A Change of Pace
One day we were still cavorting in the snow at Tateyama; the next morning we were hurtling our way towards Demon land, also known as Okukinu Onsen 奥鬼怒温泉, an area with hidden hot springs.
The Journey to Demon land wasn’t straightforward. We started from Nagano City長野 and had to make 6 connections in total.
-> Nagano to Omiya 大宮駅 (1 hr) on the Hokuriku Shinkansen (Kagayaki)
-> Omiya to Utsunomiya 宇都宮駅 (23 min) on the Tohoku-Hokkaido Shinkansen (Tsubasa)
-> Utsunomiya to Imaichi 今市駅 (36 min) on the JR Nikko Line
-> Imaichi to Shimo-Imaichi station 下今市駅 (10 mins) 800m by walk
-> Shimo-Imaichi to Kinugawa Onsen Station 鬼怒川温泉駅 (23 min) on the Tobu-Kinugawa Line
-> Kinugawa Onsen Station to Meotobuchi Car Park 女夫渕駐車場 (2.5 hrs) by Nikko City Bus (4 trips per day)
-> Meotobuchi Car Park to Kaniyu 加仁湯 (30 min) on the Kaniyu Onsen bus.
Bonus #1: met one demon – Kinuta 鬼怒太 (below) – outside Kinugawa Onsen station.
We could have taken the Limited Express Spacia Kinugawa from Omiya to Kinugawa Onsen but discovered belatedly that our Japan Rail Passes didn’t cover this. Read Tokyo to Okukinu below for more options.
Bonus #2: We had time to break for lunch.
Except for a few broken suitcase wheels and a couple of near misses, we made it to Meotobuchi Car Park in time and intact.
The bus that came to meet us looked like a retired old school bus: worn-down, dusty, battered and unforgiving towards our bums. We hugged our suitcases tightly (no luggage compartment) as the bus rolled into the mountains.
If bathing in milky, turquoise, hot spring waters enveloped in ethereal mist in a rustic mountain valley is your thing, then Okukinu Onsen 奥鬼怒温泉 should absolutely be in your itinerary.
Okukinu is known as a hidden/secret hot spring because up until 1988 (before the Okukinu Super Forest Road opened) guests had to walk in the forest for 1.5 hours in order to reach the 4 onsens nestled deep in the mountains in Tochigi Prefecture 栃木県.
The 4 onsens: Kaniyu 加仁湯, Haccho-no-yu 八丁湯, Nikkozawa 日光沢 and Teshirosawa 手白澤 possess distinct styles and have their own charms. Kaniyu and Haccho-no-yu are more popular and it is not uncommon to spot foreigners amongst guests. Tershirosawa only accepts Japanese-speaking guests and is used as a base to climb Tershiroyama手白山.
The onsens are about 15 minutes’ walk from one another.
Haccho-no-yu (1304m) is the first onsen to be reached from Meotobuchi carpark. It is framed by a beautiful landscaped compound and light-wooded log houses; they also have traditional-styled rooms in the main building. If you want a little luxury, consider Haccho-no-yu.
A little further upstream is Kaniyu (1320m), dominant but showing some signs of age.
Follow the the trail to the left of Kaniyu building and you will arrive at Nikko Zawa onsen (1340m), looking like a steadfast mountain lodge. At the back of Nikkozawa, there is a trail that ascends and further splits into two, one to Nenakusayama 根名草山, the other to the viewing platform for Hinata Osoroshi Falls 日向オソロシの滝.
Teshirozawa (1410m) can be reached on a separate trail that veers off on the left towards Teshirozawa river 手白澤. Teshirozawa reminds one of a minshuku.
Kaniyu – Crab! It’s Good Soup!
Kaniyu got its name 蟹湯 (lit. ‘Crab Soup’) from the swamp crabs that used to be crawling around the area (must have all been eaten by now). As the area wasn’t accessible, only locals were privy to the hot spring, until 1934 when Kaniyu was erected. During WWII, it barely operated but avoided falling into disrepair thanks to local mountain enthusiasts who used it and helped keep it functional.
After the war, the owner returned, refurbished it and renamed it 加仁湯 (same pronunciation, different kanji, lit. ‘add benevolence’) because he was moved by the goodwill of those who had supported and helped Kaniyu survive the hard times.
Kaniyu 加仁湯’s architecture is pragmatic and doesn’t beat about the bush. Afterall, it is all about the baths. Despite the rather average facilities visitors still turn up in droves, even on weekdays.
Interestingly the ryokan sports a butterfly logo, the same emblem used by the Taira clan (also known as Heike). It is likely a homage to the Taira who fled into these very mountains hundreds of years ago after they lost the Genpei war (1180-1185). Yunishigawa Onsen on the other side of the mountain, was a Heike hidden village.
The ryokan has 48 rooms and 2 banquet areas.
The spacious reception area is great for impromptu gatherings or just chilling with a cuppa after meals. There’s also a hearth room for those really cold days. If you need extra comfort, stretch your arms out for those stuffed animal mounts in the room.
The food was quite average, compared to other ryokans we’ve stayed in.
If staying 2 nights, bring along some food or titbits because you ain’t going to be able to get any around this area. Kaniyu does offer simple lunch options (order time: 1200-1300) such as udon and soba etc at reasonable prices.
