If you are looking for a unique experience in an exceptional setting, look no further than Kaniyu Onsen. This ryokan hidden deep in the mountains of Oku-Nikko is well worth the trek to get there. Experience the regional countryside fare, hike through the forests, gain a deeper understanding of the local history, and of course, relax in one of the best onsens in Japan.
Don’t let the strong sulphur smell put you off from having a relaxing time. You will soon grow accustomed to it, and your skin will benefit from the natural minerals as you soak in this opaque mint green water. One loyal customer, who explained that he had been here over 80 times, ensured the author that the onsen was great during all seasons, though he admits it is particularly beautiful during the winter. The blanket of white that covers the rocks and the surrounding land, offers a spectacular landscape for the patrons.
The extreme heat of the onsen takes some getting used to, but leaves you with lasting warmth that helps you brave the cold as you walk between each of the outdoor rotemburo baths. If you are lucky, it might snow while you are soaking in the baths, adding magic to the experience. On a clear night, you may gaze up at the multitude of brilliant stars as the baths are open 24 hours a day.
While there is one private outdoor bath for the women, the rest of the outdoor baths are mixed. Women wear a full bath towel provided by the onsen when entering the mixed baths, while men have a small hand towel to cover themselves. Women might consider bringing an extra bath towel from home for drying off.
As with most ryokan stays, both dinner and breakfast are included in the price. The dinner consists of a nabe dish made with chicken and kampyo, a gourd which is a speciality product of Tochigi Prefecture. In addition to this nabe, are a plethora of local mountain vegetables and mushrooms served in a variety of ways. The breakfast consists of more local mountain vegetables, and a small river fish grilled until crispy, along with the staples of miso soup, rice, nori, and of course, natto. Through these meals, you can get a true taste of Tochigi’s countryside.
Since this place is located far from any town or shop, you may want to consider bringing your own snacks and additional drinks, though some are available via vending machines and a small shop at the entrance.
Because of its location in the mountains, many visitors take the opportunity to go trekking and to explore the local scenery. There are a variety of paths in the area at varying difficulty levels. Whether you want to go for a short leisurely stroll, or are looking for a challenge, the ryokan staff are very friendly and ready to help you choose your route. During the warmer months of June and July, they offer a guided tour of the local wetlands where you are able to see many rare and beautiful flowers. On Saturdays from December-March, they offer a free night walking tour along a path lit up with candles. Take advantage of this opportunity to experience the quiet nature of the countryside and look up to see the stars!
For Japanese history buffs, this location has an extra treat. If you look at the butterfly symbols displayed on items throughout the ryokan, you might recognise the emblem of the Taira clan. Descending from the Imperial Family, this samurai family fled to the mountains in Oku-Nikko after being defeated by the Minamoto clan in the Genpei War (1180-1185). This story was made famous in The Tale of the Heike (平家物語).
How to Get There
The best way to get there is by taking a Municipal City bus from the Kinugawa Onsen Station to the Meotobuchi (女夫渕) terminal which takes approximately 90 minutes, depending on road conditions. If you have a car, you may park your car for free at the same Meotobuchi lot. From there, you can either take a shuttle bus the rest of the way (30 min), or cross the bridge and head up the stairs on the opposite side to begin the hour and a half hike through the forest path up to the ryokan.
Only the onsen’s vehicles are allowed on the road past the Meotobuchi stop. If your stay is booked directly with Kaniyu, there may be a free shuttle from Tobu Shimo-Imachi station to the onsen during the winter months, however, space is limited and must be reserved well in advance. Day visits are allowed, however those who are not staying at the hotel may not use the shuttle buses.
Some signs have English, and the staff has limited speaking ability, but it is probably best to brush up on your Japanese ryokan vocabulary before making a reservation.
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Brittany is a firm believer in trying all foods at least once, spending as much time outdoors as possible, and taking advantage of any opportunity to experience traditional Japanese culture. Originally from the Adirondack Valley in Upstate New York, she is currently living and teaching English in Japan's majestic and landlocked Tochigi Prefecture.