Hot Spring Hopping in Kanto (part 1)

by mattjapan

Soak away your stress in some of Kanto's best onsen with this guide to the some of the area's best and most unusual hot springs.

Yunishigawa Onsen
Spending the weekend at the Honke Bankyu Bankyu Ryokan in Yunishigawa is not an experience you'll forget in a hurry. Discovered in 1573, the hot springs here were used by the Heike clan as a hideaway, and the town retains its rustic charm with its streets of thatched houses. The Honke Bankyu Bankyu Ryokan's dining hall is one such building, which lies across the river. On the way to dinner, guests cross a rope bridge—the cold blast bolsters the appetite—and if it's snowing they can totter beneath a red lacquered umbrella before settling around irori (open hearths) to enjoy traditional delicacies from the days of the Heike. Expect to be served wild boar, pheasant and river fish, and organic mountain vegetables and grape juice at breakfast. But before dinner, forgo your room's mini cypress bath and take a soak in the main baths. It's best to start off in the cavernous, dark and steamy indoor bath before heading down the often ice-covered steps to the rotenburo overlooking the river. A smaller konyokuburo (unisex bath) lies between the male and female sides and seems to be mostly vacant.

749 Yunishigawa, Kuriyama-mura, Shioya-gun, Tochigi.
Tel: 0288-98-0011.
Room and meals from ¥18,000.
Take the Tobu Nikko Asakusa line from Asakusa to Kinugawa and transfer to the Tobu Kinugawa line to Yunishigawa Onsen stn. A bus runs from the station to the village. By car take the Tohoku Expressway to the Imaichi interchange and then Route 121 to Yunishigawa.

Miyanoshita - Hakone
In its heyday the Yamatoya Hotel entertained the likes of Stevie Wonder and A-list Japanese actors, and despite badly needing a spruce-up it still retains a certain charm. The main point of interest is the private cable car that runs from Miyanoshita down the side of the mountain to the inn at the bottom of the gorge. Walking trails lead from the hotel along the river, and the main garden has a picturesque pond and bridge. The indoor bath is large and well-worn, like the staff, but the smaller rotenburo with its charming waterfall is pretty enough. Don't worry if you find suspicious flotsam about: The waters are full of natural sediment that will leave you stress-free and smoothed out.

66 Miyanoshita, Hakone-cho, Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa.
Tel: 0460-2-2261.
Nearest stn: Miyanoshita (take the switch back train from Yumoto). Room and meals from ¥14,000 per person.

More than a 130 ryokan are crowded around the yuba (hot spring field) at the center of one of Japan's most famous onsen resorts. The highly sulfurous waters that bubble down the main street and fill the town's baths give the air a distinct pungency—the name Kusatsu refers to the smell. The central yubatake (racks for harvesting the sulfuorous sediment) are beaten and stirred daily, producing primordial gusts of steam and great photo opportunities. Kusatsu's ryokan do a brisk trade all year round and with the people shunning foreign travel in favor of domestic destinations, getting reservations may prove difficult. If that's the case, it's still worth visiting as there are plenty of day baths. Avoid the free bath adjacent to the main parking lot, which is favored by bikers and hitchhikers, and try one of the 18 small free indoor baths (kydodo yokujo) dotted around the town instead—you'll probably end up having it to yourself.
The most famous and largest rotenburo (outdoor bath), Sai no Kawara, is only for day visits. Perched halfway up a hill, the huge milky-watered pool is the quintessential rontenburo. The water is very hot and it is best to leave watches and jewelry in your locker, as the chemicals will blacken them. Also, avoid using regular soap, which will react with the water to produce a fatty substance that won't wash off. Instead wash under the non-spa showers. A word of warning to the modest: hikers trekking up the hill can peek into the men's side, and if you wander out on to the tiny balcony of the small male changing room you may be greeted by an audience sipping tea in the waiting area outside.

Take the Agatsuma line from Ueno stn to Naganohara Kusatsu-guchi stn and transfer to the JR bus bound for Kusatsu Onsen. The journey takes about 3 hours. By car take the Kanetsu Expressway to Shibukawa Ikaho interchange followed by Route 353, Route 145 and Route 292.

