This trip was organised by Suimeikan. Click here to book a room at this ryokan.
The hot spring town of Gero in Gifu Prefecture has been considered one of Japan's top 3 onsen spots in the whole country since the Edo Period. The man responsible for promoting the fame of the waters of the town was a poet named Hayashi Razan. These days, the town is a popular destination for young groups and couples who are looking for a pleasant rural escape from city life.
Situated approximately an hour and a half from Nagoya, and around an hour south of Takayama City, its location makes it a convenient stopover for those wishing to take a relaxing break at a hot spring before heading on to the historic streets of Takayama.
I arrived at Gero Onsen Station and made the short walk to where I would be staying for the night - a renowned ryokan called Suimeikan. Suimeikan is on the larger scale of ryokan, and comprises of 4 buildings that cover a total of 33,000 square meters.
I was greeted by the staff and took a look around the lobby area, including the Evian Lounge, which offered a wonderful view of the garden outside. The focal point of the garden was the pond with a waterfall cascading into it. Later when I went for a walk outside I spotted koi swimming around underwater, and a family of ducks scooting about on top.
I checked in to the ryokan, and after taking my name and details, the kimono-clad nakai-san helped me with my bags and showed me up to my room. At one point there was an escalator and a staircase, she motioned that I should take the escalator, while she walked up the stairs. I felt a little uncomfortable about this, but I suppose that's what a visitor has to get used to when staying at a Japanese inn - service always goes just that one step further than one might be used to.
When we got to my room, the nakai-san proceeded to show me around the room. She asked me how tall I was and then went to get the right size yukata bathrobe for me. She came back and placed it in the cupboard read for me to put on before going to the public baths.
She motioned for me to take a seat and served me some green tea and a local Japanese sweet. She also asked what time I would like to eat dinner and breakfast before leaving me to relax in the room.
Before checking in, I'd gone to take a look at the Western-style restaurant, Baden Baden. As you might have noticed, there is a theme in the inn, restaurants and cafes are named after other spa towns in the world (Evian in France, Baden Baden in Germany).
I was a bit peckish so I munched down on the course meal of the day. I enjoyed a wonderful set meal including a main course of succulent pork served on a boiled daikon radish (pictured above).
The restaurant is also proud to serve a local speciality - a burger made from Hidagyu beef. Hidagyu is a high quality beef from the area called Hida, which includes Takayama and Gero. The burger falls into the category of food known as "G-Gourmet". This is a playful take on the Japanese concept of "B-Class" Gourmet food which refers to some of the casual and inexpensive food that is available throughout Japan. A good example of "B-Class" Gourmet would be something like ramen noodles. The "G" of "G-Gourmet" refers to "Gero".
The inn, being a large-scaled one, offers a variety of room types spread over its 4 buildings - Seiranso, Risenkaku, Hisenkaku and Sansuikaku. Risenkaku and Hisenkaku are the larger of the two, and can be seen in the photo at the top of the article. With such a wide selection of rooms available, there is sure to be something to suit the needs and tastes of most guests, with Japanese-style, Western-style and Japanese/Western-style all available to choose from.
For guests who would prefer to enjoy bathing in the privacy of their own rooms, some rooms also have private indoor or open-air baths. The water from these baths is drawn directly from the hot spring source, meaning that guests can enjoy the high-quality onsen water in the privacy of their own room. This option is perfect for couples and groups wishing to bathe together.
Of course, one of the main attractions of staying at a ryokan in Gero is having access to some excellent public baths, all sourced with 100% natural hot spring water. Suimeikan offers three separate public baths, which are available for all guests to use. These include the open-air bath, panoramic bath and shimodome bath. As well as the three public baths, there are also three private baths that guests are able to reserve for 60-minute periods. Shichiri-no-yu and Oribe-no-yu can be rented for an hour at 3,150 yen, while Hanafusa-no-yu is 2,100 yen per hour.
Somewhat of a rarity, Suimeikan also has a gym on site - the Suimei Health Club - and an onsen swimming pool. Yes, you heard that right, an onsen swimming pool!
Before dinner, I was privy to a tour of the interior of the building and its plethora of exquisite art on display throughout the corridors and halls. The premises are vast and a delight to explore, some of the highlights included a noh stage, banquet halls, wonderful paintings and statuettes - and my personal favourite - an old photo exhibition showing the history of Gero Onsen and Suimeikan throughout the ages.
Dinner was a well-presented traditional kaiseki-ryori course meal served by a kind lady in a kimono. Due to the proximity of the hinamatsuri - an old festival in which dolls are put out on display - you might notice that there were two doll-shaped bowls on my tray. Below you can see that the tops came off the dolls to reveal some tasty hor d'oeuvres. As well as this endearing touch, Hidagyu beef was also on the menu - delicious!
Needless to say, I went to bed with a very full stomach and a smile on my face.
Morning Bath (with a View)
The day before, I'd spotted a small bath in the middle of the town, just by a river near a bridge. I'd asked the inn staff about it and been informed that this open-air bath was a public bath and free for anyone to use. I'd decided I would get up early and take an early-morning dip in it. It's just a short walk, perhaps less than 5 minutes, from Suimeikan.
It was freezing cold outside, but the hot onsen water that constantly tops up the bath warmed me and it was pleasant to sit out in the open and watch the sunrise. I did notice a sign that said "please wear a bathing suit when using the bath". I didn't have one on me unfortunately, so had to just wear my birthday suit. So, make sure you bring your bathing suit if you plan on using this public bath - especially during the day as bathers are in clear view to anyone walking past!
For breakfast, I enjoyed an all-you-can-eat buffet which featured an array of dishes ranging from Western to Japanese cuisine.
After checking out, I took a wander around the town, which was brimming with groups of young people strolling around in a similar fashion. Crossing the bridge near the open-air bath I had taken a dip in that morning, I wandered up the main street of the town and came across a small shop called Yuamiya (map), where I sampled one of their hot spring egg-flavoured ice creams while soaking my legs in the ashiyu foot spa.
A little further up the road was Gassho Village (Gasshomura) - an area exhibiting a collection of old gassho-zukuri thatched buildings, a style which some people may be familiar with seeing at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go. The complex also hosts performances and exhibitions, and visitors are free to explore the insides of some of the old buildings. Entrance to the park is 800 yen for adults and 400 yen for children.
After a great stay at Gero, I made my way on to Takayama.