Asama Onsen village, up in the northern fringes of Matsumoto, is a great place to go for an authentic Japanese hot spring experience. But this quiet enclave offers more than just a lot of hot water. With Daionji and Gotenyama above and a sprinkling of pretty sights below, Asama Onsen is the perfect place to mix in some easy hiking a little bit of history with your onsen.
Here are three paths you can enjoy, all right there on the eastern edge of the town.
Daionji was the name of a temple that once stood at the foot of these mountains. That temple was abandoned in 1868 and has since disappeared without a trace. But the mountain retains its charms. To check out this slice of Asama, head for the big stone torii gate in front of Nishinomiya Ebisu Jinja.
One of Japan’s Seven Gods of Fortune, Ebisu is the traditional patron deity of fishermen, merchants and farmers. This shrine was built in hopes of bringing prosperity to Asama. (Unfortunately Ebisu’s list of specialties does not include protection from viral pandemics.)
In the woods behind the shrine you’ll find a small temple called Fudo-in, dedicated to Fudo-myo, one of Buddhism’s Wisdom Kings. Helping pilgrims and worshipers by burning into oblivion all impediments to enlightenment, Fudo-myo is venerated across the various sects of Japanese Buddhism. This god is also associated with rituals of purification, and is often found standing, pissed off, near a waterfall.
To one side of Fudo-in is a set of steps leading to a web of trails strung across the mountainside. Pick a trail, there are signs all over to help you find your way around and up to the top. Be warned though, the top of Daionji-yama is covered in trees, so get your fill of views of town on the way up or down.
Just to the north of Daionji, Goten-yama offers a different hiking experience. At the base of the mountain you’ll find a protected bamboo forest boasting a species that grows to six meters in height; the Ogasawara Byosho, memorializing three members of the ruling Ogasawara clan; and a handful of temples and shrines.
As with Daionji, there are several trails leading up the eastern slope of Goten-yama. Unlike Daionji, there is a great view of the area from the top, at a place called Mibarashi-dai. More than just a pretty place to take a picture, this natural little plateau was a spot along the road running from Asama up over nearby Misa-yama to not-so-nearby Ueda – a road that predates the Edo Era.
A Mountain With No Name
South of the Daionji-yama trails – and right across the street from the southernmost trailhead – is a place called Sakura-ga-oka. Following the sign makes you think you’re walking into someone’s yard. But go ahead! People have been walking through here for hundreds of years.
Beyond the firefly farm and up into the woods there is relatively little to see except the seemingly endless red pines. Still, the hike is a peaceful one, with something unusual at the top: a shrine made largely of sticks and bamboo and – perhaps a recent addition – a blue tarp. Inside is a small stone shrine with a sword-shaped hole cut into it, something you may not find anywhere else in Japan.
Continuing uphill takes you further from Asama Onsen. Heading down the path running directly away from the old wooden shrine gate brings you through more red pine, a sea of blooming azaleas (if it happens to be late Spring), and the Myogiyama burial mounds where artifacts and human remains were found after lying here, untouched and unknown, for 1,500 years.
Keep walking downhill and you’ll eventually reach the road outside the Matsumoto Baseball Stadium. Head to the right and in ten minutes you’ll be back in the middle of Asama Onsen. Head left and you’ll eventually find yourself back in (or at least near) downtown Matsumoto.
When You’ve Had Your Fill of Hiking
It’s hard to swing a wet noodle in Asama Onsen without hitting a place with a tub of really hot water. Try your luck and just walk in any random place. Or go to Asama Hot Plaza public bath where you can enjoy a soak or inquire about other places in town you can drop in for a bit without having to stay the night – unless that’s part of your plan.
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