By Steve Morton
At an altitude of 700 meters, you won't find many hot spring baths in Japan so far above sea level, and few will offer the breathtaking scenery to be had at Maguse Onsen, in Nagano Prefecture's Kijimadaira Village.
Drive 25 minutes uphill from Iiyama Station, past numerous terraced rice fields and you have reached this wonderful hot spring bath. Aptly named Boukyou no Yu, meaning "nostalgic hot water", this public day-use bath is a simple, no frills facility, built by the local community to promote tourism to the area. A popular spot with both locals and visiting tourists, Maguse offers indoor hinoki and outdoor stone baths. A bath in a basin made of hinoki is always nice, but it is really the outdoor rotenburo that people come here for.
Relax in the soothing hot spring water and before your eyes you are treated to a sweeping view down through the deep valley below you. This is the very valley you came up through to get to this high mountain hot spring. Off in the distance is the Kitashinshu Kijimadaira ski area and on a clear day you can see all the way to the Japan Alps.
This spot is most breathtaking in the winter, when the area is covered in snow, while the hot water in the bath remains at its therapeutic best. A day on the ski slopes followed by a visit to this bath would be a perfect time spent in this rural, mountainous area of northern Nagano.
After the bath, head up the steps to Kurakake no Chaya, the restaurant right by the entrance. Here the friendly staff will serve up soba, oden, their own Maguse Teishoku lunch set and plenty of drinks to go around. Sit either at tables or on the tatami mats, where so many of the locals end up snoozing after their hot bath. The restaurant also sells a number of souvenir items from the area.
Those wishing to spend the night can stay at the nearby Nashi-no-ki-Sou inn. Overnight rates are per person, but with a slight discount based on the number of guests staying together.
Anyone unfamiliar with the etiquette required when visiting an onsen should do some research before visiting this or any Japanese hot spring bath.
To get there by car, take the Joshin-Etsu Expressway to the Toyota-Iiyama exit. From there take route 117 toward Iiyama, cross the river and take route 38 to route 354, which will lead you all the way up to the onsen. To get there by train/taxi, take the Iiyama Line to Iiyama station. It is a 25 minute taxi ride from the station.
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I first came to Japan in 1998, figuring I would be here for a year and then go home. As it turns out, I never did go home. I made Nagano my new home, and I now live far from the city in the forested mountains of northern Nagano Prefecture. I have come to love much about Japan -- the culture, the architecture, the food, the history, the people, but most of all the beutiful natural scenery that everyone can find once they leave the crowded cities.