by Jeff Manning

I heard someone say something once that kind of sums up my attitude towards hot springs and has since become somewhat of a motto of mine. They said, “So many onsen, so little time!” Now, when I say this, I don’t mean to imply that I am leaving Japan any time soon. Rather, it means that with all the great hotspring choices we have here in this country, I find myself with a “child in a candy store” type of desire to try them all. Even if I find a spot that provides a particu­larly fun and unique experience, I rarely visit that same spot twice. There are just too many new sights.

However, there are some places that arc so incred­ibly beautiful, enjoyable and memorable that during my stay I have had to pinch myself to make sure it was real and not a dream. These are the yokozuna of the hot-spring world. Where scenery, hospitality, bathing facilities, food and accommodations all come together so perfectly that they create an experience that can only be described as magic. If you only had one chance in your life to visit an onsen, a place like this is where you would want to go. A place like Takaragawa Onsen.

Takaragawa Onsen can be found in the mountain­ous region of northern Gumma prefecture. In English, Takaragawa means “treasure river,” and when I first visited there a few years ago, I thought I’d found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It was late autumn and I remember how especially impressed I was with the scenic beauty of the rotenburo (outdoor open-air bath), in its natural setting.

The leaves on the trees were a colorful mixture of vibrant reds and brilliant golds and some of the tree branches hung over a crystal-clear pool with the leaves casting reflections in the water. Every so often, a leaf would flutter down and float on the water, painting a picture so lovely and “so Japanese” it was like watch­ing a sake commercial on TV. Sunlight also danced and sparkled on the water as I eased in and quietly soaked for hours listening to birdsong and the sound of the rushing river just a few feet away.

The next day, the sky turned dark and it rained all day long. But the friendly people at the ryokan were prepared and were passing out round, pointed straw hats, like those you see Chinese field workers wear. With my hat on, I was able to enjoy the rotenburo without having to hold an umbrella over my head, even though it was pouring so hard I could barely see the opposite side of the pool.

Besides aquatic adventures and the usual gift shops, there are other surprises that await visitors to Takaragawa. There is a place where you can paint your own ceramic plates or cups, which they will then bake for you in a small kiln. These make fun, personal and “usable” souvenirs and the old gentleman who works there always seems to enjoy the company of guests. You can also browse through the incredible collection of Japanese antiques, knick-knacks, chests, white elephants, ceramic pottery, one-of-a-kind folk crafts, farm tools, baskets and much more. This fascinating “flea market” features everything from the beautiful to the bizarre.

The highlight of my stay, though, and one of the things that Takaragawa is most famed for, were the bears. These six resident bears are not running around loose or swimming in the onsen with pretty girls (de­spite advertising posters to the contrary); they are in cages. A couple were orphaned cubs, but the rest just wandered out of the hills and decided to stay, becoming an “unbearable” nuisance. You can feed them bear snacks for ¥30 a bag or, better yet, they love apple slices. Needless to say, with all this going for it, 1 knew that this onsen was one place I would visit again.

Last year, at Christmas time, I returned to Takaragawa and found (to my great joy and satis­faction) that nothing had changed. Everything was just the way I remembered it to be. It was almost like coming home. Even the bears seemed genuinely pleased to see me (I’m almost certain it had nothing to do with the apple slices I brought). On Christmas Eve, it snowed heavily. And, as I sat and soaked (and because I was alone), I couldn’t resist the temptation of jumping out of the onsen (my body still steaming) and making “snow angels” in the powdery snow.

The food at Takaragawa is excellent. Depending upon the day or season you can dine on combinations of sukiyaki, sushi, onabe (a kind of stew), grilled river fish, fresh vegetables…and the portions are very generous. I ate until I was completely stuffed and still couldn’t finish. There are several shops just in case you want an in-between snack.

Accommodations at Takaragawa are quiet and comfortable and the service is friendly. The inn, known as Osenkaku, is the only place to stay, but is large and has several annexes. If you don’t want to stay at the ryokan, you can still use the bathing facili­ties until 6 p.m. for ¥1,800. Besides the spacious main bath, there is also a beautiful “women-only” bath and a third rotenburo that isn’t as hot as the others which makes it popular in the summer.

There are several indoor baths to choose from as well. If you do decide to stay there (which highly recommend), prices start at around ¥25,000 per night (including two meals). This may seem ex­pensive to most folks until you compare it with some of the incredible prices being charged at onsen closer to Tokyo! But Takaragawa is well worth it.

There are two ways to reach Takaragawa by train: you can cither take the Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo or Ueno stations to Jomo Kogen, and from there catch a bus (for about an hour’s ride), or you can take the Joetsu line from Ueno station to Minakami and then a bus from there (about a 45-minute ride).

Reservations (in Japanese) can be made by calling Osenkaku, 0278-75-2121.