“What are you doing tomorrow?” I asked. To be honest, it wasn’t really a question but more of a formality. “Ummm—I have…” she retorted before I cut her off with a definitive “You can do that later. We’re going on an adventure!” And that ladies and gentlemen, is how we ended up exploring the area of Nasu in Tochigi Prefecture. Truth be known, Nasu has long been on my bucket list ever since I read this article by my photographer friend Benjamin Beech. With the autumn foliage starting to peak, I knew it was time to finally plan a visit to Nasu up in Tochigi Prefecture.
So, what’s so alluring about Nasu as to warrant an impromptu trip? Well, for starters, the foothills of Nasu’s towering Mt. Chausu are home to a sanctuary known as Nasu Yuzen Shrine that enshrines the god of onsen. Seeing as I am a bit of a hot spring aficionado, this alone was reason enough for me to make a pilgrimage. Of course, seeing as the regional sepulcher enshrines the patron deity of onsen, it should only stand to reason that Nasu also has some killer hot springs to enjoy. Enter Shika-no-Yu, an onsen that was allegedly founded back in the 7th century. If you’re in Nasu, you definitely need to give it a try.
Unrelated to hot springs, know too that the Nasu region is also popular all year round with hikers. The 1,915 meter-tall Mt. Chausu is especially beautiful during autumn and regularly draws mountaineers of all skill levels. Don’t fancy working your way up from the bottom on foot? Fret not! You can easily take one of the local buses to the Nasu Ropeway. For a little less than 2,000 yen, you can reach Mt. Chausu’s uppermost regions without breaking a sweat. While I do enjoy a good climb when going solo, I opted to be a nice guy and spare my traveling companion the suffering.
One of the unique elements of Mt. Chausu is an active volcano that regularly emits smoke and ash on a daily basis. Because of this, Mt. Chausu offers a different experience than one might get climbing other mountains. Moreover, unlike with a peak such as Mt. Tsukuba in neighboring Ibaraki Prefecture, Mt. Chausu is part of a mountain range that is home to all sorts of intriguing volcanic landforms. Whether you opt to challenge the peak from the bottom via the hiking trails or take the ropeway up, the views from the top of Mt. Chausu are absolutely stunning.
Before diving into the logistics of getting to Nasu, allow me to note that this part of Japan is also rife with #DonnyThings. As with many other mountains in Japan, Mt. Chausu and the Nasu area was once home to a thriving culture of mountain asceticism. What’s more, back in the early midsts of time before Buddhism entered Japan, the lofty Mt. Chausu itself was the object of that proto-Japanese worshipped. While Shintoism is no longer as animistic as its roots, it’s still easy to see why people from two millennia ago would consider a peak like Mt. Chausu as sacred.
How to Get There
Assuming that you’re already in Tokyo, the journey up to Nasu is not all too difficult if you don’t mind waiting for connections. For starters, you’re going to need to take a northern-bound bullet train to Nasu-Shiobara Station. Unlike with the departures bound for Kyoto and Osaka, the bullet trains that go to Nasu-Shiobara Station are more infrequent. You’d do well to consult a service like Jorudan when calculating your root from Tokyo Station. All in all, this part of the journey should clock in at a little over an hour.
Once you’re at Nasu-Shiobara Station, you’ll need to navigate your way to the bus station. From here, you can catch a bus that will take you to Nasu Onsen. From what I recall, the departures are only hourly and there’s not much to do in the vicinity of Nasu-Shiobara Station. To be frank, I struggled to even find a convenience store to buy a beverage at on the return trip. I guess that Nasu-Shiobara Station is just little more than a jumping off point for people going to the Nasu and Shiobara areas?
