Bath of a Thousand Bathers: Aomori’s Sukayu Onsen
A Healing Place with a 300-Year History
A single hot springs inn surrounded by forestland, Sukayu Onsen is a little over an hour from the city center of Aomori, going towards the Hakkōda mountain range. The healing waters were originally named Shikanoyu, the “deer bath,” more than 300 years ago when a hunter discovered a wounded deer bathing in the hot springs. Over time this name morphed into Sukayu, a name referencing the high acidity of the waters.
Back in the Edo period (1603–1868), local residents built a small bath hut where the current Senninburo is located. The therapeutic, acidic spring became especially popular among mountain climbers, and word of its healing properties rapidly spread. Once the bath hut proved too small to accommodate the growing number of bathers, a large inn was built on the same spot. The inn flourished, and in 1954, Sukayu Onsen was designated, along with Nikkō Yumoto Onsen in Tochigi and Shima Onsen in Gunma, as one of the first National Recreational Hot Springs.
At an elevation of 925 meters above sea level, the area around Sukayu Onsen is cool throughout the year. Even in the middle of summer, temperatures rarely go above 20ºC. In the winter, the area has some of the heaviest snowfall in the world. In February 2013, Sukayu Onsen marked a record 566 centimeters of accumulated snowfall.
The distinctive wooden inn has a spacious lobby with a mixture of Japanese and Western-style appointments. Pass through the lobby and to your right will be the entrance to the famous Senninburo, “bath of a thousand bathers.”
The large, wooden communal bath covers roughly 250 square meters. At the forefront is the Netsunoyu (heat bath) and behind it the Shiburokubu (four-to-six-tenths bath). To the side are the Reinoyu (cold bath) and Yutaki (waterfall bath).
At a comfortable temperature between 41º to 42º, the Netsunoyu waters are ideal for a long soak. The Shiburokubu bath is slightly hotter, at 43º. Given its name of Netsunoyu (heat bath), the bath would be expected to be much hotter, but the name actually refers to how a long soak in its waters will warm the body right to the bones. No one can soak as long in the hotter Shiburokubu bath, hence its name—which refers to soaking for only four to six tenths the time spent in the Netsunoyu.
It is customary to thoroughly wash body and hair before dipping into an onsen, but the Senninburo has no wash area, and you will not find the usual soap and shampoo containers. Men and women bathe together here, though an array of screens divides the larger baths down the middle. The Shiburokubu bath, at the back of the hall, only has a simple signpost directing men to one side and women to the other. For two hours each day, from 8:00 to 9:00 in both the morning and the evening, the Senninburo is open to women only.
Make the Most of Sukayu Onsen with a Stay at the Inn
The Sukayu Onsen inn has two annexes, one for short-term guests and the other for long-term guests who come for the therapeutic effects of the bath waters. The long-term annex has kitchen facilities where guests can prepare their own meals. Guests here enjoy longer stays, soaking in the baths and taking leisurely walks in the woods outside. The inn’s low prices are one reason for extended stays, but another is the fact that guests can spend their time as they please without the interruption of calls to meals.
One male guest says he comes to Sukayu Onsen three or four times every winter by himself, staying for three nights and four days each time. He spends his time soaking in the baths and cross-country skiing in the snowy woods. These kinds of leisurely days are particularly therapeutic. A long-term stay at a curative hot springs may be just the thing for those worn out by city life.
Aomori Nebuta Matsuri
- Address: 50 Sukayuzawa, Yamakokuyūrin, Minami Arakawa, Aomori, Aomori Prefecture
- Access: One hour by car or JR bus from JR Aomori Station
- Tel.: 017-738-6400
- Room charge: From ¥9,000 for one night with 2 meals
- Multilingual information: Website with some information in English, simplified and traditional Chinese, and Korean
Nearby Attraction: Oirase Gorge
The waters of the Oirase Gorge flow from Lake Towada for a scenic stretch of 14 kilometers. The gorge is lush with vegetation and shaded by towering beeches and Japanese Judas trees. Walkways provide lovely views of the bubbling stream throughout the seasons. In warmer months, going through the area on rental bicycles is another fun way to enjoy the scenery.
In winter, the many waterfalls of Oirase Gorge are transformed into dramatic ice cascades. National Route 102 is plowed regularly in winter and there is not as much snow as the Hakkōda region, making it well worth the drive to enjoy the winter scenery of Oirase Gorge.
- Address: Oirase Gorge, Towada, Aomori Prefecture
- Access: About 70 minutes from the Towada exit on the Tōhoku Expressway
- Tel.: 017-675-2425 (Lake Towada National Park Association)
- Web: https://www.en-aomori.com/20170322_oirase.html
- Multilingual information: Website and pamphlet in Japanese and English
(Banner photo: Sukayu Onsen’s famous Senninburo. Photo courtesy of Sukayu Onsen. Reporting and text by Shoepress.)