A few weeks ago, while browsing the endless list of locales that I want to see in Japan, I realized that I had somehow managed to not feature Gero Onsen. Seeing as it is considered to be one of the top three hot spring towns in all of the country, my lack of coverage was simply not acceptable. After all, I had already covered Kusatsu Onsen and Arima Onsen so it was high time that I completed the trifecta. So, on that note, allow me to introduce Gifu Prefecture’s Gero Onsen, the third of Japan’s best hot spring towns.
According to local legends, Gero Onsen was initially discovered many years ago by accident. Supposedly, one day, an egret swooped down to the river that runs through where Gero Onsen now sits. Over the course of the following days, the majestic creature repeated this behavior time after time. Curious as to what was drawing the egret, the villagers living in the region set out to investigate. What they found shocked them. You see, the egret had actually been nursing its wounds in a hot spring that had recently emerged.
Oddly enough, the people living in the vicinity of Gero Onsen never found the egret that had led them to the hot spring. They did however uncover a stone statue of Yakushi Nyorai, the so-called “medicine Buddha.” According to the folktale, a benevolent Buddha had taken the form of an injured egret as a ploy to lure the locals to the new hot spring source. Whether you believe this tall tale or not, Gero Onsen’s waters have long been considered to have regenerative powers. I’ll leave the interpretation of this up to you, the reader.
Now, historically speaking, Gero Onsen has been renowned in Japan for a good many years. In fact, some of the earliest mentions of the hot spring can be found as far back as Japan’s Nara period (710–794). Seeing that Nara was the capital of Japan over a millenia ago, this means that Gero Onsen has some serious history to it. What’s more, the hype never faded. Later on in the early 1600s, a tutor to the Tokugawa shoguns named Gero Onsen as one of Japan’s highest-quality hot springs.
Whether you’re a bathing afficianad or a neophyte to hot springs, Gero Onsen is sure to deliver in spades. Furthermore, the town is also located about an hour south of Hida-Takayama. This means that it is a convenient stopover as well as a great place to spend the night when lodging in Hida-Takayama is difficult to secure. While Kusatsu Onsen definitely takes the crown insomuch as the trio is concerned, you’d be foolish to pass up the opportunity to check out Gero Onsen!
How to Get There
Gero Onsen can be reached in around an hour and a half from Nagoya Station. The journey can be made via a limited express train. Though not what I’d call “infrequent,” departures for Gero Onsen are not as often as you may be used to. Refer to a service like Jorudan to assist with calculating the train schedules. If you happen to be beginning the journey in Tokyo, know that the entire trek will clock in at around three hours. Luckily, the leg from Nagoya to Gero Onsen is quite scenic.
Once you’re in Gero Onsen, you’ll be able to explore most of the town on foot. In my day-and-a-half at the heavenly hot spring, I didn’t require the assistance of any modern forms of transportation. That said, weaker walkers might consider borrowing a bicycle to assist in getting around. As you’ll see in the following section, many of the best allures in Gero Onsen are located at the top of a hill or a long flight of stairs. It might be better to save your strength for those!
What to Do in Gero Onsen
While you’ll likely be going to Gero Onsen to experience its amazing hot springs, there’s actually a lot to see and do in the nearby vicinity. Seeing as Gero Onsen is quite compact, all of the following allures should be able to fit into a single day’s adventure…
You’ll likely see the odd bath pictured above as soon as you arrive in Gero Onsen. Completely exposed to the elements, Funsenchi is entirely visible from one of the bridges that spans the Hida River. What’s more, the hot spring is mixed bathing. As you might imagine, a soak here is a bit of an experience unto itself. An important note to all of the peeping Toms out there; you actually need a bathing suit to be able to enter Funsenchi so don’t get your hopes up.
This is an open air museum that is home to a number of so-called “gassho-zukuri” houses that were moved here from Shirakawago. One of the upsides of Gero Onsen’s Gassho Village is that it is far less well-known than Shirakawago. Because of this, Gassho Village, despite not being the real McCoy, feels much more authentic than the overly commercialized Shirakawago. Be sure not to miss out on the long slide out back. While random, it is also an extremely fun experience!
Literally translating to “Hot Spring Temple”, Onsen-ji is the principal Buddhist establishment in town. It is dedicated to none other than Yakushi Nyorai, the “Medicine Buddha,” in homage to the founding story recounted above. You’ll find Onsen-ji at the top of a long flight of stairs on the outskirts of the town. While there, keep your eyes out for a statue of Yakushi Nyorai. If you pour onsen water over a part of the effigies body, the corresponding part of your body will be supposedly healed.
Gero Onsen’s Fireworks
One of the most peculiar aspects of Gero Onsen is that the town has somehow managed to come up with an excuse to have a fireworks display every week. While some of the rationale makes sense, others such as the “It’s Almost Time for Summer” justification seems pretty sus as the kids like to say these days. Regardless of the pretext though, know that those visiting Gero Onsen on weekends will have the chance to witness a breathtaking fireworks show!
Ideyu Morning Market
This traditional outdoor market is located close to the aforementioned Gassho Village. Here, you’ll find a host of vendors peddling regional pottery, woodworks, and fruits. For some reason, there are also shops selling ramen. While this is literally the last thing on earth that I’d want to eat in the early hours of the morning, you do you…
I’d like to also introduce Gero Onsen’s Yumeguri Tegata hot spring pass. These wooden tablets can be bought at ryokans, convenience stores and souvenir vendors around town. A single Yumeguri Tegata will run you around 1,300 yen and is good for a total of three visits to any one of the thirty participating hot spring facilities around town. Since they are valid for up to half of a year, Yumeguri Tegata are actually a great way of buying a friend or loved one a soak in Gero Onsen.
Finally, if you’ve never experienced a hot spring before, consider checking out my ultimate primer on Japanese onsen. This will answer any and all questions you might have about getting naked with a group of total strangers.
Other Nearby Attractions
While Gero Onsen is great as a stand alone destination, the hot spring town pairs surprisingly well with a visit to the ever-popular Hida-Takayama. Those looking to do this route will want to spend the night at one of Gero Onsen’s many ryokan. Thereafter, travelers following this itinerary will want to set out early on the following day for Hida-Takayama. Alternatively, the opposite route is also doable but not as logistically sound due to the fact that the limited express trains that go to Gero Onsen also run as far as Hida-Takayama.
If you’re keen on giving this duo a try, you’ll first want to decide whether or not you want to see more of Gero Onsen’s allures. If the answer to that question is yes, you’ll need to be departing Nagoya in the early morning to allow for enough time. If instead you just want to overnight in one of Gero Onsen’s ryokan while soaking your worries away in one of its top-notch hot springs, then it’s totally fine to arrive around 4:00 or 5:00 PM. Just be sure not to miss dinnertime at your ryokan as the meal is often included in the fee.
Until next time travelers…