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Naked Gaijin Onsen Review: Gero Onsen

Gero; Takayama Line; Chubu Region

No one has a good word to say about Gero. It is accused of being tacky, too touristy and of having far too much concrete, and it has to be said that the town is guilty on all charges. It is, for all that, one of the three famous hot springs of Japan (the other two are Arima near Kobe and Kusatsu in Gunma prefecture). In case you’re wondering, these three were apparently chosen because of their age; in the case of Gero, it boasts of around one thousand years of bathing fame.

I was of course dying to go. I imagined it as a Japanese Vegas, with steam pouring out from the storm water drains and lurid signs lighting up the sky with a neon glow. Yukata-clad ne’er do wells would stumble from bath to bath, and from certain doors you would hear the fawning giggles of women engaged in the water trade. My excitement increased upon finding a JR walking tour of the area, whose first port of call was the ‘Steamy Woods’ (Yu Kemuri no Mori).

We went to Gero by local train, and at 8 am on a Thursday morning the old one-man car from Mino-ota was all but empty. What a fantastic journey it was. On one side of the train we could see tall mountains, and on the other the view was dominated by the Hida River, rushing through a rocky ravine peppered with bright pink flowers. The train stopped several times – there was only the one track in most places and our train was last on the priority list for its use – but the slowness of the train let us enjoy the scenery all the more.

Gero, after all that beauty, was like a slap on the face. The town planners, like most town planners in Japan, thought that the best way to enhance the landscape was to erect as many grey concrete buildings as possible, and then allow them to weather for several years until they became streaked with rust. There was no more neon than any other small town in Japan, and not a puff of steam to be seen.

We walked from the station along a busy road towards the Steamy Woods. “There’s nothing quite like a walk in the country!” I mouthed at my husband, as another huge truck roared past us. The turn off, when we found it, was another road, and we spent ten or twenty minutes climbing the twisting hill, jumping quickly to one side whenever a van went past. One of them was filled with elderly people, who waved cheerily at us as we smiled gamely back from the ditch we were in.

You can guess where this is going. We reached the woods, which were pleasant and filled with bright flowers and bird song (and senior citizens) but the air was as clear and as blameless of any sort of steam or smoke as a wood could be. I gazed moodily at the fresh green leaves and watched a butterfly flit past before wordlessly continuing back down the path. I was beginning to get a bad feeling about Gero.

We stopped for lunch at some reconstructions of ancient houses, which I hadn’t been looking forward to at all and therefore found very charming. The Gassho Houses, about twenty minutes further on, looked lovely from the outside of the fence but at 800 yen each for entrance we passed on seeing them closer up. And then, at last, we reached the highlight of the day – Onsen Alley.

It wasn’t even nearly as exciting as my imagination had painted it. Most onsen towns, and most real onsen, have a kind of run down, yesterday’s fad air about them, and Gero was no different. We passed building after building that could once have been something but now was nothing much. We went into several onsen and most had the air of being about twenty years overdue for a renovation. One was completely empty, so I had the illicit thrill of going for a swim and generally splashing about, something I have always longed to do. The last one we visited was the best: its name is Kissenkan Chikusuitei and it had a nice old fashioned feel to it with the most onsen-y baths we’d tried all day. The water made our skin soft and after the bath there was a good range of products to sample. After a lovely meal at an empty restaurant (Baden) we headed home by the Hida Express, a luxury well worth paying for after a long day.

Gero was a pretty good day out – the walk wasn’t bad, and the baths afterwards were very welcome. The town had its charms, particularly if you find faded bubble era hotels to have a certain ironic glory (which, luckily, I do). If Gero is going to be your one big onsen trip in Japan I would urge you to think again, but if you’re in the area and in the mood for a change then well, why not. Set your expectations low and do a little research on which baths you want to try and you’ll have a good time. 

Website: http://www.gero-spa.or.jp/english/

Getting There: If you’re coming from Nagoya, you’ve got two choices: take the local trains (depending on your route, around 2000 yen and taking around three hours) or take the Wide View Hida Express (around 4000 yen and taking half the time). The local trains don’t always match up well, so you’ll need to plan in advance.

Want to do the walking tour?
Its on pages 25 and 26 of the blue Sawayaka Walking guide, available for free from many JR stations around Nagoya. The signs are not abundant, but the map is very clear and there’s always a sign when you could go wrong, although you might need to look for it. They’re mostly brown and white, with Sawayaka Walking written on them in Japanese.

Opening Hours: Vary depending on the onsen. You can get a bath as a visitor any time from 8 am to 10 at night. Opening times are written on the information provided at the information centre.

Price: Entrance to the onsens goes from 300 yen up; a Yu Meguri Tegata pass costs 1200 yen and allows entrance to three participating onsen. You can keep the wooden pass as a souvenir. Information on the onsen and the pass is available in English from the tourist information centre.

Services: What you get in the onsen depends on what you pay, from nothing but hot water to free soap and shampoo, combs, hairdryers, massage machines and fancy products to try. Make sure you have a towel – on sale throughout the town as well as at all the onsen. Food and drink is available at most hotels and also in cafes and restaurants throughout the town.