For many people living in Japan today, the sight of smoke swirling over a thatched roof or fish grilling over a hearth is likely to stir a strong sense of nostalgia for a more peaceful and simpler way of life.
Such idyllic scenes have all but disappeared from contemporary life, but Hatago, a hot spring resort in Gunma Prefecture, has brought together several traditional houses to form a mini-village reminiscent of a lost Japan.
Located in Yakushi Onsen, the grounds of Hatago cover a space of over 23,000 square meters and are dotted with traditional houses brought over from the northeastern Tohoku region and Tochigi, to the north of Tokyo.
Each house contains displays of traditional furniture, daily goods, and treasures ranging from ancient swords to finely carved netsuke, miniature sculptures once used as ornamental kimono toggles or button fasteners.
There is a particularly large collection of tansu, or chests, as well as beautifully printed futon covers and an impressive collection of traditional toys.
As soon as we arrived at the imposing gate of Hatago, we were greeted by staff dressed in traditional workwear. The gate, known as Yakushi Nagaya-mon, is representative of gates that graced the houses of wealthy merchants and farmers of the Tohoku region and was built using original columns that supported such houses for more than 100 years.
Our first stop after handing over our luggage to the staff, was the second floor of Nagaya-mon, from where we enjoyed a view of the cluster of houses that make up Hatago’s little village.
We had left Tokyo early that day, so our next port of call was Makuragi, a restaurant on the grounds of Hatago where we had a delicious lunch of freshly-made soba.
After a hearty meal of tori soba, noodles in warm dashi soup with pieces of local chicken, we were re-energized enough to start our tour of the traditional houses.
Hatago’s collection of traditional toys, tansu, antique ceramics, tools and art work –many dating to the Edo period (1603-1867) – is so extensive that by the time we had checked into our rooms we were more than ready for a warm and relaxing dip in the hot spring baths.
The hot springs of Yakushi Onsen were discovered in 1793 by a traveler and are said to be particularly rich in medicinal properties – hence the name, Yakushi, the ancient term for doctor or pharmacist.
Our room was a beautifully furnished and comfortable Japanese-style room with traditional furniture in dark wood. Both dinner and breakfast were hearty, country-style multi-course meals featuring grilled fish and plenty of vegetables.
With its rather random displays of old toys and tools, its staff dressed in traditional garb and furniture that seems made to look traditional but is most certainly reproduction, Hatago can seem a bit like a theme park.
But there is no denying that a stroll through this hamlet of thatched roof houses followed by a soak in thermal waters and a multi-course meal of fresh, local ingredients transported us back to a bygone era and left us relaxed, restored and happily stress-free.