If you’re not a fan of waiting around, you can also take a local train from Nasu-Shiobara Station to Kuroiso Station. Once there, you can pick up the very same bus. The upside of going to Kuroiso Station is that you can swing by 1988 CAFE SHOZO. This cafe is run by a man named Kikuchi Shozo who is considered a demigod among coffee connoisseurs in Japan. Kikuchi’s shop ended up being so influential that it gave rise to a number of local restaurants, cocktail bars and whatnot. Today, the area is now known as Shozo Street and it makes a great add-on to what I’ll cover in this article.
Finally, while I cannot comment on its efficiency, I have read online that there’s also direct highway bus access to Nasu via Shinjuku Station. If the information is still up to date, there should be as many as four departures per day. From what I can gather, the highway bus alternative will take 3.5 hours and will run you around 3,700 yen. Personally, I rather just pay a bit more to not be on a bus all day but do look into this if you’re trying to keep your travel costs down.
Nasu Yuzen Shrine & Shika-no-Yu
Let’s get back to Nasu Yuzen Shrine and Mt. Chausu. Located at the start of the trailhead that goes to Mt. Chausu’s summit, this 7th century shrine pays home to the god of all things onsen. Though my visit was blessed with some of the clearest skies that I’ve ever seen (as is the case when you travel with a so-called “hare-onna” or sunny girl), Benjamin Beech’s original article points out that is very picturesque during the early mornings. If you’d like to catch this view, consider staying in one of the nearby ryokans.
Seeing as Nasu Yuzen Shrine does enshrine the god of hot springs, it only stands to reason that this area is home to a killer onsen. Known as Shika-no-Yu, this hot spring is supposedly the oldest in all of Tochigi Prefecture. The waters have that white, milky texture that you’d find up north in places like Akita Prefecture’s Tsuru-no-Yu. That said, what really separates Shika-no-yu apart is its six baths. Ranging from 41°C to 48°C, a soak here will soothe your weary bones. Just don’t try to act all cool like I did and hop into the 48°C bath right away. I honestly thought my skin was going to boil off…
In addition to Nasu Yuzen Shrine and Shika-no-Yu, there are also a few more spots to check out around here. They are as follows…
- The Sessho-seki
Often rendered in English as “the Killing Stone,” the Sessho-seki is a large rock that vents poisonous fumes and is tied to the tale of one of Japan’s top three yokai. According to Japanese mythology, anyone who comes into contact with the Sessho-seki will perish. The reason for this is that boulder is allegedly haunted by Tamamo-no-Mae, the legendary nine-tailed fox. Were I to recount the whole tale (get it?) here, this article on the Nasu area would go on a serious tangent so refer to the Wikipedia entry I just linked for context. And yes, this is the stone that recently split in two, thereby releasing Tamamo-no-Mae…
- The Sentai Jizo
The area between Nasu Yuzen Shrine and the Sessho-seki is home to a field that is littered with close to 1,000 stone statues of the Bodhisattva Jizo. What more, this incredible collection of Buddhist effigies was fashion over the course of 40 years by but a single man who painstakingly chiseled them out of stone. According to online accounts, he only has a few dozen left to go before he hit 1,000!
- Tsutsuji Suspension Bridge
While it’s a bit of a hike from Nasu Yuzen Shrine and Shika-no-Yu, this 130 meter-long span hangs 38 meters above the valley floor below. Especially during the months of autumn, it offers amazing views of Mt. Chausu. Though I’d recommend avoiding it if you’re afraid of heights, the trek to the Tsutsuji Suspension Bridge is definitely worth. Just be prepared for the normal swaying that is associated with bridges of the sort.
- Yahata Azaleas Park
On the far side of the Tsutsuji Suspension Bridge, you’ll find a network of boardwalks that are dispersed throughout of a field of azaleas. Should you be visiting during the end of May, this part of Nasu is a must visit! Additionally, a stroll through the Yahata Azaleas Park is also quite pleasant during fall as well.
