Our reprieve at Central Kogen Station was very welcome and completely unexpected. Who knew we would find a warm area to sit and enjoy a couple hot drinks and instant ramen from vending machines? Not us! It was extremely lucky actually as we were getting quite hungry and needed a rest from the hiking and cold.
Despite the fact that other than us there was no one to be seen the station seemed fully functional. There were 2 people working at the station and the cable cars seemed to be available if someone decided to take one. We wondered if this was common, that they run all year long, or if they were just in the process of getting things going for the impending ski season. Either way we were very happy it was open!
At the end of episode 1 we were deciding on what to do. We had three options; continue on hiking, start heading back down, or take the cable car back to the bottom. We decided to continue hiking and to find out how far we could make it. Unbeknownst to us, as we were enjoying our refreshments and exploring the bottom level of the station the weather outside had turned for the worse. The wind had picked up and it was noticeably colder. We decided to stick with our decision. How many times are we going to be at the top of a closed Japanese ski resort?
On the map we had we could see there was some sort of pond or small lake not too far from where we were, and just beyond that was another cluster of buildings. Would they also be open? First stop was the pond.
It was a ridiculously short walk from the station to the pond, named Dokko Pond. It was pretty evident the map we had didn’t have a scale. We expected it to be a bit longer of a walk. When we arrived most of the pond was shrouded in fog. It was not possible to see the other side, and thus determine it’s true size. Standing at it’s edge we could see the water was extremely clear. The bank of the pond we were at looked to be a small picnic area in among some trees. Closer inspection of the map showed that a hiking trail came through this way. On the map it was labelled as a trekking trail.
We continued past Dokko Pond in search of the other grouping of buildings. Again, it was shorter walked than expected, just around the corner from the pond. These all were closed. There was at least one other ropeway or smaller cable car station, and a few other buildings that housed restaurants and perhaps a small hotel. It was hard to get a good sense for the area because of the fog.
As I was checking out a 4×4 vehicle which had it’s tires replaced by belt drives we noticed a man leaving one of the buildings, getting into a mini pickup truck. He drove over to us and got out, he wanted to have a word. That posed a problem, until I remembered I had google translate. Up until this point I didn’t realize that it had a dictation feature. You could speak one language to it and it would translate and speak the desired language. Very impressive! And it allowed us to communicate and find out that he suggested we not continue because he expected the weather to get worse and it could be dangerous. He didn’t seem concerned that we were up there exploring, that seemed ok to him.
We heeded his warning and started to make our way back down along the exact same path we took up. We didn’t stop much on our hike down, by that point we were both feeling hungry and I was rather cold. What kept me going was the thought of a soak in the hot onsen at the ryokan.
Back at the ryokan we did exactly that. It was early afternoon and the ryokan was quiet. We had the onsens to ourselves. I say onsens because we used the public baths and there are separate baths for men and women. It was exactly what I needed, not only did it soothe the body after that hike, it warmed me up. It was a damp cold, the kind that seems to penetrate to the bones. The onsen had the exact opposite effect.
After our relaxing soaks, we needed a snack or two, and luckily for us we had amassed quite the collection of Japanese snacks by this point on the trip. Some hot tea and snacks were in order before heading back out.
By the time we emerged from the ryokan it was late afternoon. We walked down to the Zao Onsen bus terminal remembering it had a good view down into the valley. It was a beautiful sight as the sun was just getting to the horizon. We didn’t have much light left so we continued to walk along the path we had taken the night before, but this time we could see our surroundings. We walked over the same bridge and were able to see the hot bubbling stream of spring water below. Zao Onsen is definitely in beautiful surroundings.
Past the Family Mart, where we ended our walk the night before, we came across a foot onsen. Zao Onsen has several of these available, and they are outside areas where you can soak your feet in hot onsen water. I came prepared, I had a towel with me, and so I indulged while Nicole walked around exploring. I was the only person enjoying the hot waters while taking in the view down into the same valley the bus terminal overlooks.
Nicole eventually came back to get me and we were off for our last stop before heading back to the ryokan. We had seen an ice cream shop inside a market behind the Family Mart, and we felt like a few scoops. It turned out that this shop served real ice cream, not soft serve, and they had some very unique flavours. Nicole chose a scoop of cheese and a scoop of black sesame, and I opted for a scoop each of cherry and beer. We both played it safe, one safe scoop and one unusual. The cheese was reminiscent of a Japanese style cheesecake. It was really good. The beer was very unusual, not likely something I would often get. At first I would only get the taste of the cream but the beer would slowly take over. Good quality ice cream! And of course, I couldn’t resist a quick stop into Family Mart and a steamed mystery bun, which turned out to be a sort of braised beef filling.
We headed back to the ryokan, both looking forward to our last kaiseki meal of the trip. Our main course was going to be shabu-shabu, a Japanese hotpot or fondue style meal. But before dinner, as we were living the hard life, we had a private onsen. Yes, our third onsen for the day, well, forth for me if you count the foot onsen.
The meal was delicious and exceeded our expectations. The meal was served in a communal room again, but the room was different. It was a much nicer room, with windows, and it had a warmer feel. The shabu-shabu did not disappoint. Our waitress helped us out, showing us the proper way to cook the food in the hot broth at our table.
After the meal we stumbled back to our room. As evident in the episode, we were both full, tired and ready for bed. We both had excellent sleeps that night.
Note: The Family Mart has closed since our visit in early December 2016. But don’t fret! A Lawson has opened directly across the street. Your konbini needs will still be met in Zao Onsen.
There were several locations featured in this episode
- Central Kogen Station – The ropeway station with vending machines and a warm place to rest for a bit.
- Dokko Pond – Is it a pond or a lake, it was hard to tell shrouded in fog.
- Parking Lot – The end of our hike. We were warned by a friendly man that the weather was expected to worsen and he advised we head back.
- Zao Onsen Bus Terminal – A small bus terminal with a sheltered drop-off area. Tickets for the bus can be purchased at self-serve kiosks.
- Foot Onsen – If you’re ever able to experience an outdoor foot onsen, do your feet a favour and give it a try. This one had a bonus view!
- Ice Cream – After many soft serve indulgences, we enjoyed real ice cream, and ventured out to try some unique flavours they had on offer. This little shop is located in a larger market directly behind the Family Mart location.
- Family Mart – My favourite konbini (convenience store) in Japan.
- Miyamaso Takamiya Ryokan – A ryokan with 300 years of history where we’d stay for 2 nights.
Thanks for watching/reading!