Shiriaki Onsen
An unusual onsen experience awaits a short drive from Kusatsu at Shiriaki Onsen, where you can bathe in the river. Naturally hot water flows through the gorge and adventurous types can strip off and bathe in the shallow rock pools. There is a small hut where belongings can be stored—clothing appears to be optional, but many modest dippers wear swimsuits—and a covered wooden rotenburo has been constructed on the bank. There are no other amenities and the village is no more than a cluster of houses and the odd ryokan, so if you're not game for the river-bathing then you'll be a little stuck. You could always get your socks off and paddle, though.
Shiriaki is north of Kusatsu on Route 405.

Bessho Onsen
The oldest hot spring resort in Nagano, Bessho Onsen is known for the smoothing and beautifying effect its waters have on the skin. Many of the spas here date back 1,000 years and there are three public hot springs for day bathers to enjoy the hydrogen sulphide waters—the Oyu (big bath), Ishiyu (stone bath) and Daishiyu (named after Kobo Daishi). Margaret Price, author of "Classic Japanese Inns and Country Getaways," ranks the town as one of her favorite weekend jaunts. "I really enjoyed Hana-ya," she says, referring to the well-known inn made up of a sprawling collection of old wooden buildings a short walk from the station. Take her advice though and book early, as Hana-ya fills up quickly on weekends. In addition to a plethora of baths and places to stay, the area is also known for its historic temples from the Kamakura Period (13th century).

169 Bessho Onsen, Ueda-shi, Nagano.
Tel: 0268-38-3131.
Room and meals from ¥15,000 per person.
Take the Tokaido Shinkansen to Ueda and transfer to the Uedakotsu Bessho line to Bessho stn. By car take the Joshinetsu expressway to Ueda interchange and then Route 143 to Bessho Onsen.

Kinugawa Onsen
A handy break in the journey back to Tokyo from Yunishigawa, or an easy addition to a trip to Nikko, is the hot spring town of Kinugawa. One of the largest such resorts in the country, the spring was discovered in 1691 and was the preserve of the local daimyo and the monks from neighboring Nikko for years. Things heated up with the arrival of the railway in 1927, and today there is no shortage of hotels and inns. The Okabe Hotel chain has four properties dotted around town on both sides of the river, and they are the quintessential resort experience. Full of amusements, cabaret shows, bars and restaurants and massage rooms, they exemplify the corporate end of the onsen business, and while you may or may not want to stay, they do offer good day bathing facilities. Between them, they boast seven baths that range from individual private baths (kashikiriburo) to large indoor and outdoor baths.

Take the Tobu Nikko Asakusa line from Asakusa to Kinugawa. Reservations for all hotels can be made by calling 0288-77-1101.

Shibahara Onsen
Tucked away at the edge of the Chichibu National Park, the Yanagiya ryokan offers a wonderful rural respite from urban life and is one of only four inns in Shibahara Onsen. Just outside the picturesque town of Chichibu, known for its seven cold springs (kosen), Shibahara Onsen is a sleepy little hamlet surrounded by forest. Yanagiya's 130-year-old original building is no longer in use, but the new annex has large, airy tatami rooms with modern comforts. The indoor stone bath is moderately sized and fairly comfortable—the cold spring water is heated artificially. While the second floor rotenburo lacks a stunning vista, if you are lucky you'll end up with the small cypress bath to yourself. More than anything, Yanagiya is known for its excellent food, all locally produced and full of flavor. Most guests are tempted by the offer of handmade soba as an addition to the regular dinner, but be warned that you might not have room for them—delicious though they are. During the day it is worth exploring the temples and quaint streets of Chichibu or picking whatever fruits and vegetables are in season at the local farms.

2048 Shibahara, Arakawa-mura, Chichibu-gun, Saitama.
Tel: 0494-54-0250.
Take the Seibu special express train to Seibu Chichibu stn. Exit the station and follow the signs to Ohanabatake stn on the Chichibu Tetsudo line. Take the train to Bushu Hino stn—the ryokan will drive down and pick you up if you call ahead, and a drop-off service is also available in the morning.