Tucked away in the mountains, by the coast, or overlooking stunning lakes, there are over 130 hot spring establishments in Fukushima Prefecture for onsen lovers to choose from.
Regardless of whether you want to visit a hot spring for its health benefits, or just to relax, and whether you want to chat with the locals, brave getting in a mixed-gender tub, or hire a private hot spring bath for yourself, there are onsen establishments to suit everybody!
But it’s not just people who like resting up in hot springs – horses do too!
In January, I went to check out Iwaki’s Onsen for Horses, which is one of only two such establishments in the whole of Japan – and possibly the world!
This special onsen is part of the Rehabilitation Research Center managed by the Japan Racing Association (JRA), and was opened 53 years ago as a rehabilitation centre for injured race horses. Fukushima City is home to one of JRA’s 10 race courses, and holds 4 major races a year. See the race course’s English guide for more information.
Mr Kobayashi, the head of the establishment, gave me a tour and introduced me to one of their current clients!
Race horses usually stay in the JRA centre for an average of 6 months, and are gradually nursed back to health through a number of different physical therapy exercises using the establishment’s various facilities including the Water Treadmill, High Speed Treadmill, Water Walking Course, Swimming Pool, Training Race Course and Onsen.
Mr Kobayashi explained how it is very common for horses to injure their front legs, because they are so thin, and are put under a lot of pressure during the standard race length of 60km. In fact, it’s quite common for horses to sustain injuries after running for 100km.
Due to the longer stays of some horses, racing fans often come and check in with their favourite horses every six months or so! But it’s not just racing fans that come and visit, around 6000 visitors come per year to look at the horses being cared for.
Summer is a particularly popular time of year for the research centre, because during the summer months, visitors can see the horses swimming in their outside pool, and get close and personal when they are training on the Water Walking Course.
Visitors are free to wander round the rehabilitation centre’s grounds and take a look as they please, but if you’d like a tour, you should contact the centre in advance. Tours are usually only arranged for groups of visitors, but Mr Kobayashi assured me that exceptions could be made!
The Rehabilitation Research Center has a very cute blog where readers are updated frequently about how the horses are doing. It’s in Japanese, but even if it is just to look at the photographs, it’s worth a look. See it here.
Minami Soma, Iwaki and Horses
Other than the horse onsen and the JRA race course, many places within Fukushima Prefecture have historic ties to horses.
Most notable is the magnificent Soma Nomaoi “Wild Horse Chase” Festival, which has a local history of over 1000 years old. Taking place every July in Minami Soma, the festival was cancelled in 2011 following the 3.11 triple disaster, but was held as usual from 2012. Horses play an integral part in this local tradition and therefore have long been a symbol of the region.
The connection to horses and the history of Soma Nomaoi can be seen in towns like Odaka, Minami Soma, where bollards throughout the town are shaped like horses, and at Baryo Park, Soma – pictured below – which happens to look fantastic during cherry blossom season..
Helena International Riding Club
Iwaki is also home to Helena International Riding Club, where visitors can try out horse riding at the beginner level as well as learning correct equestrian riding practices.
See below for a map of JRA’s Rehabilitation Research Center!