A Luxury Onsen Retreat in the Forests of Oita
As I gazed over the edge of a waterfall, fully immersed in a steamy hot spring with the hum of forest life around me, I wondered if it was possible to get any closer to a "forest bathing" experience in Japan than in that moment. At the traditional ryokan inn of Sanso Tensui, the sweet aroma of Oita's mineral-rich hot springs seemed to carry me away – away from the bustle of city life, away from my troubles – and into onsen heaven.
It's appropriate to call it heaven – Sanso Tensui translates to “Mountain Villa, Heavenly Waters” – and its waters are among the many luxuries offered by the ryokan. With the inn's spacious rooms, exquisite local cuisine, and the staff's warm hospitality, Sanso Tensui was just the enchanted onsen retreat I was seeking to restore my strength after a long day’s travel through the interior of Oita.
Fall was beginning to tint the maple trees as I drove through Oita prefecture's western interior towards my night of hot spring bliss. The 1,300-year-old Amagase hot springs region where the inn finds its home feeds into the ryokan's selection of eleven private and public hot springs, offering plenty of onsen options for you to bask in.
At the Sanso Tensui parking lot, I was greeted by an attentive staff member wearing an obligatory face mask. With bags in hand, he escorted me through a giant stone-pillar gateway, past a foot bath and gift shop, before reaching the veil of maple trees that is the entrance of Sanso Tensui. If I didn't know any better, I would have assumed the inch-thick moss and tree roots growing along the stone pathway resulted from the inn's century-old existence. In reality, the inn has only been standing in its current location since the '90s. The way the delicate ferns, maple leaf canopy, and moss-capped stone lanterns embraced the ryokan so wholly is a classic signature of the inn — something I would experience again and again during my stay.
In light of the coronavirus outbreak, all staff at Sanso Tensui wear face masks, and there's a bottle of hand sanitizer at the front entrance to ensure you have a safe stay. After I checked in, another helpful staff member gave me the grand tour of the ryokan and all the hot springs locations on the premises before escorting me to my room for the night.
My room consisted of a tatami bedroom, an enclosed veranda with views of the forest, a private entryway, and a western-style guest room with a hearth.
At Sanso Tensui, there are three room types: a general room, a room with a private open-air bath, and a suite with two rooms, a terrace, an indoor bath, and an open-air bath. I'd booked myself into the general room, which is the smallest of the inn's offerings, so I was expecting something modest. As the inn staff opened the door into a magnificently-spacious room, I hesitated. Had they made a mistake? Inside, there was a traditional tatami bedroom, an enclosed veranda with views of the forest, a Western-style guest room with a hearth and private entryway. It was far more palatial than I would have ever expected, and it took everything inside me to keep from squealing like a child on Christmas morning! Suffice it to say, there was more than enough room for me to lounge in comfort, and I could only imagine what other luxury awaited in one of Sanso Tensui's deluxe rooms.
Sanso Tensui also provides a yukata, a casual version of the kimono, to help you transition into a state of utmost comfort and leisure. It is especially helpful when you want to waste no time hopping from bath to bath. As I admired my room, the forest view, and the beautifully-patterned yukata, I suddenly remembered the hot springs awaiting me! With that, I changed into my luxurious yukata, slipped into my sandals (also provided by the inn), and headed for my first hot spring dip of the evening.
At Sanso Tensui, you can sink into one of their five private hot springs, four gender-segregated open-air baths, and two indoor baths. The private baths and two of the open-air hot springs are also open to non-overnight guests, though they have a limited window from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm (hours reduced due to coronavirus).
My first bath of the night was Kiriyu, a spacious stone bath and one of the private baths at the ryokan. For the next 45 minutes, I enjoyed my view of the Goraku River, interrupted only by the sounds of birds and the occasional breeze that rustled the tree branches. The region's Amagase waters feed into the ryokan's baths and are rumored to relieve all kinds of ailments from sprains and general fatigue to pain caused by irritated nerves. Although I can't comment on these claims, I can attest to the tension in my body that eased into the soothing waters as my mind wandered into a state of relaxation.
Kiriya is a spacious square stone bath and one of the five private baths at Sanso Tensui.
Next, I headed to Takimian, a gender-segregated, open-air bath that overlooks the crest of the 15-meter Sakura Falls—aptly named for its dazzling spray that resembles cherry blossom petals. Sanso Tensui's proximity to the waterfall is by no means an accident — the inn sits atop a rocky bank, chosen explicitly for its spectacular views of the waterfall. To reach Takimian, I climbed a long flight of stairs to the upper levels of the premises and arrived just as the last guest left, allowing me to enjoy the silky smooth waters all to myself. Soft lights surrounding the bath played off the rising steam, and I enjoyed a long leisurely bath. Whenever I began to overheat, I would get out and sit on a bench overlooking the waterfall before dipping back into the waters.
