Road Trip: A Serene Soak in Walnut Grove

Miyazaki Bathhouse

The Miyazaki Bath House & Gallery is the remarkable restoration of a Japanese “osento,” possibly the last one in America. Just an hour from Auburn and 15 minutes from Sacramento in Walnut Grove, you’ll feel like you’re on another planet. Sorry, the ladies in the photo are not staff at the bath house!

I am not a particularly spiritual person.

I am not someone who has learned how to relax.

I am not hugely enamored with water (especially in the presence of wine).

Yet hidden away in the Delta, I have found a place that directly connects all three, awakening—or perhaps revealing—feelings of which I was unaware.  This is a hallowed site linked to an unfathomable culture, enshrined in time.  And, remarkably, though barely an hour from Auburn, it is of another world and another century.

Be forewarned:  this place should be shared only with someone you care about deeply, a soul mate. . .ok. . .with someone you love.  It is the Miyazaki Bath House & Gallery in Walnut Grove, possibly the last surviving Japanese “Osento” in America, a womb-like place for private, intimate bathing yielding a “unique and delightful sensory experience as you soak and unwind in steamy waters”.

I was drawn to the Miyazaki Bath House through my fascination and appreciation of the Delta region, more specifically the length of the Sacramento River pinched between the levies of Rt. 160 and River Rd. from Freeport to Rio Vista.  It all began for me 15 years ago with a random riverside ride to Antioch on my Harley, followed by a later return trip to the Ryde Hotel for Sunday brunch, culminating with weekend stays in my vintage trailer at Vieira’s Resort just past Isleton.

While some may be repulsed, I am drawn to these hamlets on the river, former Asian communities that have over decades fallen deeply into disrepair, decaying slowly at the water’s edge.  What is appealing to me is that though many buildings are vacant and crumbling, there are sturdy, determined people here who refuse to give up. . .modern homesteaders who see value in the past and have worked hard to rescue and restore what they can in a place unspoiled by Wal-Mart or Costco or franchise stores of any ilk.

Eschewing the directness of I-5, I always opt to exit the freeway at Pocket Rd., crossing over to Rt. 160 for a ride along the river through tunnels fashioned from tree canopies; alongside vineyards and orchards; through farmland as far as you can see.  Courtland, Locke and the other tiny villages on this route could fit seamlessly into the flatness and heat of Florida or Louisiana. . .it feels the same to me, right down to the occasional palm tree.

But it is Walnut Grove that is the true siren, luring me with frozen-in-time storefronts, formerly bustling businesses operated by Japanese and Chinese merchants: barbers, druggists and retailers of all types.  Some of the original neon still glows; there is a Buddhist temple; a surviving Japanese language school building. . .even two barracks-like structures, said to be moved here from the Tule Lake Internment Camp, a WWII detention center for Japanese-Americans.

exterior od B St.

This is a view of the building from “B” Street; gallery is on the first floor and the apartment is upstairs. Cost for two people overnight, including two-hours in the bath house is just $255, Monday through Thursday; $269, Friday through Sunday. You can also book two-hour baths without staying at the facility.

It is the Miyazaki Bath House & Gallery, however, that keeps pulling me back.  I learned of this place about a year ago after reading a travel piece by Sam McManis in the SacBee (click here for story).  My beloved Ellen is a huge fan of the Kabuki Springs & Spa in San Francisco’s Japantown—a must stop whenever she is in the City—so I immediately made a reservation for us to visit, including an overnight stay in a two-bedroom apartment above the bath house.

What a fabulous and rare find, one that I am only too happy to share with the readers of Window on Old Town.   The apartment has been carefully restored in harmony with what the space could have looked like during the turn of the 20th century.  You enter directly into a sitting area—a mash-up of Victorian- and Japanese-era furniture and decoration.  Then there are two cozy bedrooms, a bath with claw-foot tub and a full kitchen and dining room at the opposite end.  The kitchen is kitted out with everything you need to for cooking and serving, plus all the staples you might need, including a selection of coffee and tea.

Unless you are a B&B devotee, this may not be your cup of ginger tea.  But, if you seek out unique, one-off lodging, you won’t want to leave this dwelling.  I know I wanted to remain cocooned in the robe and slippers provided for our visit.  We were content to hang out and read, nap and just plain relax. . .very, very cool. . .


The gallery and tearoom showcase the art of co-owner Montserrat Wassam and a tatami platform bed, perfect for relaxing when you are not in the bath house. The two large rings in the foreground were created by co-owner Jeep Phillips to represent the immensity of the twin tunnels planned for the Delta. Note the people cutouts at the bottom of each ring. Pretty scary!

…as is the bath house (click here for photos), which is included in the cost for two guests staying overnight.  There are two separate areas, and the entire place is reserved in two-hours blocks.  On one side is the bath, presenting numerous options for getting pruney.  There are two large soaking tubs, with showers in front of each.  There is also a raging steam room for those who can stand the heat (me, not so much).  Soak for a while in the pure, hot water and then lie down on a towel on the wooden-slat floor and close your eyes.  Enjoy cold water, hot tea and orange sections while you surrender under a vaulted ceiling in a room clad in cedar.  Much of the original tile was saved when the baths were brought back to life.  (Click here for story, photos and video about the baths and Walnut Grove on the Daily Republic web site.)

The opposite side is an art gallery and tearoom with a tatami platform bed, perfect for taking a break from the baths.  The lighting is subdued; it is dead quiet . . .the perfect environment for mediation—or, in my case—personal introspection.  I’ve never been anywhere that was as relaxing and soothing. . .a magnificent setting  for spending time alone with the person you care about.

This project was conceived and executed by San Franciscans Eugene “Jeep” Phillips and Montserrat Wassam.  Jeep is a builder who has specialized in restoring Victorian buildings in San Francisco.  He purchased the building, researched its history, engineered the renovation and obtained a grant to restore the structure and baths that had collapsed over time.  An artist, Montserrat supplies the design acumen and a native ability to bring the package together.  Together, the couple salvaged a magnificent remnant of Japanese culture, preserving it for another generation to enjoy.

Beyond Walnut Grove, the Delta offers an amazing array of fun things to do, in addition to the obvious draws of boating, fishing and water sports.  If you are a Window on Old Town reader, you necessarily love wine, and there is some good juice in the Delta.  For information here are two web site resources:  Clarksburg Wine Country with details about its member wineries; and The Old Sugar Mill, a former industrial plant that is now home to 11 wineries, retail shops and an events center.

For dinner, you have to try Guisti’s Place, a Delta landmark restaurant, family-owned by four generations since the mid-1940s.  This place is a throwback; the food is wholesome; it’s one-of-a-kind, no question about it. Thursday is “Italian Day,” good to know for planning purposes. Rated three stars by the SacBee’s Blair Anthony Roberston.

There are a couple of breakfast joints in Walnut Grove, but be sure to try Maya’s Trading Company for lunch.  Great old structure right across the street from the Miyazaki Bath House, but austere once you are in the front door.  The Mexican menu is wonderful, though, and most everything is house made.

So, if you’re in the market for a close-to-home getaway like you’ve never experienced, give Montserrat a call at the Miyazaki Bath House. . .and tell her Gary and Ellen sent you!