The Ultimate Japanese Onsen Experience


If you fancy the idea of living like a royal in a historical Japanese era while enjoying a traditional hot spring bath…

…then look no further than Takaragawa Onsen in Minakami.

It was an experience that I fantasized about when I was planning my first trip to Japan in 2014, but due to limitations in finance and length of the holiday, I wasn’t able to fulfill it; so instead, I promised myself that I’ll make it a priority when I get back.

Two years later, I’m in the middle of the mountains in Gunma, dipping in a hot bath while thanking the onsen gods for allowing us mere mortals to have our Ultimate Japanese Onsen Experience.

And if you’re still not convinced that this is the best deal you could get on your next holiday trip to Japan, then here are 6 Detailed Reasons to seal the deal:

1. Get Cozy and Comfortable in an Authentic Ryokan

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The Annex building. The corner room was where we stayed, the one under the shades of the trees and facing the river.

If you want to get the feel of historical Japanese era without leaving your hotel room, or simply wanted to experience the daily life of Kenshin Himura, or whatever period anime you got hooked on, then staying in a ryokan is a must for you.

Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that originated back in the Edo period. They are most well-known for offering tatami rooms and futon beds to their guests. Takaragawa onsen offers the finest ryokan service with spacious rooms, authentic local atmosphere and magnificent views of nature.

They have three buildings that were built in the 90s: Main hall suites, #1 Annex, and East building. Annex is the oldest one which was established in 1939. This is where we stayed and were too lucky too get the room (Matsu 323) which has the best views of all the rooms.

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We woke up like this ;D Wearing the yukatas and robes they provided, we slept in a comfortable futon.

We were told that a lot of foreign visitors requested this room because its two sides have huge glass walls with nature views. The only downside is that, you can’t request for your dinner to be served inside the room, which is allowed in the main hall suites. Ohh, also wifi is bad in this room, but it’s good to stay away from technology from time to time.

2. Indulge in the Lavish Half Board Meals

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This was my diet dinner. The sukiyaki was superb!

If the fancy ryokan is not good enough for you, then how about a dinner that will make you ask yourself what the hell you did in your life to deserve such an overwhelming meal at the moment — wondering if this is what onsen gods eat everyday —  thinking of ways to be promoted to the position of onsen god.

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Dining area with locals and travelers

The dinner was a lot for one person. When I thought we already had too much on our table, the lovely staff approached us with some more small plates. I think this was the first time in a while that I didn’t have enough room for dessert, and that’s really something for a sweet-tooth.

And yes they still had dessert on top of everything on the photo. Also, rice is unlimited, but I doubt even a real man would dodge the extra rice this time.

Our breakfast. You will fry the egg and bacon and steam the fish and some cauliflower on your table

Our breakfast. You will fry the egg and bacon and steam the fish and some cauliflower on your table

The breakfast was not as grand but it was just as satisfying. I love the idea of having the guests cook on the table. I think it’s quite clever.

Other than rice and miso soup which are both easy to prepare, a lot of little portions of food are premade and refrigerated, while the main dishes are being fried/steamed/boiled on the dining table. It saves the staff a lot of time and even adds up to the nice dining experience of the guests.

3. Connect and Harmonize with Nature

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beautiful bridge

The travel alone to Minakami was a nature feast! There were stunning view of rivers, mountains, villages and local crops.

When you arrive in the ryokan, it was surrounded by all shades of greens. I’ve never felt that kind of peace in such a long time. It felt so far away from all of the chaos that’s currently happening to the world. There were no trace of power struggle, terrorism and discrimination in this village in the middle of mountains.  It was the perfect retreat.

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The crystal clear river

The flowing river is oddly crystal clear. I grew up near the rivers and I’ve never seen a fresh flowing water as clear as this. It almost look sterile. I would expect some algae and moss that will make it a lot more greener but there was no trace of any of it.

I had the weird idea that they might be bleaching it, but that’s pointless and difficult to do in a flowing water from the mountains. There were no fishes nor other river creatures as well, at least I haven’t seen any. Maybe it’s also the season in Japan that’s completely different from ours in the Philippines. After some rain, it started to become brownish, which was to be expected.

4. Two Words: Fantastic Service

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The management and staff will provide almost everything you need during your stay. They will hand you yukata, robe and indoor slippers. If you will go out, there are outdoor slippers waiting for you. And if it’s raining they have a stack of transparent umbrellas just before you step out of the door. They also have bathing dress for women to be used in the outdoor onsen.

