From Mountain to Valley
We got back to Kofu 甲府 from Mt Houou at around noon and without much ado, booked ourselves on the first train out to Okaya 岡谷 (Limited Express Azusa, 50 mins). At Okaya, we transferred to the JR Iida Line bound for Iida 飯田 (145mins). It was so-near-yet-so-far because we had to circle around a mountain range (Minami Alps) to get to Iida.
But we were quite entertained en route; a huge rainbow appeared next to us (tried to take a photo during one of the brief stops but the light was bad), followed by endless rows of persimmon trees with the plump, orange fruits still on them. At Iida station, we were intrigued by the apple trees lining the road from the station (planted by local school kids). Almost tempted to ask the hotel shuttle (40 mins, complimentary) to pause and let us pick some apples.
Thus formed my first memories of Hirugami: rainbow, persimmons and apples. I think I must have been hungry.
Starry Starry Night – Hirugami Onsen
When we walked into Hotel Sekitaitei Ishida‘s石苔亭いしだ spacious reception hall, we felt grubby right away. We were shown to a seating area with opulent-looking sofas, next to a beautiful, wood-crafted stage that looked like it was meant for hosting plays and not just an ornament (it was a functional stage).
And here we were, in our 2-day old hiking gear, still wet from the rain in the morning, hair unwashed. We sipped wine and tea while the staff took down our particulars, preferences and tried to orientate us. All the time, I was worried that we’d stink up a storm (hadn’t showered for 2 days) but if we did, the staff didn’t show it.
Hirugami onsen 昼神温泉 is located in Achi 阿智, a village in Nagano in the valley at the base of Mt Akaishi 赤石岳. I’d not heard of Achi before this trip but it is apparently a popular spot to star-gaze. You need all the stars to be properly aligned for the perfect conditions to star-gaze but fret not if they aren’t. Because you can cloud-gaze and go see Unkai 雲海 instead.
Hirugami Onsen is also relatively young. It didn’t exist until a hotspring source was accidentally discovered during tunneling works in 1973 – today, there are 22 ryokans in Hirugami.
There are quite a few things to do in and near Hirugami Onsen. Every morning, from 6-8am, there is an Asaichi (morning market) which is small but has a nice, neighbourly atmosphere. You can star-gaze (if weather permits), or cloud-gaze (if it turns foul), or pay tribute to Fujimidai or hike Mt Ena 恵那山. You can also take a bus from Hirugami to Magome (20 mins) and walk part of the Nakasendo trails. Enough stuff to keep us occupied for 2 days or more.
The View-Fuji Plateau where you can’t see Fuji
Fujimidai Kogen 富士見台高原 literally means See-Fuji Plateau (1739m). But I walked the plateau a few times and yet I couldn’t see Fuji. Maybe it was hidden behind some clouds so I asked a local (retiree who had worked overseas and spoke English perfectly). The wise man said there was no chance we could see Fuji from here.
I was a bit disappointed but Fuji or no Fuji, the panoramic view was pretty good.
Getting to Fujimidai was a bit tricky. First, the hotel shuttle brought us to the Fujimidai Ropeway Heaven Sonohara station 富士見台高原ロープウェイ ヘブンスそのはら (800m, 11-15 mins). From there we boarded the ropeway (15 mins) to the Fujimidai Plateau summit station 山頂駅 (1400m), then transferred to the Pair Air Lift (7 mins), then transferred again to the Observation Deck Lift (7 mins). A short flight of steps brought us to the observation deck 展望台 (Heaven Sonohara, 1600m).
From Heaven Sonohara, we could either take a bus (15-20 mins) to Bangakuso 萬岳荘 then walk the last mile to Fujimidai Plateau (1.8km, 30 mins), or walk from Heaven Sonohara to Fujimidai Plateau (3.8km + 1.8km, 90 -120 mins).
