The sauna at Shimonoro Permanent.
Shimonoro Permanent: Sauna & Guesthouse
On the side of a mountain in rural Tokushima stands the highest-ranked sauna in the prefecture. It is a simple wooden structure, hand-made by a local carpenter, able to seat about four people at a time. When the fire in the small sauna stove is hot enough, it boils the water in a pot full of seasonal herbs – lemongrass, sage, yomogi, shiso – resting on top. When I first go on a rainy March day, the sauna air is misty and smells like cinnamon. This is worth leaving Tokyo for.
Sauna guests at Shimonoro.
Welcome to Shimonoro Permanent, a cafe, herb sauna, and guesthouse run by Shuko Uemoto in the mountains of Miyoshi City.
In this part of Miyoshi, there is no conbini (convenience store, コンビニ), and no gas station. There is not even a grocery store – the closest shop is a twenty-minute drive away, down the mountain.
Yet guests come each day to the sauna – not only from neighboring towns, but from as far away as Osaka, Nagoya, and Tokyo.
Leaving Tokyo for the Countryside
More and more domestic immigrants (ijuusha, 移住者) are leaving metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka to embrace a simpler, rural life. Some are families returning to their hometowns, tired of the stress of big-city life. Some ijuusha, especially those born and raised in Tokyo, find themselves moving to entirely new prefectures.
Uemoto decided to leave Tokyo after hearing about the opportunity to take over a closed elementary school in Miyoshi City, western Tokushima Prefecture, through her job as a Creative Director at an advertising company in Tokyo. She moved to Tokushima in 2014 with her younger sister and three year-old son, and converted the school into a cafe and guest house. “I came to check out the different haikou (廃校, closed school) in October 2013,” says Uemoto, “and by March 2014 we were living in Tokushima.”
Uemoto, serving coffee at one of the remodeled schools.
Four years later, Uemoto began renting another closed school, also remodeling it into a cafe and guesthouse.
Now, Shimonoro offers guests not only a sauna, a place to eat, sleep, and relax, but also baking classes, chiropractic services, and camping.
With the help of a local carpenter, Uemoto remodeled two closed elementary schools (廃校、はいこう）into guesthouses.
Of her move from Tokyo seven years ago, Uemoto has no regrets. “When I visited Miyoshi for the first time and saw the old-style buildings, and heard the sounds of the river, I knew this is where I wanted to work,” she says. “It was the perfect place to raise my son.”
Experts have long recommended three important steps to enjoying the sauna:
First, the hot sweat session of the sauna for ten minutes.
Then, the shock of submerging your body in an ice water bath.
Finally, about ten minutes resting in the open air, allowing your body to slip into a mode of total relaxation. And, repeat.
The hybrid-style sauna features a wood stove and mist scented with seasonal herbs.
Shimonoro guests taking a plunge in the ice-cold river after enjoying the sauna.
Uemoto recommends the same.
She says that guests typically spend a total of two hours in between the sauna, the river running through Shimonoro, and the outdoor chairs overlooking the mountains.
Sauna enthusiasts attribute a wide range of health benefits – detoxification, increased blood circulation, skin rejuvenation, and improved immune system functioning – to frequent sauna sessions. While medical research has yet to confirm all of these claims, pretty much everyone can agree on one thing. Whatever the science, an afternoon in an herb sauna on a tranquil mountain resort feels amazing.
Uemoto says she wants people to know that they don’t need to choose between urban and rural lifestyles. “In non-pandemic times, you can travel so quickly and easily between the city and the country,” she says. “You don’t need to decide which one is better. Go back and forth and enjoy both.”