The unmistakable pungent scent of sulfur hangs in the brisk fresh air, and nearby steam rises tantalizingly off a pool of milky azure water framed by trees and rocks and mountain sky. A few wooden huts stand nearby, inviting bathers to strip down and rinse off before slipping into the silky, secluded pocket of mineral heat.
Up here in the Azuma mountains, only 30 minutes from Fukushima station and standing within Fukushima City lines, is Takayu Onsen, a hot spring town renowned for its long history, its beckoning blue sulfuric waters, and its rustic charm.
The spring water, reportedly discovered in 1607, runs about 50°C (122°F) at the source, and the temperature and makeup of the water varies slightly at each inn or bathhouse depending on its position relative to the spring. However, all baths offer plenty of piping hot natural spring water, with no additives, and rich in sulfur which is said to be beneficial for the skin.
A handful of inns, bathhouses, and shops hug a small stretch of the Bandai Azuma Skyline, a breathtaking mountain road that runs from Fukushima City to Urabandai, offering hairpin turns and stunning views along the way. From this height, the lights of Fukushima City to the east are clearly seen from locations such at the Kagetsu Highland Hotel, one of the area's biggest accommodations.
The hotel, which offers all the usual amenities, operates ryokan-style, with two sumptuous kaiseki meals, futon setup, and in-room tea and snacks. Hot spring baths are scattered throughout the hotel, with both indoor and outdoor, or rotemburo baths, to be visited wearing the provided yukata and slippers. Traveling with a pup? The hotel offers pet-friendly rooms. The hotel's 800 meter elevation offers excellent views on both sides, toward Fukushima City to the east and the Azuma Mountains to the west.
And there are plenty of other options in the towns at various sizes and price points, each with its own style and charm. Hige no Ie, a charming and well-kept no-smoking inn, has a spacious rotemburo overlooking the spring's source, with solid wood beams providing structure and gravity while still managing to be airy and light. The Nonbiri-kan, which means "leisure house," has a 107 year history, a friendly staff, and pretty, stone-lined outdoor baths. Tamago-yu, meaning egg-spring, is one of the larger inns in town and has beautiful changing huts thatched with river rushes, its outdoor baths along a meandering path lined with stone lanterns behind the main building.
The town understands that some visitors may worry about radiation, so they post a daily update of radiation levels with a photo of a radiation meter. At the time of writing, the reading was 0.07 microsieverts/hour, which is about the same or less as London, New York, or Singapore on a normal day.
This town is blissfully uncrowded and makes for a great, budget-friendly hot springs visit for those who are keen to submerge in local customs, soak in authentic cultural heritage, and explore a beautiful and rich region.