Located deep in the mountains east of Takayama city, Hirayu Onsen is a great transport hub for those exploring the alps, as well as a good place to enjoy a long soak in a thermal spring. These springs are popular all year round, and are said to have been discovered by Takeda Shingen during the sengoku period, who when invading the Hida area was probably tipped off of the presence of hot springs by the ever present steam and the sulfur smell. The folklore is more interesting of course – one story goes that Takeda and his wounded samurai were guided to the springs by an old white monkey, another story says that someone saw a monkey wash its wound there. Regardless of how they were discovered the hot springs continue to have a reputation as being healing onsen.
Most of the visitors to Hirayu Onsen do so mainly for transit reasons. To protect the alps against environmental damage from exhaust gases, private vehicles are being increasingly banned from the area, so the bus station is the key access point for Kamikochi (where no private cars are allowed at all) and for the Norikura skyline (where no private cars allowed during peak summer season) or Shin Hotaka. More than 2 million visitors a year pass through and the place operates like clockwork. However instead of just changing buses or changing to a bus from the large carpark operated by the village, it is worth spending a little bit of time in the town.
There are of course many hotels and ryokan in which you can stay, but it is also possible to enjoy the springs only, using the “higaeri” option will normally cost you only 500 yen or thereabouts. A good place to go to is the Hirayu Minzoku-kan. This is only a few hundred meters from the bus terminal as you head towards the Abo tunnel (just ask any local for the minzokukan and you’ll soon be headed in the tight direction. Inside the grounds of the minzokukan there are large rotenburo, surrounded by birch forests (with snow in the winter of course) and beautiful year round. Its a great place to soak tired legs and muscles after a bit of hiking in Kamikochi or Norikura or elsewhere in the northern alps. The entrance fee also includes access to the shiryokan itself, an interesting musuem of local history and culture that is a traditional gassho-zukuri structure (the high thatched roof looks great with or without snow).
Also close by (about 15-20 minutes walk from the bus station) is the Hirayu Otaki – a large waterfall about 6 meters wide and 64 meters high. Its best not to leave the path and approach too closely as there are frequent rockfalls – the path is rarely crowded in any case. During the winter the waterfall freezes over as the average temperatures drop down to about -15 degrees Celsius (about 5 degrees fahrenheit). The Hirayu Waterfall Ice Festival is held here during the winter months and at this time the frozen waterfall is illuminated – buses late at night are fairly limited though, so check the timetables carefully or book accommodation for an overnight stay.
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