Poor Fukushima. The name itself has become a byword for ‘place where bad nuclear stuff happened’, like Chernobyl. But there’s a huge misunderstanding surrounding the nuclear disaster, which I won’t get into here, but let’s be honest here: it it really was the bad, don’t you think that the Japanese, the most health-and-hygiene conscious nation in the world, would have ran as far away as possible from that place? Exactly. And the fact is that Fukushima Prefecture is a huge place, full of vibrant culture, people, nature…and hot springs.
You’ve probably heard a lot about Japanese hot springs already – known as ‘onsen’ to the locals – indeed you might of heard about them from me. They truly are a thing of wonder. But what surprises many tourists is just how many of them there are. It makes sense really, seeing as onsen spring up wherever there’s volcanoes, and Japan is a country literally made of the darn things. And Fukushima Prefecture, despite being rich with onsen hot spots, rarely appears on the classic onsen circuit. While it’s understandable – most recommended tour routes skip over the Tohoku area just north of Tokyo – it’s definitely worth a visit, if only as a show of support to the resilient but beleaguered locals.
And what better place than Dake Onsen (岳温泉)? This delightful little Onsen resort rests on the slopes of the handsome Mt. Adatara, overlooking the city of Kooriyama, one of the Tohoku area’s biggest cities. So while access to Dake Onsen is pleasingly simple – quite rare for most Onsen places! – it feels a hundred miles from anywhere that moves at more than a walking pace, which exactly what you want from an Onsen resort.
It’s not a big Onsen resort by any means, but that’s one of its greatest strengths: it’s a very compact area, with the main Onsen area all clustered around fifty-metre stretch of boulevard. It includes everything you need within a few steps: souvenir shops, an interesting shrine, a conbini for getting those beers and snacks in for the evening…it’s a refreshing change from most Onsen resorts, which sprawl themselves across a whole mountainside town and requires some hiking to get across – a bit counterproductive to what an Onsen is supposed to do!
If you are willing to walk a little bit from your Onsen hotel, you’re in for a treat, especially if you come in the springtime. Rolling down the hill from the main area is a street lined by cherry blossom trees, which turns into a tunnel of pink and white when in full bloom. At the bottom of the hill is a spacious park with a lake. Although I went here in February, it’s easy to see this place as a prime picnic spot in the warmer months.
Dake Onsen isn’t big enough to hold your interest for a whole weekend, and it doesn’t have to. To get in and out of Dake, you will need to travel through the cities of Kooriyama and Nihonmatsu, both with their own features and charms. Historic Nihomatsu has the ruins of a castle set amongst the foothills (a rarity in the northern reaches of Japan), and is a great cherry blossom spot in its own right. Kooriyama is a properly urban city, the second biggest in the Tohoku region after Sendai. While nobody would call Kooriyama a touristy place, it doesn’t have to be: take a walk around the vast train station while waiting for your next train. Check out the food court and souvenir shops in particular: if you are looking for a meal I heartily recommend either the Kitakata Ramen or the Shirakawa Ramen, both local specialities.
All in all, the best thing about visiting Dake Onsen and its environs is…well, you’re being a tourist in Fukushima. That means a lot, especially to the local people. And not just through the wallet, with money going back into the local economy. No, any signs of normality returning to the area are enthusiastically embraced. Just your mere presence in Fukushima can put a smile on the face the locals, buoyed by the knowledge that visitors are coming back to the area, that the disaster at the Nuclear Power Plant have faded enough for the world to beginning flowing back to the area.
So if you’re visiting Japan and want to visit an Onsen, why not check out Dake Onsen? It’s the full onsen experience, easily accessible with a good balance in the surrounding area, and you’re giving to an area that needs it – in more ways than one.