A view of Lake Yunoko (湯の湖) and the hot spring hotels of Yumoto (湯元), near Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture.
Hemmed in by mountains, there barely seems enough place for both a lake and a spa resort, but they did somehow manage to squeeze themselves in.
Yumoto’s sulphur baths have attracted weary travelers and people hoping to heal their body and soul for many centuries, and still do so today. Priest Shodo (勝道上人, 735-817), who founded the two temples which became the origin of Nikko, is said to have found the hot spring in 788. He called it Yakushiyu (薬師湯, doctor’s hot spring). During the 14th century, it became extremely popular with aristocrats.
The village was not always called Yumoto. Before the area received its current name, it was called Futarasan Onsen (二荒山温泉), after a nearby mountain.
Yunoko actually means hot water lake. It was called so because water of the hot spring flows into the lake. The water of the lake in its turn feeds the beautiful Yudaki Falls (湯滝) before turning into the Yukawa River (湯川).
Interestingly, women were not permitted to use the hot spring until the Meiji Period (1868-1912). According to ancient Shinto beliefs, they were believed to be unclean. This seems to suggest that the hot spring was considered sacred.
Fortunately, this rule had been abandoned by the time famed British travel writer Isabella Lucy Bird (1831–1904) stayed in Yumoto on June 22, 1878. Bird was the first Western woman to travel into the interior of Japan by herself—albeit with a Japanese guide—and took a trip of many months that saw her travel from Yokohama to Nikko and all the way to Hokkaido where she met with Ainu.
During the first month of her great adventure she wrote the following description of the tiny spa resort to her sister Henny1:
A Nishikie (錦絵) published in 1879 (Meiji 12), which is just a year after Bird visited, shows ten inns in Yumoto and not much else. It really was a very small place.
1 Bird, Isabella L. (1911). Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An account of travels in the interior including visits to the aborigines of Yezo and the shrine of Nikko. John Murray.
2 For tourist information about Yumoto Spa, visit the official site of the Nikko-Yumoto Visitor Center.
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). Nikko 1890s: Yumoto, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on September 28, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/282/yumoto
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