The dragon of lake Tazawa and the milky waters of Tsurunoyu onsen♨

Coming from the coastline of Akita, our next stop was the mountainous region of Senboku. Located in the center of Akita prefecture and bordering on Iwate prefecture Senboku’s geographical centerpiece, is lake Tazawa, a caldera lake and the deepest lake in Japan with a depth of 423 meters. Depending on the season and how deep the light penetrates the water, colors change from jade green to indigo blue.
It was just after dark when we arrived at the shores of Tazawako and the whole place was covered under a soft blanket of snow. Even though I hadn’t planned on visiting lake Tazawa in particular there was something so calming and beautiful about this place that we instinctively decided to come back by daylight the next morning.
The shrine located on the north shore of lake Tazawa with a striking vermilion-colored torii overlooking the lake and the mountains surrounding it is the Gozanoishijij. It is said that the feudal lord of Akita came here in 1650 to rest on a flat stone resembling a goza (茣蓙 traditional rush mat) while enjoying the view, hence the name Gozanoishi shrine (御座石神社 stone seat shrine), which sounds the same but is written with the characters for seat instead of mat.

Scenic view over lake Tazawa in early January with light snowfall

One of the beauty secrets of the women of Akita which are also known as Akita Bijin (秋田美人 Beauties of Akita) lies within the water they drink and bath in. It is said that Tatsuko, a local girl whose beauty was out of this world wished to retain her youthful appearance so much that on the hundredth night she was praying for, her wish was granted by the goddess Kannon (観音 Buddhist deity of compassion), who told her to drink from a well near lake Tazawa that would give her everlasting beauty.
Tatsuko couldn’t help but to keep on drinking from the well as her thirst had become insatiable. When she eventually caught a glimpse of her face in stone smooth down by rain and saw that she had changed into a dragon she desperately threw herself into the lake. Tatsuko is since the dragon of lake Tazawa and it is said that the torch she was holding became the first kunimasu (クニマス local trout), which are native fish of lake Tazawa, the moment the torch touched the water. Referred by the people as “Princess Tatsuko” or Tatsukohime (たつこ姫) she’s being worshiped at the Gonzanoishi shrine and has a bronze as well as stone statue dedicated to her.

In Shintō giant trees or stones are believed to summon spirits and to host them and are considered as sacred

There are several viewing spots around the Gozanoishi shrine, such as the Nanairogi (七色木 seven color tree) which is a grafted tree of seven species, the Kagamaiishi (鏡石 mirror stone) in which Tatsuko is believed to have seen her reflection as well as the Katagashira no reisen (潟頭の霊泉 miraculous fountain), which is the well she drank from. The shrine is popular with young couples and is also visited when wishing for a child.
The night when we arrived there was some unfamiliar music playing and the site was illuminated by bonfires. I liked the atmosphere and music so much that the next day we asked the lady who was selling charms (お守り omamori) what music they played and the lady told us it was gagaku (雅楽 ancient imperial court music). She was kind enough to show as the CD so I could take a pic of it and look it up later. I even got the CD now but it’s totally different when listening to it in your own home.

Iconic torii overlooking lake Tazawa

Secluded in the foothills of Mt. Nyūtō to the northeast of Lake Tazawa, the seven scattered hot springs are known as the Nyūtō-onsen-kyo (乳頭温泉郷) or “Nyūtō onsen village”. Mt. Nyūtō is sometimes also called Mt. Eboshi (烏帽子岳), as seen from Iwate prefecture it resembles the black headpieces formerly worn by court nobles in ancient Japan. Seen from Akita prefecture however the mountain resembles a nipple and is referred to as Nyūtōsan (乳頭山 Mt. Nipple) – funny eh?
It wasn’t easy to decide on which onsen to visit but my investigation led me to the Tsurunoyu. If you can’t make up your mind it’s probably the best to take the Yumegurigo, an “onsen-hopping bus” which connects all the seven hot spring resorts, and have a dip in all of them. The water of each onsen comes from different natural sources so the composition and color and therefor the alleged beneficial properties vary from onsen to onsen.

Milky water of the Tsurunoyu onsen

The hot spring baths of Tsurunoyu onsen date back over 300 years, and there are indoor as well as outdoor baths for both, women and men. Compared to other onsen I’ve visited the place seemed to attract many people also from abroad. All the more was I surprised to have one of the small indoor baths to myself, even if just for a while. The larger outdoor bath with its milky water is a konyoku (混浴 mixed bath). Thanks to the cloudy, milk-like water the only reason you could get red is because of the hot water and not because of undesired sights or glances.

Bathing isn’t necessarily something I have to do in the company of men, not even if it’s my man, so obviously I preferred the privacy of the smaller indoor bath over the company of exclusively men in the outdoor bath. Maybe it wouldn’t have felt as alienating if there were at least a few other women in there but I guess women and men can do better among themselves, at least while bathing.

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