Note that while there are a few eateries around Nasu Yuzen Shrine & Shika-no-Yu, there’s not much that I’d write home about. Consider getting something to eat prior to heading out Nasu’s highlands. In the ending sections of this piece, I’ll cover some options for the foodies out there as Nasu is actually great for fans of Japanese beef.
The Summit of Mt. Chausu
As mentioned before, during our visit to Nasu, we did not actually hike up to the top of Mt. Chausu. Instead we took the easy way and rode the ropeway up to Mt. Chausu’s uppermost regions. While I’d encourage anyone who loves hiking to give the peak a go, I also recognize that most of you aren’t looking to take on an arduous climb during your time in Japan. Thankfully, getting to the ropeway isn’t all too difficult. All you need to do is hop a bus from in front of Nasu Yuzen Shrine. This will take you directly to the Nasu Ropeway in approximately half an hour or so.
As mentioned above, the ropeway will run you around 2,000 yen. Once you’re at the top of Mt. Chausu though, know that you still have around thirty to forty minutes of hiking if you wish to reach the summit. While the lower rungs of Mt. Chausu are thickly forested, this portion of the peak is largely devoid of life. In fact, you can easily see the final frontier of Mt. Chausu’s foliage as you trek your way up to the summit. Likely, this clear demarcation is due to the fact that Mt. Chausu is still an active volcano and its sulfuric steam and inner heat prevent any vegetation from taking root.
Once you make it to the top of Mt. Chausu, you’ll find the torii gate pictured above as well as a small shrine dedicated to the mountain. Assuming that you know how to properly pay your respects at a shrine, I suggest you do so here out of appreciation for nature’s divine beauty. Up for a bit more adventure? Along with the nearby Mt. Asahi and Mt. Sanbonyari, Mt. Chausu is actually part of a trinity of mountains. All together, this trio comprises an entity known as Mt. Nasu (it’s a bit confusing I know).
Anyway, if you’d like to explore the likes of either Mt. Asahi or Mt. Sanbonyari after scaling Mt. Chausu, you certainly can but do expect difficult climbing ahead!
Other Nearby Attractions
Getting around Nasu is certainly doable with only public transportation but if you’re able to gain access to a rental car, a lot more of the area opens up to you. To be frank, this part of Tochigi Prefecture is rife with all sorts of attractions that would compliment a visit to Nasu Yuzen Shrine, Shika-no-Yu and Mt. Chausu. While you won’t be able to fit all of the following into a single-day adventure, the below list should help provide you, the reader, with some travel inspiration.
- Kita Onsen
Pictured above, Kita Onsen is a secluded hot spring retreat that has long been on my list of places to visit. The onsen has over 1,200 years of history to its name with its current buildings dating from the Edo period (1603–1868). In total, Kita Onsen has seven baths. Of these, the one with the handing tengu masks is the most commonly shared online.
- Nasu Animal Kingdom
At this facility, you can see a number of animals in their natural habitat. There’s an assortment of birds darting around the sky, dogs you can play with and cats on the prowl. If you like interacting with all sorts of critters, this is the place for you!
- Nasu Safari Park
Sensing a trend yet? Well, animal lovers out there should rejoice because Nasu Safari Park is a great place to see some of the larger mammals in their natural habitats. Within the protective wire mesh, you’ll be able to see the likes of elephants, giraffes and lions.
- Nasu Alpaca Farm
Are you a fan of alpaca? Well, you need to visit this farm home then. Here, you’ll find several hundred of the adorable creatures. What’s more, visitors to Nasu Alpaca Farm can also pet and feed the fluffy balls too!
- Cheese Garden
Cheese Garden is a chain store that started in Nasu. In addition to its delicious-looking restaurant, the main shop in Nasu also sells an assortment of sweets, cheese, tea and local groceries. Of course, you can also purchase their flagship offering, their decadent cheesecake too.
Nasu also has some really good options for wagyu. If you’re a meat lover like I am, you really ought to check out one of the local restaurants and fill up on a savory steak!
Until next time travelers…