Their staff are very kind and accommodating. If you need more from them, just ask.  My friend was a bit unwell when we arrived and they gave her free medicines. I also get to use their computer at the lobby and they have multiple vending machines scattered in the hallways.

5. And Lastly, of Course the Onsen!

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Photo screenshot from their website because photos in the onsen are not allowed. This is the smallest outdoor onsen.

They have multiple natural hotspring baths in the facility. They have indoor baths and outdoor baths with stunning views of the river, another bath on the other side, and the mountains surrounding the area. The indoor ones are gender exclusive and the ones on the outside are mixed. This is my first time to try the mixed gender.

Note that in Japan, it’s customary to skinny dip in public baths, but Takaragawa Onsen makes exceptions for the outdoor onsen. They provide brown bathing dress for women to wear. Men however, must proudly take off everything before enjoying the hot water. They can only cover themselves with a small white towel if they’re not feeling very comfortable being naked with the ladies around. We don’t mind, really 😉

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another screenshot from their website. This is how the onsen looks during winter

This is by far the best onsen I had in Japan, and I think the only one thing that may beat this is to go back to the same place during autumn or winter with my boyfriend. Yep, I think the atmosphere is too romantic to leave your SO behind 😀

So that’s it! I’ll be writing more about additional info about the cost, how to get  there and some other concerns for future travelers, like about the bears…

The Cheapest Route (from Tokyo to Minakami)

One way fare via JR lines: ¥‎ 3,020
Travel time: approx 3.5 hours
From Tokyo Shinjuku sta. – to Takasaki sta.
-> Take the JR Shonan-Shinjuku line (green and orange trains)
From Takasaki sta. Minakami sta.
-> Take the JR Joetsu line

Keep in mind:

  • Takaragawa onsen offers free shuttle from Minakami station. The shuttle leaves at 3pm sharp, so make sure you’ll be there on time, otherwise, it’s a bit difficult to get to their Ryokan. Make sure to inform them at least a day before that you will take the shuttle.
  • Get the Hyperdia app for train schedules but don’t rely too much on their suggested routes. Their suggested routes depend on the time of departure that you will input in the search option so sometimes, the cheapest option won’t appear.
  • Make sure you have extra time because the tickets can’t be bought from their vending machines. You can buy them at the Ticketing/Information office at the station which means you need to get in line for few minutes.
  • If you still have time, tell them that you prefer the local trains, not the shinkansen, which is the faster but more expensive option.
  • If you can’t get the direct line from Tokyo to Takasaki, you can also take the JR train to Omiya station, then from Omiya to Takasaki.

Please find sample Hyperdia screenshot below:

train to MInakami

 

The Faster Route via Shinkansen (from Tokyo to Minakami)

One way fare via JR lines: ¥‎ 4,860
Travel time: approx 3 hours
From Tokyo Shinjuku sta. Omiya sta.
-> Take the JR Shonan-Shinjuku line (green and orange trains)
From Omiya sta. – Takasaki sta.
-> Take the Shinkansen Hakutaka 563
From Takasaki sta. Minakami sta.
-> Take the JR Joetsu line

Shinkansen to Minakami

Note: In the Hyperdia image above, it still shows the overall fare of ¥‎ 3,020, but take not of the Shinkansen Seat fare ¥‎1,840. This amount will be added to the total fare. You will have a more comfortable ride via the shinkansen because you have a reserve seat, but for a price.

Another option: one way fare via JR lines: – ¥‎ 6,000

Shinkansen to MInakami

Accommodation Rate

We paid ¥25,200 (PHP 11,604/ $ 246) for two persons. This amount includes dinner, breakfast and unlimited access to their outdoor and indoor onsens.

I think this is quite a good deal, considering the surroundings in the Minakami area and the high quality ryokan, dining and onsen experience all at once. If you would consider going to ryokan and onsen separately say Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo which is  4,960 for 2, and ¥20,000 – ¥30,000 for an overnight ryokan in Hakone, it would be just around the same amount.

Bears

If there’s one downside about this accommodation, it’s the bears that they hold captive behind bars. I’ve read and was warned about it before coming here, that the bears are not in a good condition and unbearable to watch, so I particularly avoided seeing them. I know it doesn’t help that I didn’t look at them, that the fact that I still booked the hotel after knowing about this is not very noble, but this is the best option I could get considering the budget we had.

If you decide to come here in the end, you can avoid the bears by getting rooms at the Annex building. The cages cannot be viewed from this area on the way to the onsens.

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