Nonstop Onsens – West Coast Japan

After finishing the blog post in front of the Lawson supermarket it is already early afternoon when we set off into the mountains. The road is good as always and the scenery is mountainous and beautiful. Soon we get hungry, but without a bigger village around we wonder how we can get something to eat. You might ask, why we didn’t buy anything at the Lawson supermarket. Well, for us it’s an internet cafe not a supermarket.

Now there is still another small pass in front of us and we are hungry. The supply situation changes around the next corner where we find a mobile supermarket. I love it.


The road soon leads uphill through forest. We want to take a shortcut to a small village further north. The road gets very steep, warning signs about bears make us feel less comfortable. Anyway just a few more meters to the top of the pass. Surprisingly the road ends after we had already gained almost 200 m altitude. Damn it!
We cycle back down again and try another road. It gets smaller and harder to cycle on until we finally stop again and return. Frustrating. We take the last possible road through a tunnel, which leads us to Ono, which is not even close to Yoko. My jokes are getting worse from minute to minute while we are having trouble to find a spot for the tent. We end up pitching it next to something that looks like a little water-power plant. Tswenaki, an old man, just lives in a house nearby, brings two cans of beer and offers to open the power plant, so we can sleep inside. We decline, but thanks for the beer

The next day is more or less a long, straight, well paved road through the mountains and forest. It is windy, but doesn’t rain. The road leads through a lot of tunnels, which is of course easy to cycle. Finally we reach the intersection from where the road leads towards Shirakawa. We are already pretty tired and just continue a few kilometers. The road gets steeper and the map shows not many villages. After all, we head into the higher mountains and this is the mountain road crossing a pass at 1500 m altitude. However, we are just on around 400 m when there is suddenly a small village. It looks dead. Big parking areas, a ski lift and some hotel signs indicate, that we are off season in a ski village. We already found a nice park where we can pitch the tent, but decide to cycle around a bit in the small village. There is an „Onsen“ sign that made us curious. Indeed the few cars that pass us, all go to the same building. So we go there, too.

Onsen #1
Onsen #1


Onsens are actually just hot springs. But nowadays they are often inside a building with all the features of a public bath. In our first onsen men and women are separated. There are small plastic stools, where you sit down and wash yourself thoroughly. It is great after a long cycling day outside. I wash my body around 5 times and my hair three times. Because I can and because everybody does and because I noticed, that washing yourself is something we in Germany don’t put much effort in usually. People take seminars to learn how to breathe, eat, sit or walk more consciously. But when it comes to washing ourselves, we usually take a five minutes shower. Some take a bath, but that’s more about laying in hot water and not so much about washing yourself.

So here I am, sitting in front of a big mirror like all the other men. Some look themselves in the eyes for several minutes. It looks meditative and concentrated. An older man is sitting there with his 10 years old grand son and they wash the left arm, the right arm, the left leg, the left leg’s toes, the right leg, the right leg’s toes and everything very slow. They use the soap for only one body part at a time. When they are done, they use the shower head and wash the foam away, then they turn to the next body part. I do the same. They finally step in the hot water pool and so do I. It is very hot, I can only sit in it for a few minutes. Some put their towel around their head while laying in the hot water. I leave the pool and wash myself again, then back to the pool, then washing again and back to the pool. After around an hour I feel like I have never been cleaner.

We prepare dinner in the park which is just 100 m from the onsen and it starts to get very windy. The tent struggles. That’s going to be a lot of fun tonight. Indeed we witness the strongest storm on our journey. However, no thunder and lightning, just very strong wind. Laying in the tent it sounds like some dragons are soaring in the dark sky above us. Dragons with a 50 m wing span. You can hear the different currents of the wind. Suddenly it feels like one of the dragons attacks. The wind falls down from above. We can hear it approach rapidly and get ready to support the tent poles from inside. Then it hits. The tent wobbles for a few seconds, before the wind flies away into darkness. This happens every few minutes. It is hard to sleep, because this is all pretty noisy. The tent, however, does a great job one more time. After that I baptized it. From now on it answers to the name „Takeshi’s castle“.

In the early morning the wind stops. The next day is cloud free and rather warm. We cycle uphill to face the first bigger pass in the so called „Japanese Alps“, which are famous for their 3000 m high peaks and the Winter Olympic Games once hosted in Nagano. After a few kilometers we get stopped. A toll booth again and some signs already tell, that the mountain road from here on is not for pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists. Well, that’s great! But even the cars turn around. We ask the officers: „Too much snow, road is closed“. Well then, that’s the downside of sticking to rules and being concerned about safety. In Tajikistan roads are open until they get washed away, everything else is up to you.

Mountain roads - Japanese alps
Mountain roads – Japanese Alps

So we cancel our plans to cycle into the Japanese Alps, turn around and head towards the west coast. We pitch the tent in another park. The parks are perfect: They have drinking water fountains, toilets and benches with a roof above them. Since it is still rather cold, we usually only see some people taking their dogs for a walk.