The baths, oh the baths! That’s what we are here for.
Kaniyu takes its supplies from 5 hot spring sources and the waters are channelled into numerous baths in the ryokan. Of the 3 big baths, 1 is indoor and the other 2 are rotenburos ie open-air baths.
The first rotenburo is exclusively for ladies (Rotenburo #1). I consider this to be the most attractive of them all. The main pool is framed by a venerable-looking wooden roof while the minor pool allows bathers to sit on the rocks and bask under the sun on a good day.
The other open-air bath (Rotenburo #3) features very inviting turquoise-blue milky waters. #3 is a mixed bath so ladies will need to time their dips carefully.
There are 3 smaller outdoor baths at the back of the ryokan facing a small stream-fall. These three are truly open to the sky, quite perfect for those who don’t mind a bit of attention, nude or clothed.
Kamoshika-no-yu, a rounded stone bath at the edge of the rocks, is very charming but big enough to accommodate only one person. Rotenburo #2 is nearby, tucked beside some boulders but still pretty open. I did not see anyone use it when I was there. The last one is a private bath; this one helps preserve some modesty because its enclosed by bamboo doors. You can reserve the onsen after check-in.
Then there are 5 ‘tasting baths’ named ‘Roman baths’ where each pool features waters from 1 single source so guests can ‘savour’ each on its own. The pools are lined up side by side and each pool is good for one, at most 2 persons at a time. The baths are connected to the Ladies and Men’s changing rooms on either side so they are availed to both guys and gals (ladies, check the coast is clear before you enter!).
Here’s how the baths differ:
- Take-no-yu たけの湯 is alkaline which leaves the skin with a smooth feeling;
- Gake-no-yu 崖の湯 has the second highest mineral contenl; otherwise composition is similar to Kogane;
- Iwa-no-yu 岩の湯 has the highest mineral content of all the baths; has a high temperature and high water flow rate;
- Kogane-no-yu 黄金の湯 contains a high level of mineral as well as carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide which transforms into insoluble colloidal particles when it comes into contact with oxygen, giving the water a milky appearance; it is considered good for those with skin problems;
- Okukino #4 奥鬼怒4号 is almost identical composition to Kogane but its temperature and water flow rate differs.
All in, there are 11 baths but I must say Rotenburos #1 and #3 are the more picturesque ones.
We were able to explore the baths quite thoroughly because we stayed 2 nights and went during the changeover period when old guests left and new ones had yet to come. There is also an outdoor pool (swimsuit allowed) beside Rotenburo #3 which was being refurbished when we were there, and a foot bath just outside the entrance.
Hiking in Okukinu
Okukinu is perfect for those who wish to do some easy hiking. Start from Meotobuchi car park (1120m), follow the vehicular road towards Haccho-no-yu and look for the start to the trail (left side).
For the most part, the trail follows the Kinugawa river. The path is obvious and quite well shaded. Along the way, pause and enjoy the pristine beauty of the forest and the stepped falls.
From Kaniyu it takes one hour to reach the Hinata Osoroshi Waterfall Observation Deck. As you walk, you will already be able to see waterfalls galore.
Tokyo to Okukinu
To get to Okukinu Onsen, you have to first get to Kinugawa Onsen. Here are various ways to reach Kinugawa Onsen from Tokyo.
1. Limited express train from Tobu Asakusa Station to Kinugawa Onsen Station (not covered by JR passes)
2. Local/express trains from Tobu Asakusa Station (half the price, 30 min longer, may require 1-3 transfers, not covered by JR passes)
3. Limited express train from Shinjuku Station to Kinugawa (not covered by Japan Rail Pass but covered by JR Tokyo Wide Pass, JR East Nagano Niigata Area Pass, JR East Tohoku Area Pass and JR East South Hokkaido Pass )
4. Tohoku Shinkansen to Utsuonomiya -> Imaichi -> Shimo-Imaichi Station -> Kinugawa (covered by Japan Rail Pass except Shimo-Imaichi to Kinugawa; “->” implies “transfer to another line”)
5. Bus from Tokyo Station Yaesu South Exit to Kinugawa (3 hr 25 min)
At Kinugawa Onsen, take the Nikko City Bus from bus stop #1 to Meotobuchi Car Park 女夫渕駐車場 (2.5 hrs) then transfer to the ryokan bus/car or hike up to your onsen of choice (4.5km, 90 mins). Bus stop #1 is to the left of the train station exit
The Nikko City Bus is a 14-seater with no luggage compartment so board early and try to travel light. There are only 4 trips per day. Here is the bus schedule:
Departing Kinugawa Onsen : 0735, 1015, 1325, 1550
Departing Meotobuchi Car Park: 0745, 0950, 1245, 1525
Here is the Kaniyu Bus schedule:
Departing Meotobuchi Car Park:1200, 1500, 1730
Departing Kaniyu: 0900, 1120
Kaniyu Check-in: 1230; Check-out: 1000
Kaniyu: Japan〒321-2717 Tochigi Nikko Kawamata 871
Cost per (6 to a room) :11,340¥/pax/night
Kinugawa-Meotobuchi bus: 1540¥/pax/trip