Tsurunoyu - delight of mixed bathing?!

Open-air bath - beneath the snow covered small roof - and a small stream in snow fall.

Wooden bridge connecting the guestrooms and the bath area

The gate of Tsurunoyu - The building on the left is the oldest.

This snow house is called "Kamakura" and a specialty of the Akita region. It is made by children in January and a water god is enshrined inside.

Open-air bath from the vicinity - a few heads are seen through vapor clouds.
Japan is a country endowed with innumerable number of "onsen" (hot springs). Its volcanic tectonics causes terrible earthquakes, but at the same time offers the delight of hot spring bathing.

Not only human beings but also animals benefit from the healing effect of hot water rich in precious minerals. About three hundred years ago, a hunter named Kansuke saw a wounded crane curing itself in the hot spring, which was then renamed to "hot spring of the crane" - Tsurunoyu in Japanese.

Of course, Tsurunoyu was already known for its healing power long before that. According to a legend, Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (758-811), commander of the expedition against the northern people Emishi, appreciated the healing effect of Tsurunoyu. However, the earliest reliable reference to Tsurunoyu was from the year 1638, when the second lord of Akita Domain visited Tazawanoyu(*), the earlier name of Tsurunoyu.
"Tazawa" is the name of a big lake near this hot spring.
The lodging and other facilities for the general public opened in 1701 and they were administered by Hagawa family and their friends. Hagawa family owned and operated the spa for 13 generations. They paid loyalties to the Akita Domain and allowed the local villagers free entrance to the facilities. The yearly royalies were at the beginning 300-monme in silver (roughly speaking 5,000 $), but were reduced from time to time, when famines occurred and the number of spa visitors dropped.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a painter sketched the scenes of hot-spring cure in Tsurunoyu. A picture of the bath room vividly portrays some 10 bathing people in mixed bathing. All look relaxed and enjoy bathing.

The spa establishment offered lodging, kitchen with cooking utensils and other things according to the needs of guests. Spa guests usually brought food and bedding on their backs and stayed about 10 days for a cure. It was normal that bathing guests cooked for themselves in such traditional health spas as Tsurunoyu. Tsurunoyu only began offering meals to the cure guests as late as around 1950.

The family Hagawa managed Tsurunoyu for 13 generations and in 1981 gave the spa over to Mr. Sato, who now manages Tsurunoyu.

Mr. Sato seems to be a very innovative person. In 1983 He started to accommodate guests during the "golden week"(*). As Tsurunoyu is located in the mountainous area in North Japan, it is still covered by snow at the beginning of May. In addition, Tsurunoyu lies far away from the nearest village. Therefore, Sato made extra efforts by himself to clear the connecting road of snow. From 1994 onwards Tsurunoyu is open through the year and we can enjoy open air bathing under falling snow.
"Golden week" is the days at the end of April and the beginning of May. There are many national holidays within a week and most Japanese people go on several days' vacation. For the tourism this is a busy season.
He had also a good luck. He discovered a new hot spring bubbling up from the ground during extension work and made an open air bath. Open air bathes are the attraction for many "onsen" lovers in Japan. Tsurunoyu open air bath indeed attracts many guests and there the tradition of mixed bathing is still alive.

An indoor bath

The creamy white color of the spa water allows young girls to forget their hesitation about bathing together with male guests. Swimming wear is forbidden in a Japanese onsen. But, in Tsurunoyu women are allowed to swathe themselves in a bath towel. Mixed bathing is in reality not a very sexy occasion. It enables all family members to bathe together. My German friends appreciate this and often visit Tsurunoyu.

Under the roof of Honjin - the oldest building - Shimi-doufu (Frozen tofu) are made. From the straw thatched roof hang icicles.

Our group photo after dinner
The main building of Tsurunoyu was built at the beginning of the Meiji era (1868-1912) according the traditional style. Other buildings were built after WWII. However, Mr. Sato has a good feeling for tradition and the total facilities keep the harmony of a simple and provincial atmosphere very well. The meals at Tsurunoyu use materials from the local neighborhood and do not therefore include standard menus such as sashimi (sliced raw fish meat). This is very wise, because it is not easy to obtain fresh seafood to satisfy the demanding guests. What Tsurunoyu pursues is to offer the authentic life style of a mountain spa to its guests.

Such a style of Tsurunoyu is adored by many people, in particular by women and urban dwellers. At the same time it fits the mentality of Western guests, I presume. The pamphlet from Tsurunoyu tells a story about a German diplomat Mr. Karl Zahl, who visited Tsurunoyu in 1983 and praised the beautiful beech woods in the neighborhood so much that the woods came to be called "Zahl's woods"! So, my friends are not the first Germans to discover the allure of Tsurunoyu.