In Search of Natural Japan – Naruko Onsen

Jan Fornell
Born in Malmö, Sweden, in 1959. Lives in Japan since 1987. Linguist, translator, diversologist, art collector, traveler, gourmet.

Although I have lived in Japan for many years, the Tohoku region has remained a white spot on my map. Then recently I saw a picture of Naruko Gorge and thought, now there is a place I’d like to visit! And as luck would have it, a chance presented itself to do so.

Among hot spring connoisseurs, Naruko Onsen is renowned for its nine kinds of water. Whereas in most hot spring towns, all the inns and hotels get their water from a common source, in Naruko everybody draws their own, which makes for a wide variety of colors and mineral content. At Bentenkaku, where we stayed, the water is blackish and slightly alkaline, and has an interesting smoky aroma. This is due to traces of volcanic rock, and indeed, the Naruko volcano is just behind the town. Fortunately, it hasn’t erupted for over a thousand years, and the caldera is now the emerald green Katanuma lake, said to be one of the most acidic lakes in the world with a pH of 1.6. Any fish swimming in it would be pickled, but somehow there are still waterfowl. In contrast, the water at the public bath Taki no Yu is milky white, while that of Waseda Sajiki Yu is transparent but with flower-like sulfur deposits.
While the hot spring water really is seriously hot – it bubbles up at around 80℃ and has to be diluted – Naruko also claims to have Japans best tap water. When I tried it, I first found it very neutral and flavorless. Then I realized that this is what pure water is supposed to taste like, rather different than the stuff sold in bottles or, heaven forbid, the tap water of the Metropolitan area.

A highlight at any stay at a Japanese inn is the food, which focuses on local produce and is usually served in your room. Dinner at Bentenkaku was an extravagant feast, more than enough to satisfy both the ravenously hungry and a gourmet like myself. I counted no less than 14 dishes, but as all of them did not fit on the table simultaneously I am quite possibly forgetting a couple. There was tender, high-quality beef and vegetables from the region, of course, but also more surprisingly, sashimi, ayu sweetfish, and not least a whole, huge horsehair crab. Although Naruko is deep in the mountains, this is where Honshu is at its narrowest, so actually neither the Pacific to the one side nor the Sea of Japan to the other is very far away.

Since almost everybody will eat at their inn, there are not many ordinary restaurants, not even a ramen joint, but to my delight I discovered several unique, old-school coffee shops, a welcome change from the increasing uniformity of franchised blandness in Tokyo. The owner of one of them, Tamagoya, played a few licks on his guitar, while at Coffee House Jun the master used equipment out of an alchemical laboratory to make his brew. He also had a splendid collection of single malt whiskies lined up on the top shelf. I asked him how they had fared during the earthquake, but luckily not even a single glass had fallen down in his shop, he said. The local wagashi specialty is sweet chestnut dumplings served freshly made, curiously with a small pickled eggplant on the side, in a tiny shop with a very cool table made from an old rice mortar with chestnuts inside. They were indeed very tasty, but my own personal favorite was the Tarte Cognac at Tamagoya, a sumptuous kind of apple pie with a splash of brandy on top. So good, in fact, that I bought a few extra to take home.

So what about Naruko Gorge, then? The day I visited, unfortunately the weather wasn’t at its best, but the ravine was quite spectacular anyway. With rain about to fall, setting out on one of the hiking courses was not an option, but from the parking area, there is a fairly gentle path down to the river just below the postcard bridge. Here, the air felt extremely rich in oxygen. The leaves had barely started turning, but I was still able to get an image in my mind of what the scenery might look like when the hillsides turn a profound red.

Takenobu Kikuchi, chairman of the Naruko Spa Tourist Association
We are extremely grateful for all the support and warm encouragement we received after the earthquake and tsunami that hit Tohoku this spring. Now, half a year has passed, Sendai Airport and the Tohoku Expressway have reopened, and the Tohoku Shinkansen trains are back on schedule. Apart from a few particularly devastated areas, most tourist spots, hotels and inns have basically recovered to the state before the disaster. Naruko Onsen was hardly affected at all by the earthquake, and we welcome foreign visitors to enjoy our hot springs and our delicious local food just like before. Now is a great time to visit Tohoku!

