As I walk into the Hinotani Onsen at Misugi Resort, I’m hit with a mixture of scents from cedar to hops. This being my first onsen experience in Japan, I step over the threshold in the Kangetsu Noten Bath room without removing my shoes first, something I’m quickly chastised for by an older female onlooker.
I take off my sandals and my yukata, a traditional kimono worn at an onsen. The warm, humid air hits my lungs and I’m instantly relaxed. On one side of the stone-floored room are shower heads with stools, buckets and local soaps used to clean yourself before and after bathing in the onsen.
On the other side are several steamy onsen pools ranging in depth and one large outdoor pool surrounded by tranquil bamboo, volcanic rocks and a flowing water spout. In the middle of the room is the beer onsen. A brand new concept in Japan and wildly popular among guests to this remote Mie Prefecture resort.
I clean myself thoroughly and walk over to the ceramic tub big enough to fit two. The water is hazy and foamy, like a dark lager. I try to time it perfectly so I can catch the homemade craft beer in my hands before it mixes in with the hot natural spring water every thirty minutes.
The combination of black and sake rice gives the brew a slightly sweet, yet dry flavor profile. Considering its location near one of Japan’s most famous Samurai Gardens, it’s appropriately named Ninja Beer. Brewed on-site at Hinotani Brewery for over twenty years, the uber-friendly Nakagawa family has perfected their signature ale.
The family-owned resort incorporates the small community into their daily offerings in a variety of ways, including producing organic barley and wheat for their beer with area farmers. They also grow an ancient organic species of black rice and sake rice for the Ninja beer. Only natural spring water from the surrounding mountain ranges is used for both the beer and the onsen, some of the cleanest water in Japan.
Not only is the beer mostly organic, but Japanese people rave about the health benefits, although not scientifically proven. “The yeast in the beer gives you very smooth skin and the hops have an antibacterial power that is also good for your skin,” said Youki Nakagawa, part owner of Misugi Resort and brewmaster. “On top of that, the C02 in the beer is good for blood circulation.”
The beer onsen is hot and the temperature outside is pushing 100, but soft, tingling skin is worth braving the heat for another few minutes. When I’ve had enough, I get out, wash off, throw on my yukata and head up past the old-school, pink lobby and back to my traditional ryokan style room for a nap on my mat feeling relaxed and full of beer.
There are two public onsens, one designated for men and one for women. They switch each day so everyone can try the beer onsen, and are open from early morning to midnight (with a brief closure for cleaning from 9–10:30 am) so you can soak as much as you want. But be warned, if you have large colorful tattoos, you may be discouraged from using any onsen in Japan, as they are associated with Japanese Yakuza gang culture.
If you happen to have an arm full of tats, that doesn’t mean your time at Misugi is a wash. There are loads of other activities from stone bread making (with beer yeast of course), swimming in the pool or local river, enjoying the waterpark or signing up for Baumkuchen or pizza classes. Save room though because Misugi’s traditional dinner buffet comes with Wagyu beef, interactive somen noodle catching, and mochi making.
Leaving the resort is also highly encouraged, as the small country town of Misugi is filled with cultural gems and unique Japanese experiences that can be arranged through the hotel.
Head to the lush mountains with a forest expert for a forest therapy guided tour or go on a cruisy cycling tour around 100-year-old traditional homes and ancient shrines. Take a walk on Ise Honkaido, an old pilgrimage route, and stop at a local women’s teahouse for authentic matcha making lesson. After that, head back to the hotel brewery for a bottle or two and another soak in the onsen.
Misugi Resort is located about two hours from Kyoto and around three and a half from Tokyo. The Mie Prefecture resort may seem remote, but it’s as authentic and pocketbook-friendly a country onsen experience you can get on a trip through Japan.