by Andrew Thompson
The Nakasendo - Bessho Onsen
You've made it this far on our Nakasendo journey together and that mean you have well and truly earned the right to a relaxing night in Bessho Onsen before we challenge our last long walk of our expedition to Tokyo. Soak in one of the oldest onsen towns in Japan, enjoy the amazing culinary experience and the magical ambience Bessho Onsen offers.
Bessho Onsen is a quaint, compact town that is easily explored on foot. Its temples are found along the wooded slopes surrounding the town, and are connected with the town center by narrow streets and lanes lined by small shops, restaurants and ryokan. If you are still feeling 'full of beans' then why not give this temple walk a go, if you complete the entire circuit you cover about 10km on foot.
You will have the opportunity to visit some unique Buddhist temples and shrines in this quaint sleepy Japanese village. Pick and choose what you want to see, perhaps try some of the public baths with amazing onsen and don't forget this is a great chance to pick up some special souvenirs while you are here.
The history of Bessho Onsen - The Oldest Hot Spring Resort in Nagano
Bessho Onsen (別所温泉) is a small hot spring resort town just outside of central Ueda City in Nagano Prefecture. During the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), it served as the headquarters of the governor of the Shinshu Region, who built temples and brought Kamakura culture to the mountain town. This made Bessho Onsen into a prosperous center of education and religion, and in turn earned the town the nickname "Kamakura of Shinshu". Shinshu being the old name for Nagano Prefecture.
According to Japan Guide, Bessho Onsen is the oldest recorded hot spring in the region. Its sulphurous waters have been highly regarded for their natural healing properties. And in fact, according to Prince Yamato Takeru (circa 72-114) who stopped off at Bessho Onsen with his wounded and suffering soldiers convalesced here, and his soldiers were healed healed in no part due to the natural springs of the Bessho region.
It is said that the properties of the natural spring waters healed his soldiers and that Yamato Takeru named the region 'Nanakuri' meaning 'to get rid of seven bad sufferings'. The name was later modified to mean 'the country side of seven eternities', expressing the wish that the hot springs would remain a popular destination over a long period of time.
Below I've listed some of the main temple attractions in Bessho, beginning with the Anrakuji Temple, a personal favourite of mine. This is indeed a very special temple and when ever I have the opportunity I like to hang out in the small garden soaking up the wonderful zen atmosphere of this wonderful temple. On the one hand, it seems suitable plain and simple, but on the other, when you focus in its construction it becomes apparent how complex it is.
Bessho Onsen is a well-earned sourjon on our Nakasendo journey together. See below for further details on the most notable temples of Bessho.
Anrakuji is the oldest standing Zen Temple in the region, and at its peak it was a center of learning and culture. The highlight of Anrakuji is its wooden octagonal pagoda built in the Chinese Sung architectural style during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333). The pagoda is the only example of its kind left in Japan and is designated as a national treasure.
Hours: 8:00 to 17:00 (until 16:00 from November to February)
Closed: No closing days
Admission: 300 yen (an English pamphlet is available for a small fee).
Kitamuki Kannon Temple
Hours: Always open
Closed: No closing days
Kitamuki Kannon Temple's main object of worship is a statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. While temples usually face south, Kitamuki Kannon faces north, directly facing the Buddha statue at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City. Kitamuki Kannon is also unusual in that she is said to answer prayers for this life rather than the next.
Hours: 9:00 to 16:30 (until 17:00 from Jun to Sep, until 16:00 from Dec to Mar)
Closed: No closing days (museum closed from 12/25 to 1/25)
Admission: 100 yen (main hall), 500 yen (museum)
Jorakuji is related to the Kitamuki Kannon Temple. It was built by Jikaku Daishi, a Buddhist priest of the Tendai Sect and head priest at Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto. Jorakuji Temple has a thatched roof, which is unusual for a temple, and a small art museum that includes ema (wooden plaques) painted by the famous artist Hokusai.