Exploring Japan’s Takaragawa Onsen

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Onsen hot springs are as ubiquitous in Japan as stupidly cute things and cherry blossoms, so to the outside observer, a desire to find and stay in the best onsen in Japan might seem pointless.

It isn’t pointless, of course, a fact that will become almost immediately evident when you set foot onto the grounds of Takaragawa Onsen. Located in the foothills of the Japanese Alps about 90 minutes north of Tokyo by Shinkansen bullet train, this is one of my favorite places I’ve ever stayed in Japan.

The propety boasts four outdoor hot springs and a ryokan that straddles—surprise—the Takara River, among its other delights. Whether you’re also in search of the top onsen in Japan, or you simply want to know why I’m so over the moon about this place that I felt compelled to write a post, just reading about my experience at Takaragawa Onsen will chill you out.

NOTE: Travel to and within Japan has been severely impacted by government policies related to Covid-19. Even if you aren’t able to visit Japan in 2021, I encourage you to start getting inspired for Japan in 2022.    

Takaragawa Onsen Feels Like Home

Most onsen in Japan are just, well, onsen, which is to say hot springs. When I was traipsing through the ancient cedars of Yakushima Island, for example, I would end each day at a local one, paying 200 yen to the old woman waiting in the entrance as I passed by, then relaxing to my heart’s content—but never for the night. At Takaragawa Onsen, on the other hand, the hot spring itself (which I’ll talk about in just a minute) is merely the unifying attraction.

Although I suppose you could simply bathe for the day, you’d be missing out on another amazing aspect of being here, which is staying in the attached ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. The main building at Takaragawa dates back to 1955, which gives these traditionally-constructed and designed rooms an even more rustic feel. Featuring floor mattresses laid out on tatami mats, with indoor sitting areas that look out over the river, the rooms here are simple, but they’re exquisitely comfortable as well, all part of why I think this might be the best onsen in Japan.

5 Reasons to Visit Takaragawa Onsen

The onsen

The onsen at Takaragawa very much deserves its reputation as the best onsen in Japan. Or, I should say, their: Four outdoor onsen are available here, three co-ed and one for women only. Regardless of which onsen you choose, or how many nude Japanese woman or men accompany you, all feature relaxing stone bottoms and walls, traditional Japanese statues and wooden awnings to shield you from the rain and snow that fall here much of the year.

The seasons

Yes, you heard me right: It’s cold here much of the year. In late April, when I last visited, it hovers around 12-13ºC during the day. There were no leaves on the trees; there was still plenty of snow on the ground. It might sound crazy that a sun worshipper like me would even consider coming here, but there’s something about your body being submerged in scalding hot water that makes Jack Frost’s nose-nipping slightly more tolerable. This is to say nothing about the lushness of the green leaves in summer, which turn scarlet and golden in the Japanese autumn.

The convenience

Another great thing about the onsen at Takaragawa is that it’s open 24 hours, which means that if you’re a night owl or an early bird, you can essentially enjoy a private onsen in Japan while everyone else is sleeping. Many onsen in Japan have short operating hours, which means that…well, let’s just say I hope you don’t mind being naked with dozens of elderly Japanese people. Not saying I do, but privacy is nice!

The value

In spite of its fair price, Takaragawa affords guests incredible luxuries, such as private dining rooms and microbrewed sake. Indeed, no matter how much money you end up paying to stay here, there’s something to be said about the sublime relaxation a couple of nights here affords, particularly when it’s at the end of one month in Japan, which is almost as long as I spent the first time I came.

The food

Although I spent just a couple nights at Takaragawa, I felt like I took a graduate-level course in Japanese cuisine, whether I was enjoying crispy seafood tempura with green tea salt, preparing shabu-shabu and grilled fish right at my table or enjoying cold dishes like pickled umeboshi plum and, of course, sashimi, all served kaiseki-style in a private dining room.

Pictures of Takaragawa Onsen

Takaragawa Onsen

How to Get to Takaragawa Onsen

Even if you don’t end up loving Takaragawa Onsen quite as much as I do, it’s undoubtedly the best onsen near Tokyo. And it is very near Tokyo, to the extent that I often recommend it as a last stop on the custom Japan itineraries I plan for travelers—many head straight from Takaragawa to Haneda or Narita airports.

From Tokyo Station, you’ll want to ride the Joetsu Shinkansen northward to Jomo-Kogen, where shuttle buses to Takaragawa Onsen (you’ll need to reserve your spot at the time of booking) depart a couple of times per day. Depending on the location of your hotel in Tokyo, door-to-door travel time should be under three hours.

Other FAQ About Takaragawa Onsen

How do you get from Tokyo to Takaragawa Onsen?

To reach Takaragawa Onsen from Tokyo, ride the Joetsu Shinkansen to Jomo-Kogen station, where shuttles for Takaragawa Onsen will take you onward to the ryokan. Note that you need to reserve your place on these vehicles (which are complimentary) in advance, ideally at the time of booking.

Can I go to Takaragawa Onsen if I have tattoos?

Takaragawa Onsen, like most privately operated onsen in Japan, does allow guests with tattoos to bathe. However, out of cultural consideration for the Japanese guests at the hotel, you could consider covering up your tattoos if possible. Absent this, you might bathe early in the morning or late in the evening for the sake of discretion.

How much does Takaragawa Onsen cost?

Takaragawa Onsen offers a variety of accommodation plans, from à la carte rooms, to room-and-board plans with breakfast and dinner, including the option to enjoy food and drink in private dining rooms. Although you can sometimes find rates as low as ¥10,000 per night, the average person spends between ¥20,000-40,000 per night at Takaragawa Onsen.

The Bottom Line

Is Takaragawa Onsen the best one in Japan? I’m of the opinion that it might be, but I also think this is the wrong question. Superlatives notwithstanding, the reality of Takaragawa Onsen—a heritage inn set in a heavily wooded ravine, which dramatically displays all four of Japan’s seasons as you bathe amid them outdoors—is enticing to anyone with a pulse.

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