Story and photos by Jason Collier
On the cover of Anne Hotta’s Guide to Japanese Hot Springs there is a wonderful photo of five men soaking in a rotenburo (outdoor hot spring) alongside a clear mountain river. The river seems so close that they could literally reach out and touch the frigid water as it rushes by. The smooth stones surrounding the bath, the lush green foliage and the Japanese maple trees leaning overhead put the finishing touches on the classic Japanese hot spring scene.
The cover shot was taken at Takaragawa Onsen, a secluded hot spring resort nestled in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture. Takaragawa is widely considered to have the best outdoor rotenburo in all of Japan. One visit and it’s hard not to agree. There are four to choose from; three are mixed baths and one is for ladies only (sorry guys, there aren’t any exclusively for men).
There is also a small indoor washing area. If you’ve never ventured into a mixed onsen, Takaragawa is a great place to get your feet wet.
What’s in a name?
According to an old Shinto legend, a wandering god was on a long journey when he became sick. Hoping to find a place to rest, he made his way up to the top of nearby Mt. Hotaka so that he could get a better view of the area. When he reached the peak, he saw a stunning white hawk circling above a spot below in the distance.
The god struggled down to where he saw the hawk and found several warm pools. He rested in the soothing waters and before long was cured of his illness. The god was then able to continue his journey, but before he left he named the onsen “Hakutaka no yu” (White Hawk Hot Springs) and they became renowned for their healing qualities.
In the Edo Period the local mountain became famous for its copper reserves and several copper mines popped up. The river running through the hot springs was coined the “Takaragawa” (Treasure River) and the village became known as Takaragawa Onsen—as it is today.
Takagarawa Onsen boasts the largest rotenburo in all of Japan. The onsen was also a pioneer in the sense that it was the first in Japan to feature a “women’s only” outdoor bath. The outdoor baths are of different sizes and are measured in tatami mats.
The smallest bath, Hannya no yu (mixed) is measured at 50 tatami; Makka no yu (mixed) is 100 tatami; Maya no yu (women only) is 100; and the largest bath, Kodakura no yu, (mixed) is a whopping 200 tatami and is popular with couples as it reputedly improves one’s fertility.
The various baths are said to contain different minerals and contain restorative qualities to cure a variety of ailments. Nervous disorders, bad circulation, skin irritations, sore muscles and joints, aches, bruises and tiredness are just a few of the things that be can helped by a good soak.
Humans aren’t the only ones to enjoy the amenities. Resident bears have also discovered the hot springs and they visit often during the year. The owner of the ryokan grew accustomed to his visitors and created a bath exclusively for his furry friends.
No one knows exactly how long the inhabitants in the area have been warming themselves in the thermal pools, but the ryokan has welcomed guests for more than 100 years. The facilities at Osenkaku include a restaurant, lounge, guest rooms and a large indoor bath that guests can use 24 hours a day. Visitors can also enjoy river fish, mountain vegetables, thick handmade noodles and kuma jiru (bear stew).
If you’ve never seen a Japanese bear before, you’ll have the opportunity to see several caged ones within the compound. It definitely wasn’t a highlight for this onsen lover as the cages were cramped and the bears were nervously pacing back and forth. Letting them roam free seems a much better idea.
The area is famous for the momiji (Japanese maple) and beautiful autumn colors. Not surprisingly, fall is a very popular time to visit. There are also two short trekking courses nearby. One is rather flat and good for relaxing strolls, while the other is a four-kilometer hike that ends at a viewpoint at the top of a mountain.
When to go
Anytime is a good time to visit Takaragawa Onsen. Fall and spring attract the most visitors, but in summer you can lounge on the rocks and soak up the sun. Winter is a great time to mix in some skiing or snowboarding, or just stay warm in the hot springs with a cup of warm sake while white flakes fall from the sky.
From Tokyo, get on the Kanetsu Expressway at Nerima until you reach the Minakami IC (90 minutes). From the Minakami IC to Takaragawa Onsen is 18 kilometers (30 minutes). If you are going by train, take the Joetsu Line from Ueno Station in Tokyo to Minakami Station and then by bus to the onsen. You can also take the Joetsu Shinkansen (bullet train) from Ueno Station to Jomo Kogen Station and then take a bus from there to Takaragawa Station.
For more information on Takaragawa Onsen visit their Website at www.takaragawa.com/english.html.