In a world not so far away lies Gero Onsen, a hot spring resort in the middle of Gifu Prefecture. It has been named one of the top three hot spring resorts since the Edo Period. As long as I have been in Japan, I had been wanting to head up to Gifu prefecture to see the Gassho (thatched roofed) houses, and while not quite Shirakawa-go (stay tuned… hoping to head there in February), this little spot is the perfect place to enjoy the best features of the cool weather… Hot springs and momiji.
Most accommodation in Gero Onsen have their own hot springs baths for the use of their guests, and others who wish to pay for their use. My hotel, Kankou Hotel Yumotokan, also had its own. The room I stayed in at Yumotokan was lovely and big, with 2 tatami rooms and a western style sitting area, in which you can enjoy the delicious complementary manjyu and tea. Many of the meal plans at Yumotokan also include the famous local Hida Beef.
In true Onsen village spirit, make sure to go out and have a bath before dinner. Grab your hotel yukata (and geta if you don’t plan to walk too far) and go out to explore the many baths on offer. Yumotokan will provide you with a village map, and you can also purchase a 3 onsen pass (which doubles as a cute souvenir) for 1200 yen. These passes are available from all hotels convenience stores, and the tourist information centre in Gero Onsen. Sasara Onsen is my recommendation for pre-dinner onsen bliss. This onsen has a beautiful outdoor bath that overlooks the town and river below. Its also has a lovely lounge and changing area, with great products provided for guest use. There is also a small bath infused with nice smelly things; something like bathing in herbal tea. Another onsen I would recommend trying is Suihouen, with is beautiful rooftop bath, and private baths for rent. There are also free foot baths dotted throughout the village; why not try them all!
During November, Gero’s Onsenji temple (also with its own foot bath) opens its gates late at night so that visitors may enjoy the Momiji Illumination. The winding path up the hillside offers a beautiful view of the momiji, to which no photos can do justice.
One of the famous (infamous?!) features of Gero Onsen is its public hot spring. Right next to the river, this onsen is open air, and free to the public. There are no facilities for changing or toilets, as it is meant to be enjoyed wearing bathing suits… however, upon my visit; it was only the foreigners who weren’t in the nick. This made for some light entertainment as our group of 20-something foreigners stripped down to our bathers and jumped in, right next to the naked people. Even some Japanese women entered wearing only towels. Needless to say, it is quite an experience, please check it out!
Gero also boasts a cute local market and Gassho Village. The market sells local produce including fresh milk and organic apple juice. The houses that appear in the village have been taken from Shirakawa-go (a UNESCO world heritage site) and reassembled within the village. Built to withstand and shed the massive amounts of snow typically experienced in the region, the roofs of Gassho houses are the thatched; beautiful, quaint, and functional. Inside the village, you can also enjoy a foot bath, paint your own pottery and purchase some of the handicrafts found throughout the village. Entry to the village is 800 yen for adults, and 400 yen for children.
In southern Gifu lies the famous Ena Valley, famous for its rock formations along the gorge, as well at the momiji in autumn and is well worth a visit on your way home. Make a group booking ahead of time, and request the house boat; a Japanese style cruise boat with tatami mats and open to the air. There are options with and without lunch; with lunch will set you back 2500 yen per person, and without is just 1250 yen. The tour meanders along the river, pointing out the interesting rock formations. Of course, the mandatory local crafts and pottery can be found for sale along the banks of the river.
Travel Tips and Access
Cheap as chips, you can take the highway bus from Shin Osaka station to Gero Onsen for around 2500 per person in around 5 hrs and 40 minutes (more information at http://www.upon.co.jp/tour/gero/).
The Hida Express will take you from JR Nagoya station, after taking the Hikari from Shin Osaka station. It will take 3hrs and 24minutes and will set you back 9510 yen per person one way.
Should you head up to Gero Onsen by car from Northern Hyogo, taking the Maizuru expressway north and connecting to the Hokuriku and Meishin Expressways via route 27 will help you avoid the inevitable congestion near Takarazuka and Kyoto IC’s found every weekend. It takes around 6hrs and 45minutes from Sasayama. From Kobe, along the Meishin, is approximately 5 hrs.
Yumotokan is a great hotel for larger groups, as they have rooms accommodating 4 people and even more! Packages with breakfast and dinner start from 8400yen per person, while late check in plans (breakfast only) start from 6400 yen. (for further details and rates, check jalan.net)
For modesty at the outdoor hot spring, wear the yukata that your hotel provides you with. You will be able to change out of your wet bathers underneath your yukata with relative discreteness.
Most of the onsens in Gero are closed between the hours of 10 and 2, please refer to the onsen guide given to you by your accommodation for further details. Also, some lesser onsens do not provide body soap and shampoo, so be sure to carry your own just in case.
Ena Valley is located 10 minutes from the Ena IC on the Chuo Expressway, or can be reached by the Totetsu bus from Ena station, bound for Ena-kyo.