Naruko Onsen Town

Naruko Onsen Ryokan Bentenkaku

A Japanese-style inn in the town of Naruko Onsen, famous as one of the “Three Great Hot Springs in Tohoku.” Popular among foreign tourists, the inn has an indoor bath with a great view of the magnificent mountain scenery, and two smaller, reservable outdoor baths, and offers delicious Japanese food that is abundant enough to satisfy even hungry foreigners – and at a very reasonable price too.
87 Kurumayu, Naruko Onsen, Osaki City, Miyagi Prefecture
Tel. 0229 83 2461
Web site:

Taki no Yu

The roots of Naruko Onsen, this is a time-honored public bath with wonderful milky water.
Entrance: Adults 150 yen.
Hours: 7:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.
Tel. 0229 83 2126

Naruko Onsen shrine

Near Taki no Yu is the Naruko Onsen shrine, where people come to pray to be blessed with children. Next to the entrance stands a huge kokeshi doll.

Waseda Sajiki Yu

This hot spring was discovered in 1948 by some students from Waseda University. The unique building constructed by architects from the same university also at times becomes a theatre with a balcony.
Tel. 0229 83 4751

Onuma kokeshi store

A kokeshi is a kind of traditional Japanese wooden doll in the shape of a young girl. The kokeshi dolls made by Hideaki Onuma are especially famous and have won many awards. Sold in a cute shop 5 minutes walk from the station, they are the emblematic souvenirs of Naruko.
Tel. 0229 83 3163

Furukawa Rice Cake Shop

A specialty beloved by generations of visitors to Naruko Onsen is kuri dango, a healthy Japanese sweet made from chestnuts wrapped in a sticky rice cake with a sweet sauce. The best way to enjoy them is in the cozy corner of the shop, where they are served freshly made with a cup of tea. Sure to bring a smile to your face!
Tel. 0229 83 2146  

Scenic Spots

Naruko Gorge

A 100 m deep ravine that is spectacular in any season, but particularly so in the fall when the maple leaves color the mountainsides red. Take a walk along one of the hiking courses in the area to experience the nature of Japan! 10 minutes by car from Naruko Onsen station.

Shitomae no Seki

Haiku is the world’s shortest form of poetry, and the grandmaster of haiku is Basho. In the late 17th century, he walked along the harsh mountain trails of Japan with his disciple Sora, a journey he describes in his magnum opus, The Narrow Road to the Interior. Shitomae no Seki was the northernmost point on their route.

How to get to Naruko Onsen:

From Tokyo, take the Tohoku Shinkansen line to Furukawa (about 2 hrs. 15 min.). Change to the JR Rikuu East Line to Naruko Onsen (about 45 min.).

Web site: (Japanese)

Discover Autumn in Tohoku – Hanamaki Onsen
A spa resort in the interior of Tohoku, near the Cultural Heritage site of Hiraizumi
With easy access from Iwate-Hanamaki Airport and the Tohoku Expressway, Hanamaki Onsen is the hot spring resort closest to Hiraizumi, which was listed as a World Heritage site in June, 2011. The nature in this area is full of beautiful streams, waterfalls and other scenic spots, but the highlight of this season is the gorgeous turning leaves – and what could be more pleasant than watching them from an open air bath?
The inns and hotels of Hanamaki are now back in business just like before the earthquake earlier this year, and are eagerly waiting to give you a warm welcome.

Hanamaki Onsen Pamphlet in English: Yumoto, Hanamaki City, Iwate Prefecture.
Tel. 0198-37-2111

Welcome Back, Fukushima Hula Girls!
Spa Resort Hawaiians Reopens

Have you ever heard of Japan’s own Hawaii, a place called Spa Resort Hawaiians? When it opened in 1966 with the theme of “The Dream Island, Hawaii,” it was Japan’s first resort facility and utilized hot spring water that gushed forth from an old coal mine. By 2006, the number of visitors had reached 50 million and it had become one of the country’s leading resorts, not least thanks to its famous Grand Polynesian show, which was featured in the hit movie “Hula Girls.”
When disaster struck Iwaki City on March 11, the resort was forced to close, but thanks to the great efforts of everybody in the region, it has now been able to reopen to almost full extent this October. The Hula Girls played a significant part in this by making over 150 performances all over the country promoting kizuna – the importance of bonding between people.

50 Warabidaira, Joban Fujiwaramachi, Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture
Tel. 0246-43-3191