The next day we make it to Toyama, where Taka – our warmshower host – is already waiting for us. Taka has been cycling in many counties already including Germany. In two weeks he will fly to London and then cycle all the way down to Gibraltar, maybe even into Morocco. He has a very beautiful, traditionally build home. Very impressive carpentry. We enjoy spending the evening with Taka eating his Japanese curry and talking about cycling.


From now on the road follows the coast. We often cycle only meters away from the ocean. The water is crystal clear and ice cold. Sometimes the road gains some altitude and we have a nice view along the coast line. It is still windy, but luckily no head wind. Almost every evening we pitch the tent in a park with toilets and benches. Sometimes a convenience store is just a few hundred meters away. It is very easy to travel and we enjoy it a lot. Some impressions:

braking the waves

camping in a park

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After a few days we arrive in Niigata, where we found a cheap hotel and stay there for a night. There are not many big cities on the west coast of Japan. There are metropolitan areas, but Niigata has a real center, boutiques, cafes and big buildings.


Restaurants show the menu in plastic
Restaurants show the menu in plastic
In a book store
In a book store

The next day we continue along the coast and pitch the tent in another small park. Or actually it is a tsunami gathering area. A sign says it is six meters above sea level. People can gather here in case there is a tsunami warning. These signs are everywhere. Like the „EXIT“-signs in public buildings, there are also tsunami escape route signs in every village we cross. A „save-on“ store is 100 m away. It is already rainy and we know, we probably have to stay here two nights, because it seems not to get better. So the supermarket is great, even though it has no free wifi.

At 9pm we are laying in the tent when a car stops at the park. Someone steps out. We hear some voices. Someone approaches our tent, then turns around only two meters in front of our tent and walks back to the car. Then the car leaves. We hear a very high pitched noise. Sounds like a little bird. No, actually sounds like a little cat. I step out of the tent to find this:

Yes, someone dropped four kittens just in front of our tent. They are maybe three weeks old. It was too dark to see our tent, so they actually just left them here alone in the dark, cold night. Some people…

We take them in the tent, I walk to the convenience store to get a cardboard box and some crab sticks and milk. They eat and drink and when they get warmer they stop screaming. Then we all sleep.


Am I living in a box
Am I living in a cardboard box

Living in a Box – Living in a Box

I think if you don’t like pictures and videos of cute, little, Japanese, orphan kittens, you should immediately leave the internet and never return. Since you are still here, prepare for endless cuteness.

The next morning we feed them again and spend the day in this little park since it is heavily raining all the time.

Ari had some milk
Ari had some milk
Inside the tent
Inside the tent
Someone found a new mother figure
Someone found a new mother figure
Can you find the cat?
Can you find the cat? It is proof-reading this blog post.

But it is really cold, so we decide to leave the cats in the box, wrap some insulating aluminium foil around it and go to the onsen which is just two kilometers away.

Onsen #2
Onsen #2

There are usually not many people in an onsen. And for only 3 to 5 Euro onsens are rather cheap. Compare this to the Therme Erding for example. You can easily spend 70 Euro for a single ticket there and you still need to pay to get there. Of course the onsen doesn’t offer that much, but it is cozy. And this time it even has an outside hot spring. We actually sit 50 m away from the Pacific Ocean. A cold wind is blowing. It’s amazing.

In Japan you don't get older. You get a mysterious illness called "the old".
In Japan you don’t age. You get infected with a terminal illness called „the old“.

The kittens are doing well. They slept the whole afternoon while we were in the onsen. Back at our tent we quickly go to the convenience store. An old guy in front of the supermarket gives us two bottles of high quality Sake. Just because he likes what we do. Not only do we like the Sake, but the two bottles also come in a smaller card board box, which is perfect to carry the kittens around on the bicycle.

Not amused
Not amused
Get ready to rumble

So the next day we continue to cycle and the kittens are quite OK with the whole situation. Living in a box that randomly jumps up and down, however, is probably not their favorite way of exploring the wild. We stop at the Lawson supermarket in Murakami and let the kittens run around. Some people go „awe, oooooooh, awe….“. Cora tries to explain to the cashier that we need a sign that says „kittens for free“ or something..


The sign says: "Please take these cats"
The sign says: „Please take these cats“

After an hour a couple takes two of the kittens. We can’t believe it. Just great. The staff of the supermarket asks every few minutes how many kittens were still left. They apparently also call a friend, who shows up just to see the kittens. After thinking back and forth he also takes one.

The new owners of two of the kittens
The new owners of two of the kittens
And another new owner
And another new owner

It is getting late and we have to move on. However, one kitten is still left. We didn’t have time to give names to all of them, but for the last one – a tom-cat – we want to find a good name. The last couple of weeks I did some online Spanish course to prepare for Central America. One of the first sentences I’ve learnt was:

„El gato bebe leche“

„The tom-cat drinks milk“

In Spanish tom-cat means „gato“ and in Japanese „Thank you“ means „arigato“. So we called the cat Ari.

