Imagine an old wooden building, a traditional Japanese ryokan, hidden in a valley in a remote area of Aomori Prefecture. Surrounded by a thick forest and built along a stream near a waterfall, this place will take you back a hundred years.
Aoni Onsen is truly out of the ordinary. What makes it so unique is the complete absence of any electricity, no power plugs, and no Wi-Fi. The only use they make of it is for cooking and for the emergency exit signals. During the day the only source of light is the sun. After dark more than one hundred old oil lamps flood every corner with a warm and soft light. The shadows get deeper and everything looks smoother. The atmosphere is incredibly relaxing and the whole place seems to be back in the past.
The side road that leads to the only ryokan here, Lamp no Yado, is steep, narrow, and unpaved after a certain point. In winter, it is possible to reach the location only by private shuttle due to the heavy snow. The sight of the small group of buildings at the end of the street is somehow a relief. When entering the main building you will find yourself in a wide hall, five oil lamps lighting up the dark wood ceiling, and countless objects and paintings decorating the walls. A long corridor leads you to the stairs and up to your room. The wooden floor creaks under your steps and, sliding the door open, it reveals a traditional and clean tatami room. The wide window is open and lets in green light from the forest to light the place. At the same time, the only oil lamp lights up the ceiling with its warm flickering flame. On a traditional Japanese table (kotatsu 炬燵) you will find the usual cups for green tea, a fresh-smelling yukata, and two towels. The only audible sound is that of the waters rushing in the nearby river.
Any respectable Japanese traditional accommodation has baths where to rest your body and soul. Aoni Onsen won't disappoint you in this regard. You will find four different baths waiting for you:
- Kenroku no yu: built in cypress wood (Hiba ひば), it's lit by two lamps and the smell of wood fills up the air. The wide windows open on the forest and river letting the fresh wind flowing inside.
- Rotenburo: literally "open air bath", it's built with dark rocks that shine in a blue-purple hue in the sunlight. There are also another two smaller baths next to the main one. This is mixed gender so you will need to wear a bathing suit. During the day two time slots are reserved for women only.
- Uchi no yu: this indoor bath is located in the main building. It's the smallest of the four but the pungent smell of cypress wood is particularly intense here. It's absolutely a must-try.
- Takimi no yu: located in a separated building, this bath is made of both stones and wood. During the day you can also enjoy the view on a 30-meter high waterfall on the nearby hillside. There is also a small outdoor bath in the backyard.
I personally suggest trying all of them and the best moment is probably at dusk. At that time the outdoor light is not strong enough to light up the interiors but it will still let you enjoy the view on the beautiful forest. In the meantime the warm light from the lamps will softly flood the ambience giving that touch that makes this place so special.
To complete the picture, the dinner served here is also nearly flawless. As expected, the meal is the traditional Japanese style: miso-soup, fish, a stew of vegetables and meat and several smaller side dishes. Everything is tasty and delicious. The dining room is lit by a series of lamps and presents the same magical atmosphere typical of the place. Furthermore here everybody eats together; all the guests sit at long common tables one next to the other. This will give you the opportunity to meet new people and to connect with locals as the majority of the guests here are Japanese.
Before going back to your room, give yourself the time to go out for a walk. The remote location, far away from any light pollution, makes the night darker and the starry sky is absolutely amazing. Moreover, as the baths are open 24 hours, you should not miss the chance to enjoy a "private" bath. The sound of the river, the oil lamps, the cypress smell in the air: an experience that you won't easily forget.
Tip: if you want to be sure to find a room, book several weeks in advance.