As the bullet train pulled into Sakudaira station, it was hard not to notice the differences between the mountainous countryside of eastern Nagano Prefecture and the dense metropolis of Tokyo. Having departed just 80 minutes before from Ueno Station, I suddenly found myself free from the madness of crowds and swarming tourists, instead overcome by the rural quiet that accompanies many small towns throughout Japan, fondly known as the inaka.
This homey train station was where I would be meeting Hideo Goto, the fourth generation innkeeper of Takamine Onsen — a hidden ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) nestled 2,000 meters above the highlands of Takamine. With bags in tow, my travel companion and I quickly spotted our genial host, who greeted us warmly before whisking us off into the mountains.*
As Goto-san’s van whirled through Komoro — a city of roughly 42,000 where the ruins of feudal Komoro castle remain famous among visitors — we drove past quaint storefronts and long-standing soba noodle shops nestled against the majestic backdrop of Mount Asama, an active volcano streaming plumes of smoke. The 30-minute drive uphill revealed an endless stretch of trees spanning the remote mountain range, including clusters of spring wildflowers and yamazakura (wild cherry trees).
2,000 meters above sea level
The scenic ascent ended when we pulled into a long gravel driveway. Just outside the inn’s entrance, a rustic wooden sign with kanji lettering assured our arrival: “The Lamp Lodge, Takamine Onsen — 2,000 meters above sea level.”
After another round of warm welcomes, Goto-san ushered us into the spacious genkan (the Japanese equivalent of a foyer) where we slipped off our sneakers for slippers. The ryokan’s interior was decidedly folksy and accented by wood-slab tables, a flagstone fireplace — even real log pillars for a touch of raw refinement. Vintage kerosene lamps (since electrified) hung above guests in the common areas.
Before heading up to our room, we enjoyed an aromatic cup of kumazasa-cha (bamboo tea indigenous to the highlands) within the wood-clad lounge called Asagiri, or “Morning Mist.” Gripping a bamboo ladle, Goto-san scooped the piping brew from a stone cauldron and gently placed our drinks in front of the expansive glass windows. Outside, wild birds and squirrels nibbled at feeders; if you’re lucky, you’ll even spot the occasional stoat.
Although the two-story ryokan initially resembles a log cabin, all 23 guestrooms showcase traditional Japanese décor — from the tatami floors and fusuma (sliding) doors to the shoji (rice paper) screens that lined the windows of our bedroom.
A modest tea set with tasty manju (sweet steamed buns) was laid out on the low table, a nod to Japanese hospitality that we repeatedly encountered throughout our stay. In the closet, crisp cotton robes were neatly folded with thick bath towels stacked on top. These yukata would serve as our bathrobe and loungewear as we leisurely roamed the premises, all while taking part in the ryokan ritual of soaking, dining and sleeping.
Bathing above the clouds
Takamine Onsen offers four therapeutic bathing facilities — including the jaw-dropping open-air tub, dubbed “Bath Above the Clouds,” that is quite heavenly. Available to soak in year-round, the panoramic view of billowing clouds below the Takamine highlands shifts not only seasonally, but also from sunrise to sunset.
The remaining cypress soaking tubs are sheltered indoors; however, that doesn’t stop bathers from savoring the rugged scenery in the communal baths. For ladies, the “Four Seasons Hot Spring” leaves little to the imagination. “Each season is distinctly beautiful from the next. Whether it’s the verdant forests of summer, the fiery red foliage in fall, to the onset of snow blanketing the woodlands in winter,” Goto-san explained. For men, the “Takamine Hot Spring” takes the pleasure of bathing to new heights, overlooking the sprawling mountains beyond the alpine ridge.
The hot spring promises “to wash away” both grime and “the buildup of everyday stress,” so be sure to wash off your body before soaking. Notably, to establish an eco-friendly lodge, guests are asked to refrain from using soap or shampoo: the revitalizing water is filtered to preserve the purest water source for future generations.
And if you’re wondering whether tattoos are allowed, Goto-san humorously replied, “As long as they aren’t yakuza-related, bathers with body art are welcome.”
Dinner and stargazing time
Following a steamy sulfur bath in solitude, it was time for dinner: a seasonal medley of spring mountain vegetables, freshwater fish and regional dishes. One after another, small courses were brought to our reserved table (guests have appointed table assignments) in the dining room illuminated by lantern chandeliers, suitably named “Unpyo,” or “On the Clouds.”
Surrounded by 180-degree views, we took our time with the eclectic menu of pork toban yaki (seared on a ceramic surface), tempura-battered botanicals (including dandelion) and the buckwheat delicacy, soba noodles.
Returning to our room, we found the futons had been perfectly prepared for bedtime; but of course, we couldn’t end the evening without partaking in one of Takamine Onsen’s nature tours. Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoe trekking in winter; hiking along the Asama mountain range from spring to fall; and stargazing through telescopes every night.
Unfortunately, bad weather dampened our chances of viewing the Milky Way and a myriad of constellations in the unimaginably vast cosmos that night.
It just means another weekend excursion is in the works at this rural retreat in the alpine fantasyland of Nagano’s Takamine Onsen.
How to get there
From Tokyo or Ueno station, take the JR East Hokuriku shinkansen to Sakudaira station (approx. 80 minutes). From there, catch the JR Kanto bus (via the Takamine-Kogen line) to Takamine Onsen (approx. 40 minutes). Note: there are only two buses daily from Sakudaira station: 8:35 a.m. and 1:22 p.m.
*Takamine Onsen is not normally able to pick up guests from the station.
Cost: ¥6,850 one way; ¥13,700 round-trip
From the New South Exit of Shinjuku station, there is a direct expressway bus to Takamine Onsen that departs once daily from Shinjuku bus terminal (“Busta Shinjuku”). Departure time is 10:35 a.m. and arrival at the hotel is 2:28 p.m.
Cost: ¥3,100 one way; ¥6,200 round-trip
Rooms and rates
The rates vary depending on the room size and view, but each includes two meals (breakfast and dinner) in the price. A standard package costs between ¥10,000 and ¥15,000 per night.
Main text and photos by Jessica Sayuri Boissy. Additional photos provided by Takamine Onsen.