When I was approaching the big Four-O, I convinced myself it was time to learn to ride a horse and scuba dive.
Unfortunately, those dreams never came true. Now approaching a ‘certain age’ I thought it was time to toughen up again.
Lured by travel articles in glossy magazines and Instagram postings of various girlfriends hiking the world, I was convinced that trekking would be my next act.
And who better than Walk Japan, an award-winning tour operator voted by National Geographic as one of the “200 Best Adventure Travel companies on Earth”, to plan a well supervised winter walking tour in Japan’s transcendent countryside.
They’re the pioneer of off-the-beaten-track walking tours in Japan. Renowned for its culturally immersive tours, their knowledgeable guides show you the authentic Japan by walking ancient paths and the countryside on foot.
A string of over 20 emails ensued with Walk Japan to determine if I was physically fit enough to do the 6-day trek. Their bespoke Oita Onsen trail promised a journey away from the madding crowd, the discovery of verdant bamboo forests, snow-filled valleys set against the Kuju Mountains, shimmering clear rivers and natural hotspring baths ‘onsens’ in beautiful inns (with en-suite bathrooms) wherever we went.
Here, the true beauty of Oita is revealed – quaint villages, towering forests, hidden spiritual sites, the finest traditional tatami inns or ryokans in the countryside and the highest concentration of hot springs in Japan.
The winter Hot Spring Trail in the Oita prefecture of Kyushu, starting from Fukuoka and ending in Beppu is an active programme.
Day 1 – Bullet trains wait for nobody
We met our group of eight at Hakata train station, inlcuding our guides Tetsuo-san and Ben. Looking around, I immediately realised that my bright red Moncler snow jacket was a big fashion faux pas – real hikers wear North Face.
At precisely 3.19pm, we boarded the ultra fast Sonic Express train for Nakatsu, our first onsen destination at Yabakei. As we approached our destination we were warned to be ready to leap off the train within the allocated time of two minutes. Four of us plus one big red heavy suitcase managed to but to our horror, the rest of our group did not disembark on time.
The super sonic train whooshed away, taking them to the next town.
Would we see them again? Shocked by the speed of the train, I begin to realise this was not a tour for the befuddled tourist. Precision timing and efficient – this is Japan.
Our van took us to our first ryokan, a rustic Japanese inn set on a hill against a forested background, where we were prepared for our first onsen experience. Remember to wear the yukata left over right and not vice versa! That is reserved for funeral rites.
To my delight, I was offered a private outdoor onsen bath as my first introduction to outdoor nude bathing. I gingerly stepped into the cold air to vigorously scrub my naked body, sitting on a tiny stool. Every part of your body must be thoroughly washed as it is a ritual form of purification, practised by monks centuries ago.
I entered the hot bath. The calming pleasures of the onsen consumed me, and my anxieties disappeared. A ritual sometimes practised daily, the Japanese believe that onsens have detoxifying benefits that cure chronic pain and skin ailments.
Later at dinner we regrouped with the missing passengers (who had to buy new train tickets). All dressed in yukatas, we were served an elaborate multi-course kaiseki meal.
Day 2 – Venturing into Shogun territory
Our adventure began at Ao-nodomon to visit the ancient hand-made tunnel by the monk Zenkai during the Edo period. As an act of repentance, it took him over 30 years to chisel away at this tunnel.
We then made our way up to Rakan-ji, a temple located on the cliffs of Mount Rakan and set inside large caves. Pictures in the temple grounds are forbidden.
We were told to leave the outside world behind and respect the mindfulness of the environment. The steep and treacherous climb on moss-covered gravel requires the patience of a Buddhist monk and inspires self-reflection.
Dating from the 13th century, it is one of the grandest temples in Kyushu, intricately built using wood and stone with over 3,000 stone Buddha statues.
Once we descended, we welcomed the flat terrain and cycled 20km through tunnels, farmland and hilly terrain. Along the way we stopped to see the vegetation. This is shiitake land and Tetsuo takes time to introduce this rural wonder to us.
After a hearty lunch, we traversed the Ishidatami footpaths – once walked by the samurai – with stone paving of the Edo period, journeying through a lush bamboo forest. The stillness was daunting yet strangely soothing.
We then headed to the old town of Hita, famed for its traditional architecture and artisan community. Once the Shogun’s administrative centre for the island, it is also known as ‘Little Kyoto’ for its high culture.
Here we visited the legendary private school, Kangien, built by the renowned Confucian scholar and poet Hirose Tanso.
We finished a long day with another onsen but this time I found courage to experience the same-sex bath with my fellow travellers as fatigue overcame my modesty. The hot bath definitely had a profound effect on my tired muscles and sleep beckoned.
Days 3 & 4 – Snow falling on Chojabaru
We headed to Yume-no-Ohashi, a suspension bridge and the start point for the day’s walk over the Hanada Kogen plateau to Chojabaru.
As we moved along the path, the crowds soon disappeared and we found ourselves alone in the deep forest, with only the footprints of animals leading the way.
Through snow-filled forests, rising terrain and valleys, we navigated the unexpected snowfall. The steep incline kept our bodies working hard and warm.
We continued walking through grasslands to reach Chojabaru at the foothills of Mount Kuju and there, a vehicle took us around the mountain to our next inn beside a river at Nagayu Onsen.
We had walked a total of seven hours and 15km and an elegant room with a view was our reward after the hardest trek of the trip so far.
The Daimaru is a well-kept secret with the best rooms, iron-enriched onsen baths and the best selection of seasonal cuisine.
The next morning was another early start. We climbed the hills to visit the remains of Oka-jo castle, a hilltop citadel and our guide explained the politics of feudalism.
We also visited nearby shrines, both Buddhist and Shinto where a few joined Tetsuo and Ben to honour the gods.
After that we explored Taketa, a small historic village, and visited the abandoned church that was hidden inside a cave. We learned about the small community of Christians who practised their faith clandestinely in the 16th century, away from prying eyes.
After a lunch of the most mouth-watering organic fried chicken, we were transported back to Daimaru to experience the famous Lamune Onsen known for its fizzy waters.
Days 5 & 6 – There’s no such thing as too many onsens
The next morning we headed to Bungo-Ono, a rural district that has been designated a Geopark by the Japanese Government.
We walked through the landscape discovering sub-shrines along the way until we reached horseshoe-shaped waterfalls that are celebrated as a deity.
From there we walked the old highway – Himuko Kaido, now a quiet road, with old houses.
We visited a family-owned sake brewery and were shown the art of making sake.
Beppu was our final destination and is home to over 2,000 onsens.
There is steam coming out of every alleyway; from grills in the streets and from towering vents.
In the quaint Kanawa quarter, we roamed the streets, watching the locals going to and from the many public baths.
At night we wound down to enjoy our last banquet, this time in modern Japanese-Asian fusion style, steamed to perfection by the volcanic vapour.
The tour ended the next morning. We said our goodbyes to our Walk Japan comrades and headed back to Fukuoka by train.
Each walk was novel and a certain ‘Zen’-ness is required. Not everything goes as planned! Pack functional clothing and walking sticks are a must. But most importantly, bring along your sense of humour.
Hiking through the remote Japanese countryside is exhilarating. It is a cultural and spiritual pilgrimage, where you discover their unique syncretic religion that worships the majesty of nature. There is, of course, the exquisite craft and cuisine.
I realised that I finally achieved my dream. I succeeded in becoming a hiker. I learnt to just enjoy the incredible wonders of nature and the stillness of being. Yet, just like Bridget, I was also secretly glad to return to the comforts of my mattress, home and Netflix.