Steel grey skies, low laying craggy mountains, barren brown trees and sparsely settled towns with buildings on the verge of collapse. Akita prefecture has a cold, empty beauty to it. It’s also too easy to see why Akita has the highest suicide rate in Japan, and by extension one of the highest suicide rates anywhere in the world. Located in near the far north-western corner of Honshu, the main island of Japan, Akita has no international acclaim, but is somewhat famous within Japan for its for its rice and sake production as well as having beautiful women, though I saw no evidence of that, mostly because I barely saw any people at all in Akita.
Despite it’s lack of renown, my buddies and I went there on a mission to find Gosho-gake Onsen. An onsen is a traditional Japanese natural hot-spring, usually in a facility where there are multiple different baths for you relax in while naked. Onsen are quite a big part of Japanese culture, with community bathhouses getting quite busy, even on weekdays.
We had heard of this place from a friend of a friend, who had been there 15 years ago and it seemed pretty famous. He had heard that we could sleep there for as little as ¥1500 (~$15) and get all the hot spring action we could want.
As we drove further into Akita civilization quickly got more and more sparse. We saw fewer and fewer businesses and all of them were closed. Houses got further apart and it was clear we were deep into the countryside. We stopped at a general store, to stock up on snacks and to ask if there were any restaurants around.
Were it not for the wigged cashier, I would have believed that the shop was actually abandoned. Canned goods with faded labels were months away from their expiration date. Original Gameboy games still vacuum sealed with their original price tags barely clinging on. The liquor section was a museum of labels long since redesigned and brands that had ceased to exists decades ago. The only products that were current were snacks, cigarettes, beer, and porn. People in Akita have clear priorities.
Our GPS told us the onsen was less than 15 miles away from the general store. With a little less than a quarter tank of gas, we figured it wouldn’t be a problem getting there. As we drove further and further up into the mountains, the whir of our car’s 660cc engine went from hair dryer to lawn mower we figured we might be wrong.
Back down by the general store, there was about a foot or two of snow on the side of the road. The more we traveled the more snow we encountered. The snow piled up on the sides of the road, higher and higher. Then, the snow stopped being in piles and started forming vertical walls. The further up we went the colder it got, the higher the snow walls got and the narrower the road became.
As time passed, we realized we weren’t even properly sure that this place existed or if the roads all the way up to it weren't blocked by snow. There were also no signs nor did we pass any buildings where we could ask directions.The uphill strain on our tiny engine was burning up what little gas we had faster than we had expected. The only gas station we saw back in town was closed since most gas stations in Japan aren't open 24 hours. Running out of gas became a possibility.
After an hour of uncertainty, the road ended at a parking lot. Tucked under a mountain of snow, was a complex of buildings with steam billowing out from all around it them. We made it. But more satisfying than arriving was finding out that they actually had vacancy for the night. It was more expensive than we were expecting, but we were also expecting to freeze to death 15 minutes before then, so we didn’t argue much. However, at ¥3,500 (~$35) for the night, it was still a damn good deal.
The onsen was glorious and felt like another world. The air was saturated with the smell of sulphur from the spring, the night sky was teaming with stars, an unfamiliar site in Japan, home to many of the biggest cities in the world. The complex sits directly on top of this geothermal source, and is naturally heated throughout. Rumored to be centuries old, it is fully constructed out of wood, with completely natural hot spring water. There were hot baths, mud baths, an outdoor bath and some sort of steam chamber that encloses your entire body except your head and looks like it definitely used to be a torture device. People from all over Japan come to Goshogake for its believed medicinal benefits. People will stay there for months, taking in all the benefits the hot spring water can give them.
The views of the hot spring outside of our windows in the morning were surreal. Steam rising from the snow in the middle of nowhere. I would love to have seen the reaction to the person who first discovered the hot spring. It’s no wonder onsen have practically religious status in Japan.