Aristotle once said, "To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand out in the cold." But in Japan, you can enjoy and catch snowflakes from the comfort of a steaming open-air hot spring. Follow my journey into the mountains of northern Gunma prefecture for this breathtaking and magical experience!
My journey to Takaragawa Onsen (宝川温泉 汪泉閣) began with a short 1h 15m Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Jomo Kogen Station and continued with a courtesy bus ride to the ryokan. As the bus winds its way up the beautiful mountains, I was mesmerised by the falling snow, gently kissing the trees and covering the whole mountain range in a white quilt. Snow has this magical transformative quality that seems to cover and cleanse the whole landscape.
After 45mins, I arrive at our home for the night - a ryokan in the heart of the mountains, right on the Takaragawa River with steaming hot springs scattered around. I felt like I was entering another world - so pure and dreamlike under the snowy layers, it reminded me of the magical world of Narnia. Takaragawa Onsen is in a secluded location but well known for having some of the largest and most beautiful outdoor onsen/hot springs (rotenburo, 露天風呂) in Japan and the onsen experience is the main reason for our trip.
The biggest draw for visiting an onsen in the winter is bathing outdoors in the snow. This was the first thing I did after check-in to make the most of the fact that it was snowing. The snow got heavier in the afternoon and for a few moments while I was undressing, I thought this was a crazy idea. But the hesitation lasted only a few seconds as the rush of cold air made my decision for me and I jumped into the hot bath. The contrast of the hot water surrounding my body and cool snowflake kisses on my face was a surreal experience. I grew up in sunny Sydney so I am not used to chilly winters but even I loved every moment of being outside in the snow while soaking in the warm waters!
All warmed up (and slightly wrinkled), we tucked into our dinner feast. There was a self-service buffet of side dishes, vegetables, rice, noodles and sweets. We each had our own set of grilled fish and shabu shabu / hot pot. It was a delicious meal, although the service could have been more attentive and personal.
After dinner, we couldn’t resist another soak in the onsen (to steam away those calories ;)). A great feature of the ryokan is that the outdoor baths are open 24 hours (and night time tend to be less crowded). It was dark but lamps led the way and it was another poetic experience to bath under the moonlight. The warm water soothed me and transported me to a meditative state. I definitely slept very well that night!
The next morning, snow gave way to clear blue skies so we groggily got up and forced/pushed ourselves into the cold to watch the sunrise. The chilly air quickly woke me up and froze my fingers and limbs but it was worth it to watch and feel the warmth(!) of the first sun rays sweep across the white landscape. There weren’t many people around (they were the smart, sane ones) so we had this secret enchanting world to ourselves. It felt so fun/special to walk on the fresh snow that noone else has walked on and leave our footprints behind.
The end came all too quickly with a lovely Japanese breakfast and check-out thereafter. As the same bus took my rested and relaxed self back to civilisation, I was still amazed by how this slice of winter wonderland was only 2 hours away from megacity Tokyo. Timeless experiences like this and Shirakawago (another place that seems straight out of a fairytale) make me love Japan even more and I am excited to explore these hidden nooks and crannies in 2019! If you have any recommendations, please share below.
Takaragawa Onsen is a convenient and wonderful onsen destination from Tokyo, perfect for a weekend trip. It is easy to book via booking.com or the ryokan website itself (booking 1-2 months are recommended for peak seasons/weekends). Some additional thoughts on this location (as compared to some of my other onsen experiences) are also below in case helpful:
This is one of the rare onsen where there is a mixed gender bath (smock cover up dresses are provided for women) so it could be a plus for couples and families but I found it a bit awkward and hard to relax. There are also women only and men only baths - I preferred the women only baths as they are more secluded and peaceful and less exposed to the elements (so felt warmer and cosier)!
Mixed and single-gender baths can get crowded so I suggest going during/after dinner or breakfast to avoid the crowds and enjoy some zen alone time.
The changing / shower facilities at the outdoor baths are basic so it can be a bit uncomfortable (especially when it is very cold / snowing) but this does make the first dip into the onsen water that much more pleasurable!
This onsen seems to be very popular with international tourists (a Lonelyplanet feature may have been responsible) so ryokan staff is used to foreigners and can speak good English. This was also reflected in the food menu which had a mix of Asian food (Japanese and non-Japanese). This was a bit different to Zao onsen (which I visited as part of my Yamagata autumn roadtrip) and Kurokawa Onsen where Japanese tourists were the majority and, in my opinion, had a more local and traditional atmosphere. But all in all, I had a wonderful weekend here and would love to return in the future.
One of the beauty of Takaragawa Onsen is its remote location but, don’t worry, getting here can be hassle free. If coming from Tokyo, I recommend taking the Shinkansen to Jomo-kogen station, have a quick lunch at one of the homey soba restaurants nearby and take the 1pm courtesy bus to the ryokan (reservation required in advance). The ryokan website has detailed information on transport options in English.
While there isn’t much within the immediate vicinity of the ryokan, Takaragawa Onsen is part of the Minakami hot spring resort area with numerous ski resorts and adrenaline sport activities (e.g. bungee jumping, whitewater rafting) so this onsen retreat can be added to the end of a ski / outdoor sporting trip all year round. If you choose to base yourself elsewhere in the area (or even Tokyo), you can visit Takaragawa Onsen as a day trip and day trippers also have access to the onsens (for a fee).