Ari, the gato

We spend the night and the next day with Ari. We put him out of the box and into a white cotton bag, which is more comfortable. He sleeps most of the time, but needs a break every hour. So Ari explores the west coast of Japan and is the cutest thing in the world. Take a look:


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In the afternoon we arrive in Tsuruoka and know that it is time to say good-bye to Ari. So we throw him in the river and watch him float away into the sunset. Just kidding! This blog post gets a bit long, so I needed to pump some adrenaline into your veins. Sorry for that. Artistic Freedom. Now relax!

We go to a big supermarket, install the sign and wait. Some women gather. In the end we have three women standing around calling all contacts in their smartphones for at least 30 minutes, but nobody wants to take the cat. One almost cries, when she hears the story and sees the pictures of the four little cats. She can’t believe a Japanese could do something that cruel.

At half past five, when the women decided to take the kitten and find an owner on their own, so we can move on, another woman who wanted the cat earlier, but had to ask her family returns just in time. She got the „ok“ from the family and takes Ari. They ask if he already has a name. We explain the name, they love it. So Ari probably can keep his name. Thanks to all of you, that was just great!

The three women trying to find a owner for Ari
The three women trying to find a new owner for Ari
Ari's new owner. Bye-bye brave little cat.
Ari’s new owner. Bye-bye brave little cat.

So we are sad, but also happy, because we found really good owners for all of the four kittens. It took us less than 3 hours to find new owners for all of them just sitting in front of a supermarket.

It is already early evening, but we soon find a little park bordering an onsen.

Onsen #3
Onsen #3

A convenient truth

Traveling Japan is easy. It is so easy, that it might even get a bit boring, unless you temporarily adopt four kittens. Honestly, it is not the country, where we expect the most adventurous times. But we had our adventures, so we are fine with that.

Japan is convenient. There are for instance convenience stores: Lawson, FamilyMart, 7/11, CircleK, Save-On, Daily Yamazaki and many more. These are not supermarkets, but small convenience stores often found every few kilometers and only around 100 square meters big. Most of them provide free wifi, have an outside socket, where we can charge our smartphones and have a toilet, which is always totally clean and free of charge.

Many people get something to eat there, because they have these ready-to-eat meals, which are so fresh and well made, that they actually taste very good. Also the sushi is great. So if we don’t cook for ourselves, we usually eat there. On the other hand we haven’t seen many McDonalds, BurgerKing or KFC. Maybe two or three in three weeks. But they have local fast food chains, that provide ramen – noodle soups. These soups are very delicious not comparable to western fast food. But maybe I just get biased like someone who eats his first Whopper.

Then there are parks. They don’t have wifi yet, but usually a toilet, drinking water fountains and usually wooden benches and tables with a roof above. So we can sit on a bench and eat on a table even if it rains. Sometimes there is even a socket outside the toilets.

Then there are onsens. We first didn’t really notice how many of them actually exist. They are everywhere. As soon as you spot the onsen sign it is usually only a few hundred meters away. Often there is a park just around the corner. So in the onsen we get a shower and wash ourselves while charging the phones and the laptop in the socket. It is safe, nobody steals anything here. We even leave the bicycles with the panniers outside unlocked.

So we have toilets, showers, wifi, sockets, a roof, a place to sit and food for cooking or whole meals. So what’s missing? Right, a washing machine.

Luckily there are public laundromats in almost every town. And if that wasn’t enough, they have free wifi. With 12 Mb/s uplink by the way the fastest of all free wifis so far. Sometimes we still stay a night in a hotel, because it is even more convenient. The APA hotel chain is a very good choice for us. And they have a room full of washing machines, so we don’t even need to wander around in the city looking for a laundromat.

You see, cycling through Japan is easy and convenient. So convenient, that we sometimes spend a few hours at the laundromat or in front of the Lawson checking emails and writing blog posts. That way we don’t make as many kilometers as we actually could, but on the other hand almost need no resting days, because we can do almost anything on the road.

Eventually my SHIMANO front derailleur broke, but hey we are in Japan, so fixing this couldn’t have been any more convenient.

We continue and pass Mount Chokai a massive volcano just a few kilometers from the coast. With its 2236 m and its top covered with snow it almost looks like Mount Fuji. Impressive and it accompanies us for several hours.

We finally arrive in Akita, where I am now sitting in our hotel room. I needed a break, a proper chair and a room with wifi so I can concentrate on the blog post. Because sitting on the concrete floor in front of a Lawson is OK for checking emails but not for hours of writing.

We got the front derailleur fixed which was surprisingly cheap and also went to a real supermarket to get some snacks for our little movie night. Japan is surrounded by the sea, so fish is as amply as beer in a German supermarket. That’s why I will close this post with the variety of fish a single medium sized supermarket here in Japan offers. That’s not sushi. These are rather big packages.


One thought on “Nonstop Onsens – West Coast Japan

  1. Long life to the kittens!
    It looks like you are having a relaxing time in Japan:) I am roughly 2 months behind you and hope to arrive in Japan early July. So thanks a lot for all the good tips. I really like your blog. It is very instructive and fun to read 🙂
    Keep well!

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