One of the things I love about Japan is how a short train ride from a bustling metropolis that is Tokyo (admittedly, it’s a bullet train we are talking about) can transport you to a completely different world. Last weekend, my friends and I hopped on a shinkansen and little over an hour later found ourselves in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture to visit one of the most picturesque onsens in Japan (and possibly in the world) – Takawagawa Onsen Ousenkaku.
As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens scattered throughout all of its major islands and bathing in onsen (which translates to hot water) is an inseparable part of Japanese culture. The hot spring water in Japan differs in each region and is known to have healing qualities and be extremely good for your skin.
After my onsen trip to Wakayama last summer, I have wanted to experience it again in winter – for some reason snow and onsen form a perfect marriage in my mind. Thankfully, the forecast promised snow for that weekend and Mother Nature certainly didn’t disappoint. In fact, it exceeded all expectations. I don’t remember when was the last time I saw so much snow. As we rode on the shuttle bus from the station to the resort along the winding road, the snowflakes started falling uncontrollably and the further we drove up the mountains, the harder it was snowing. It was a beautiful ride and the destination was even better.
Takaragawa Onsen is nestled in the thick forest of Gunma and the only way to get there is via a private vehicle, ryokan’s shuttle bus, or an infrequent public bus. It truly provides a perfect escape from the bustle of the outside world.
This place has a very interesting history: no one knows when it became a hotspot, but people were commuting here to cure their diseases well before there were proper roads or transportation. Showa era brought more development to the region with gold mining on the Takaragawa River, as well as dam construction to provide electricity and adequate roads. By 1930s, Takawagawa Onsen Ousenkaku had its main building constructed, with two annexes to follow in 1955 and 1966.
As we got off the shuttle bus and checked in, it was evident that time hasn’t touched this place much. While the interior is a bit tired and dated, the accommodation is very well maintained, clean and quite comfortable. We were placed in the older building where I enjoyed wondering through the creaky wooden hallways and taking in all the different details, and spending time in our lovely washitsu room. The crouched table accented with a tea pot, the ornamented wooden paneling, heated tatami mat, the sliding doors, and tokonoma (a recessed space along the wall) which displayed a scroll depicting plum blossoms were some of the highlights of the traditional layout of our lodging. However, nothing compared to the view outside – a real winter wonderland.
We were lucky to get a corner room with large windows that provided us with beautiful scenery from two sides. Each room has its own name, and ours was ume (plum blossoms) – fittingly, one of my favorite blooms.
As much as we were mesmerized by the view and eager to take thousand photos, we were also keen to check out the rotenburo (open-air onsen) this place is famous for. We quickly changed into out yukata given to us during the check-in, and headed straight to the onsen.
Takaragawa onsen has four open-air onsens (three of which are mixed gender and one is women only), and two indoor onsens (separate genders). I will be honest, the facilities of the biggest rotenburo was not impressive. There was a tiny changing room with no heating or adequate facilities, and there was no shower which is odd considering it is a strict onsen etiquette to take a shower before immersing in the water. It is also a bit awkward to share onsen with men. While women were allowed to were special robes, men were naked with only a tiny towel to cover up. Needless to say, it didn’t feel entirely comfortable. On the plus side, however, people with tattoos can rejoice. Since the rules in this onsen are somewhat liberal, you are allowed to use it as well.
We soaked in the warm water as the thick snowflakes kept falling from the sky, capping layers over the big boulders along the river. You could hear the ice-cold stream of Takaragawa River rush along the steaming hot springs. As the sun prepared to set, the water and the air became colder and I decided to head back to the comfort of our toasty room. In the meantime, my friends checked out the women’s outdoor onsen and reported back that it was much more serene, the water was hotter and the changing facilities were more adequate.
Feeling quite famished, we headed down to the dining hall. Both dinner and breakfast are included in the hotel fair and feature an impressive selection of food – seafood, vegetarian options, meats, pastries and desserts. One of the local specialties is bear meat, and they even served a bear meat stew, something I was not enticed by at all. Everything else was delicious, particularly our sukiyaki hot pot which hit the spot on a cold winter night.
We spent the rest of our time playing board games and then braved the freezing temperatures to take nighttime photos. It was absolutely worth it though. The onsen grounds have a charming feel to it at a moonlight.
Plus, once we got back, we headed straight to the indoor onsen to get a good soak and properly unthaw. It was the most relaxing ending to our beautiful day. It felt divine to slide into our warm futon bed afterwards. I slept like a baby till the following morning. Heated tatami floors were definitely a very welcomed feature in our room.
The following morning, we woke up to clear blue sky and the beautiful golden glow of the morning sun that blanketed the snow-covered banks of the river. Meanwhile, the fresh powder looked like a whipped cream atop everything. Sadly, we had to check out at 9:30 a.m. which hardly gave us time to take a few more photos (because you can never have enough) and have breakfast. We did skip the farewell dip in an onsen. It still seemed way too cold for that.
I loved every second of our experience and would recommend this place to anyone looking for quietude paired with timeless Japanese setting. As we checked out in the morning and boarded our shuttle bus I couldn’t help but think what a true gem this place was, and how many similarly precious secluded spots was Japan hiding.
How to book: making a reservation at Takaragawa Onsen was very easy, as I booked via booking.com.
Takaragawa Onsen is accessible by train from Tokyo using the JR line, which is fully covered by the Japan Railway Pass. The easiest way will be to take a shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Jomo-Kogen Station. It takes 66 minutes and costs about 5,000 yen one way. Arrange with the resort in advance that you’re arriving and need a seat on the shuttle bus. They provide shuttle bus from that station every day at 1 pm and 3 pm. The shuttle bus ride takes about 45 minutes. You can read the detailed information on Takaragawa Onsen’s website here. They speak English at the ryokan, so reservation/check-in was very easy.
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