Takimian is a gender-segregated hot spring with views of the 15-meter Sakura Falls.
If you're looking for another view of the waterfall, the hot springs on the main floor have gender-segregated baths with an indoor and outdoor option and are exclusive to overnight guests.
The first level open-air hot springs are reserved for overnight guests.
I would have stayed in those hot springs all night if it wasn't for my empty stomach reminding me it was mealtime. Almost reluctantly, I hoisted myself out, dressed in my yukata, and went back to my room. Still rosy from my evening bath, I propped myself up to the edge of the low lying table just in time for my 6:30 pm dinner reservation.
My first course began with fish eggs, sea urchin, and okra encased in a clear jelly, duck, crab with edible chrysanthemum, mackerel sushi, and a glass of kabosu lime wine.
An extra serving of rice was served in a traditional iron pot.
Fresh, regional sashimi of fatty tuna, snapper, squid, sea urchin, and a seaweed jelly with gold leaf.
A bed of salt and flat stone made a dish for my river fish, and an ignited dish of hinoki cypress released the subtle scent of the forest throughout my room.
Ginkgo leaves decorate a dish of jidori chicken with mushrooms, ginkgo nuts, and onion sauce on top of a magnolia leaf and black, oven-roasted stones.
Relaxation and leisure don't stop for dinner at Sanso Tensui, as attendants entered to serve my sumptuous meal in the comfort of my room. All ingredients of my traditional multi-course 'kaiseki' meal were locally sourced and made in-house by a Kyoto-trained chef. My attendants happily introduced each dish in detail: Hamo fish eggs, sea urchin, and okra encased in a clear jelly. House-made tofu and kabosu lime wine. Succulent duck and fatty, jidori chicken. Edible chrysanthemum with Oita's famous meaty shiitake mushrooms. Freshly caught ayu river fish wrapped and roasted in an arrowroot leaf.
Each new dish demonstrated the wealth of Oita's culinary bounty, and I could sense the attendants' pride as they served impeccably prepared dishes featuring Oita's finest ingredients, down to the new crop of rice served in a traditional iron pot.
The portions were also generous. As I neared the end of my intimate dining experience, the attendants and I chuckled as it soon became apparent, my stomach was reaching its limit.
After my gorgeous dinner and a fresh serving of fruit and house-made chestnut ice cream to cleanse my palette, one of the attendants and I discussed my plans for the evening. Would I be headed to another bath? Would I be going for a tour around the secluded garden? If so, could she come in during my absence to prepare my futon bed for the night? Such is the hospitality I enjoyed during my stay.
Yes, I decided to head to another bath. After my glorious final soak, I returned to my room and found my futon laid out, just as she promised. Either my delicious food or hot bath (or both!) cast spells of sleep over me, and I sank into my futon into the deepest of dreams.
The next morning, I woke at 7:00 am feeling restored and ready for another meal of Oita's seasonal abundance. As encouraged by the ryokan, I showed up at the breakfast hall in the comforts of my yukata and had a feast of fresh snapper, egg omelet, mugwort-infused sticky rice roasted on a thick shiitake, pickles, and fresh salad.
I decided to squeeze in one final soak in one of the ryokan's glorious hot springs before my looming check out time. With the sounds of the forest surrounding me, I immersed myself, wishing time would slow down just a bit. As I emerged, feeling refreshed and full of energy, I felt comforted knowing that the Oita forest and their healing waters would be there whenever I needed some time to unwind in style.
Breakfast comprised of grilled snapper, pickles, mugwort sticky rice sizzling on a shiitake mushroom, house-made tofu, chicken, egg omelet, fresh salad, and white rice.
The breakfast hall is located on the main floor of Sanso Tensui, next to the lounge.
Sakura Falls is a 15-meter waterfall that you can access via its walking path, 10 minutes from Sanso Tensui.
Though Sanso Tensui is a youngster among the ancient mixed-bath hot springs in the Amagase region, it is no less of an exceptional participant in the area’s rich onsen tradition. With the inn’s spacious rooms, outstanding hospitality, delectable regional cuisine, and glorious onsen baths, you may find this the perfect place to spend a leisurely spa getaway in the mountains of Oita.