Of course we walked. Taking the bus seemed languorous after we’d conquered Mt Houou. The walk was boring at first, because we were just following the bus route. About 1+km along, we came to a trail on the left side, that also led to the Mt Ena trailhead. The trail started a bit steep but eventually opened up to a nice panoramic vista (ok, now everyone was happy) and finally terminating at Misakatoge 神坂峠. From Misakatoge, we could go back onto the bus route to Bangakuso, or follow the sign that said “ancient trail” 神坂峠祭祀遺跡.
Needless to say, we chose the ancient trail because it was really no fun walking the bus road. The trail was narrow, wide enough for just 1 person and skimmed the side of the mountain from where we could look down to the towns below. It was shaded so was comfortable to hike even under the noon sun.
The trail eventually merged with the Fujimidai trail midway so we skipped the boring stone steps near Bangakuso. That left us with less than 1km to the Fujimidai Plateau.
We descended from Fujimidai around 1230 pm, took the 130 pm bus from Bangakuso, reaching the ropeway station around 230 pm. The hotel shuttle was there to pick us up at 3 pm sharp and we got back to the ryokan at 320 pm.
Spectacular Cloud Sea @ Heaven Sonohara
Back at the hotel that night, we booked ourselves for the Unkai tour (3500¥ per pax). At 450 am, we gathered at the Hotel lobby fully geared and boarded the hotel shuttle which took us back to the ropeway station. Yup, we were going back to the exact same place we did yesterday – Heaven Sonohara.
The Unkai was more beautiful, more breath-taking than I expected. We shuffled around for a good spot and quietly waited for sunrise. There must be hundreds of people at the viewing gallery but all was rather quiet as everyone waited with abated breath for the sacred to happen. When the sun finally rose from the clouds, the crowd stirred and I think I heard a little applause. Then when it’s finally up, the crowd began to disperse. Some continued on to Fujimidai, but the majority went back down. We were at the ropeway station by 7 am, took the hotel shuttle at 730 am and were back by 745 am.
Then it was breakfast and a final dip in the onsens before bidding farewell to the ryokan. Paid 1500¥ per pax for the hotel shuttle back to Iida station. But this time, we took a bus back to Shinjuku (4 hours, 12200¥ for 3 tickets or S$50 per pax).
A rolling stone gathers no moss
The ryokan’s name Sekitaitei 石苔亭いしだ literally means Ishida’s Stone Moss Mansion/House which had a very zen-vibe to it and that sensibility permeated the entire establishment. The corridors were spacious, all rooms had views to a garden and every room had to be accessed by walking across a stone pebbled path . The facilities were lavish and the warm downlights gave it an understated elegance.
Perhaps it was too zen, even the food seemed banal. The food was quality stuff, no doubts about that, and prettily plated as expected of a ryokan of this standard but felt rather run-of-the-meal (more on this later). Also I couldn’t understand why they used disposable chopsticks.
The baths in the hotel were like the rest of the establishment, tastefully designed and varied (sizes, indoor/outdoor). Like Hakuba, the water here was alkaline rather than acidic which we preferred. This was good, overall.
Beautiful but soulless
I usually have mostly good things to say about the ryokans we stayed in but this one was an exception.
Given the price we paid (23,910¥ or S$300 per night per pax and we stayed 2 nights), I thought the service was overly ‘zen’. For example, I couldn’t take seafood (this was communicated to them beforehand and again during check-in) but they still served me river carp (because river fish was not considered seafood). Of course they apologised but they didn’t offer a replacement. For the rest of my meals, they removed all seafood dishes but did not replace them 1-for-1. I ended up watching my mates eat while I wondered whether/when my next dish would ever come. I went to bed hungry (and angry).
It was the first time we had to give negative feedback to a ryokan.
Hirugami deserves a special trip because of its starry nights and spectacular clouds but I wouldn’t recommend Hotel Sekitaitei because there must be better ryokans in Hirugami .
Visited 25-27 October 2017