Japan on a Budget: Tazawako and Nyuto Onsen

Lake Tazawa after sunset

Tazawa is a beautiful, almost circular, lake in Akita-ken. Getting near the lake is easy: use the Akita mini-shinkansen, which if you’re coming from the south runs together with the main Tohoku line and forks off at Morioka (from the north, change there). Getting to the lake itself is harder.

Having failed to find a free room at Nyuto onsen (more later), I found one by phoning the Rose Park Hotel, which is on the opposite side of the rather large lake. But not to worry: the internet said that there are Orix and JR car rental places by the station. I tried to book a car, but without a Japanese address the online system failed. So I just showed up.

Do not just show up at Tazawako shinkansen station and hope to rent a car.

Car Hire

The JR rental office at Tazawako station is a small shed-like building, and the Orix branch is a nearby shop. Neither had any cars, and this was on a weekday in October, so I doubt there had been a sudden rush – they’re obviously there for people collecting pre-arranged rentals. And, as I mentioned, you can’t pre-book either without a Japanese address. So I’m stuck at the Shinkansen station, which is nowhere near the lake, with no transport. Buses run, in October, a couple of times a day at best.

I was contemplating a good few hours of hiking with an 80 litre backpack, but the Orix lady saved me: she had the number of another rental shop. Toyota rental isn’t by the station, but is a proper car rental lot: call them on (0187) 43 2100. The guy there had one car left; renting it required my 1949 international driving permit, my license, 7000Y, and a lot of fairly broken Japanese and hand gestures.

My vehicle was a Toyota Vitz (a Yaris in the UK). From it I learned the following:

1) Japanese auto-boxes have lots of settings. You need only P(ark), D(rive) and R(everse).
2) This particular one is all too easy to drop into S(creaming noise).
3) The car will beep. This could be because you’re reversing, or because you’ve failed to drop the handbrake completely, or for any other number of reasons. Beep. Beep.
4) Japanese car computers are amazing. The one in this tiny, cheap car had maps, spoke English (well, mostly), and knew where everything is.
5) A one litre automatic Yaris-thing is not at all suitable for driving up a 10 degree incline on a dirt track into the mountains. But it managed, somehow.

Nyuto Onsen

Nyoto Onsen

This is not a road. It’s not much worse than the road was, though.

About that hill. I wanted to visit Tsuru-no-Yu onsen, which is one of the most famous, and up in the hills behind Tawaza-ko. It’s not easily accessible without a car. To get to it you go up a main road, down a small road, which becomes a narrow road with blind U-bends, which becomes a gravel track with huge rocks and potholes. All of the time, you’re climbing up the mountain. And at the end: half of Japan’s cars are in the car park. Amazing.

The onsen, though, is worth it. It’s incredibly old, and has several baths. Unusually, the largest one – an outdoor bath under the mountain, with white water – is not gender segregated. Nor is it in any way private: the changing rooms have glass, and people walk right past the bath edge. Nonetheless, if you can get past that, it’s wonderful: huge, comfortable, with a range of temperatures from bubbling out of the earth scorching hot to cool at the other end. I spent a good hour or more floating like a sedated hippo.

If you’re male and don’t fancy the rather open bath, though, I’m not sure Tsuru-no-Yu is worth the trip: the two indoor male baths are fine, but rather small. For women there’s a separate outdoor bath around the back – no idea if it’s any good, obviously, but at least there’s another option.

Staying and Eating

Goza no ishi Temple

Noodles just out of shot

From Tsuru-no-Yu I headed for the Rose Park hotel. This is on the west shore, near the golden statue, and seems to have at least three names: it’s also the El Mirador and Prince hotel. Whatever it’s called, though, it’s nice: rather old-fashioned rooms, but large, clean and cheap (7500Y or so including breakfast). Rooms do not have internet access or water heaters but do have a vacuum flask of hot water for tea and, amazingly, a ‘background music’ knob. For, you know, lift music.

It’s worth noting that there is nowhere around to eat in the evening – and the nearest store that opens even vaguely normal hours is a 30min drive on the other side of the lake – so it might be worth booking food at the hotel. During the day, there’s a fantastic noodle stall next to the Goza no Ishi temple on the lake shore a 15 or so minute drive away. Or if you head away from the lake via the road that leaves from its eastern side (near the shops), you’ll see a pizza restaurant and a small shop selling coffee and honey roll cake. I didn’t try the pizza (closes early), but the coffee and cake were nice. You can’t miss it – look for the London Bus.

Lake Tazawa might sound like a bit more trouble than it’s worth, but it’s hard to explain quite how beautiful the place is – tough by public transport, but well worth the effort if you can rent a car. The next day I drove back around the lake to the station, and headed north towards Hirosaki.