press. Banner photo: The Akane-no-yu is located outside Yusaya Ryokan proper. Photo courtesy Yusaya Ryokan.)

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