Some travelers overlook subtle details about accommodation before they set out. Sure, everybody has their own price points. Some look for cheap lodging, others more extravagant accommodation, or a package holiday. Last winters holiday I focused on accommodations that offered a 24 hour hot spring. This year I focused on onsen sommelier certified scenery baths with real hot springs. I looked for signs like this when researching onsen ryokans. Most assume that if the water is dug out from the ground then it's a hot spring. If that were true then 'well water' would constitute as onsen. The only way to know if the water is authentic is if it's tested for mineral richness; not necessarily by smell, and the only way to know if it's been tested for mineral content is if there's a sign that looks like this. A plaque that certifies that the onsen is real and authentic by the Japan Onsen Association.
There was an incident that occurred a few years ago at a well known onsen ryokan in Nagano, at place that was famous for having milky colored water. The properitor was adding white powder to the water in order to fool customers into thinking that the onsen was real, when in fact he was adding 50% tap water and powder. But luckily a wise eye found out and it was all over the six o'clock news that evening. Japanese take their baths seriously. Because of that incident I have taken extra care myself when reading the fine print, or at least what I can understand. Scientifically, all water, even tap water, can have therapeutic benefits. A hot bath at home can help relieve stress and anxiety and can aid in expanding blood vessels. Even carbonated water here. However, home baths with bath salts are not hot spring spas, and cannot offer you the same benefits of a real onsen. Magma based water that springs from the ground, and that is rich in sulfur and magnesium and sodium chloride and a dozen other rare elements is what keeps the elderly coming back time and time again are the real springs.
This brings me to my title. Onsen Sommelier.... Just like in the wine and Japanese sake world you have a certification that recognizes you as a professional, same for onsen. All of the onsen I visited on this trip were certified by the Onsen Sommelier Association. A certification like this is not common through out most of Japan. Most real onsen ryokans will have just the Japan Onsen Association, not the Onsen Sommelier Association.... They are not the same. There are other associations as well, like the Hidden Yado Association, and others. So what's the difference? Aside from having an authentic onsen experience, the sommelier certified onsen are based on a higher standard of excellence. Things like the view, and the design of the onsen and its facilities are taken into greater consideration. The type of water and how it blends with its natural surroundings. For example.
The arrow indicated where the Tohoku Expressway runs. When the designers put this onsen together they focused on two completely different landscapes, a night view and a daytime view. In the daytime you cannot really see an expressway from the above bath, but what you can see is the expanse of terroir and hills. Since this hotel is high up, you can really catch the breeze from the north while reflecting on the scenery far off. At night, you can witness the winding Tohoku Expressway as it crosses the horizon from your view from left to right when sitting in the bath. Pitch black starry night sky and flickering red and white lights from vehicles heading up and down the most advanced expressway in the world, and all from the ambiance of that hot mineral rich hot spring on a wintery cold night.
You enter where the arrow starts; soak for a several minutes; stand up; step over the stone and stand on the stone perch to catch this commanding view. How diverse a view depends on what the architect wanted to achieve. For some, the expressway is beautiful lending a sort of modern edge to this onsen.
Southern Iwate presents the gateway to the most beautiful and dynamic onsen in Japan I think. In other post I will highlight other onsen sommelier certified onsen pics. If you like this post please tweet it, digg, stumble it, or guest post it. Thanks for reading.