an oni (demon) overlooking the hottest of the baths at Takaragawa
T wanted to visit an onsen while he was in Japan. We had just gone to Kusatsu (without T and Dad) only a week or two before, so we decided to check out Minakami this time. We hopped on a train and headed up there. When we arrived, we asked a shopkeeper if he could recommend an onsen. He said that Takaragawa Onsen (Treasure River Hot Spring) was the best around and that the bus would be coming in about 15 minutes. So we hopped on the bus and headed there. It was only after we got on the bus that I noticed it would be an hour ride and about 1000 yen. Oh well, we were on vacation.
After we got off the bus, there was a shuttle from Takaragawa waiting to pick up visitors. The shuttle took us down into the river valley to the onsen and hotel. The sign at the front noted that Takaragawa is often rated among the top onsens in Japan. We paid the entry fee (1500 yen) and headed inside. Takaragawa was pretty different from any other onsen I’ve been to. It was quite an experience. I had to get directions to the baths because they weren’t inside the building, they were actually down a path along the river. As we walked toward the bath, we passed by hallways that were lined with tchotchke. Stuff of every description was packed into every corner: antiques, masks, statues, toys, silk flowers, flags, signs, souvenirs, and so on. Next we passed a small shrine and the bear cage. That’s right. The bear cage. One of the attractions at Takaragawa is baby bears in cages. They looked a bit restless and the cages seemed a bit small for them. I don’t know why they have the bears, it’s a fine onsen, so it doesn’t seem like they would need wild animals in cages to draw in visitors. Perhaps the owner just likes bears? There were pictures in the lobby building of some women bottle feeding the bear cubs in the baths. The pictures looked like they were taken about 20 years ago, so these must be different bears now, but they are certainly too big to be sharing the baths with people anyways.
along the corridor, a room full of old stuff – the first and hottest bath at Takaragawa
From there it was on to the baths. Takaragawa has four baths; the first three are mixed-bathing, that is, men and women, and the last is for women only. I headed down to the ladies bath and got undressed and rinsed off before bathing with the rinsing water. After that, I wrapped myself in my towel (ladies must wear a towel to enjoy the mixed pools) and headed to the mixed baths. I started with the second bath. It was fairly hot, and was the most “natural” of the pools. The bottom was a little sandy in spots, and sticks and algae would sometimes float by. This pool wasn’t really to my style.
We headed back around to the other side of the changing rooms to the first bath. Some other groups of men and women were also bathing here. We hopped in. This bath was hot! There was a smaller pool a little bit above the main pool. We waded to the far side to check it out. As we walked up the steps, water cascading from the small pool down the steps scorched our feet. We got in, but we could only stand a few seconds before we were beginning to feel like boiled lobsters. Back in the main pool, it was much more pleasant, but still quite hot. We relaxed here for a while before we began to wonder how the pool across the river was. It seemed to be quite full of people.
So we were off to the third pool. We walked across a bridge to the other side of the river. The pool on this side was warm, but not hot. As we sat in the pool, looking out over the rushing river and the melting snow, a man in the pool put his hand to his mouth, perhaps he had a small reed or instrument in it, and began to play the Japanese song Sakura. We listened to his wistful notes, relaxing in the onsen and enjoying the beauty of early spring in the mountains in Japan. It was lovely.
yayoi no sora wa
kasumi ka kumo ka
nioi zo izuru
the ladies bath at Takaragawa – another view of the first bath
I decided to check out the ladies bath too, so I left the guys and headed back across the river. The ladies bath was nice. It was a good temperature: hot, but not as hot as the first bath, which was so hot that it soon became unbearable. Finally I went back to the first bath to meet the guys. We were lucky: since it was a weekday afternoon, the bath wasn’t too busy, so were were even able to get some photos of some of the baths when there were no people in them.
On the bus back to Minakami, the bus driver pulled over to the side a few times. “Hora, hora!” Look, look! There is a fox. Look, look! There are some monkeys. In the end, our onsen trip was a bit more expensive than we had planned (about 5500 yen for train, bus, and tickets at the onsen), but it was certainly one of the best and also one of the strangest onsens that I have ever been to.