Japan has more than its fair share of onsen (hot spring) towns, the country’s original tourist destination, but none are as easy to get to from Tokyo as Kinugawa Onsen.
This is one of the capital’s okuzashiki. Originally a term for a guest room at the back of the house, it also refers to an onsen town or tourist spot that’s in a major city’s backyard. At just two hours from Tokyo by train, this certainly applies to Kinugawa Onsen.
Atami and Hakone, Tokyo’s other onsen okuzashiki, boast pretty big selling points. Atami has hot springs and beaches. Hakone has hot springs and Mount Fuji views. Made up of the Edo Period (1603-1868) Taki Onsen area on the west bank of the Kinu River, and the Fujiwara Onsen area on the east, Kinugawa has only hot springs.
Once upon a time, there were close to 80 hotels, ryokan (Japanese inn) and other lodgings in operation along the town’s admittedly dramatic gorge; at the bottom of this roars the river that gave this town its name: angry ogre (kinu) river (gawa).
The presence of the ryokan that jostle for space on the edges of the cliffs gives Kinugawa the appearance of a lost city. Its blocky cuboids and weather-stained towers contrast with the tree-cloaked hills and giant boulders of the river for something like a cross between a hidden valley village and a rundown central business district. Then again, the West has been doing this for ages — just on beaches instead.
That is part of the charm of Kinugawa. Since the bubble burst, many of its 80 accommodations have shut down. The fact there is no scaffolding, no renovations, no paint jobs, gives this onsen resort a laissez faire realness that makes you feel like you’re behind the scenes of a film set that’s been forgotten about.
Fans of architecture and urban exploration should take a stroll around town and marvel at the shapes the disused (and used) buildings make above the natural sides of the gorge. There’s a sense of post-apocalyptic mire about the place; not all sightseeing has to be perfect.
That said, Kinugawa is resplendent in the sun. There are a few walking courses around town where you can get away from the main strip. Head south, past the backs of onsen-hotels spluttering out scorching water into drains graced with miniature shrines, cross the vertigo-inducing Kinu-Tateiwa Otsuribashi suspension bridge, and clamber up steps to get a view from the Tateiwa rock formation. The Kinu River is dazzlingly blue from here; from mid-April to late November, you can even take a boat ride down its rushing rapids.
For more vistas, there’s also Kinugawa Onsen Ropeway, which trundles up to the summit of Osaru no Yama (Monkey Mountain). Here, there are monkeys — and lots of them. Keep snacks hidden.
Of course, there are a multitude of onsen. The Kinugawa Plaza Hotel offers up a garden of private baths strung with lanterns, while Hotel Shirakawa Yunokura goes for a more natural look, but with rooms that feel part luxury, part “Star Trek” officer’s cabin.
After a soak in your bath of choice, eat, drink and be merry at Ichifuji, an old-school shokudō (casual restaurant), filled with hyperactive onsen-goers in their yukata (light cotton kimono). In the morning, go for coffee and pancakes at Cocowa to start the day: This is one of the newer establishments here, and perhaps a sign that the town is making steps towards a fresh face-lift.
Board the Tobu Skytree Line Limited Express train from Asakusa Station to arrive at Kinugawa Onsen Station in about two hours. The line is covered by the Nikko Pass, which allows onward travel to the Nikko area.