Takaragawa Osenkaku’s mixed gender baths

From certain angles you can’t tell where the river ends and the baths begin. Set in the hills of Minakami, Takaragawa Osenkaku is well known for its spectacular riverside rotemburo. Takaragawa Osenkaku claims its baths to be among the largest rotemburo  in Japan. More interestingly, out of its four outdoor baths, three are konnyoku or mixed baths. Which means you’d better be comfortable in your skin in front of strangers – of the opposite sex.

For any onsen aficionado, the mixed gender bath is probably the ultimate litmus test of how far you’d go for a good bath. For me, mixed bathing started out more as a personal dare. But ultimately, I’ve  come to realise that a good onsen experience still boils down to the basics – how good the bath is, the setting of the baths, the quality of the inn. 

Those who have read this blog would know that I can and will travel far for a good onsen experience. The Honke Bankyu in Yunishigawa Onsen for instance took a two-hour train ride and a one-hour bus ride from Tokyo. Tiny Tsubo-yu in Yunomine Onsen required a 3-hour train ride from Nagoya followed by a one-hour bus ride.

Konnyoku bathing is not new to me. At Yarimikan in Shin Hotaka, the rotemburo were also mixed. But in the recent aftermath of the devastating tsunami and nuclear disaster up north in March 2011, tourism and visitor numbers plunged so we were pretty much the few foreign guests then. As a result, I never really got to experience mixed bathing fully.

I love baths which are a bit on the remote side, in gorgeous natural settings. So combine my curiosity about mixed baths and the large riverside baths in Takaragawa Onsen and I was sold.

From Tokyo, it is easy to get to Takaragawa Onsen. The shinkansen from Tokyo whisked us to Jomo Kogen station in about 75min. The first thrilling glimpse of snow-clad mountains could be seen from the countryside near Takasaki, one stop before Jomo Kogen. At Jomo Kogen station, we boarded the complimentary shuttle service from the ryokan (below).

Can I say how beautiful, absolutely breathtaking the journey from Jomo Kogen was to Minakami and then to Takaragawa Onsen itself? It was late spring and so we seemed to be caught in a time warp of sorts where the leaves of some trees, just budding, lent a fuzzy brown to the landscape that was reminiscent of autumn. At the same time, the shibazakura, moss phlox was out in brilliant purple, pink and white. They cascaded over stone walls, laced the open lawns of some gardens. And it wasn’t just the moss phlox. There were daffodils, tulips, dandelions, peonies – like God’s garden just went into overdrive.

submerged trees

submerged trees

In addition, being up in the mountains meant that we could still see late blooming sakura. And always in the background, towering over all the colour, are the snow-capped mountains. It was a palette of brown, tender greens, teal rivers, delicate pinks. It was the sort of jaw-dropping scenery you just drink in greedily as the bus turns corners. After a while I gave up trying to capture the beauty with the camera and just let the colours wash over me with pleasure.

Having traveled through Japan in all seasons – spring when the sakura are out, the sweltering humid summers, the dramatic reds of the maples in autumns and the deep crisp winter, I can now say that my favourite season is late spring from mid to late May. That is when the flowers are blooming and the air is still fresh and cool and yet with enough sunshine to avoid packing sweaters and woollies. At this time, blue sky days are plentiful and the rainy tsuyu season is yet to follow.

It takes about half an hour from Jomo Kogen to reach Minakami Onsen railway station. We stopped there to pick up some guests who were arriving at the railway station.

Minakami Onsen is a sleepy one-street town with the old railway station right in the middle (below). Most of the shops were closed or had their doors shut, maybe against the brisk wind that was blowing.

There were also several big hotel complexes slightly out of town that were empty, abandoned and forlorn, falling into disrepair. In one you could see a chandelier sagging, hanging on by some wires.  Tiles were broken, sodden plaster chunks lay on the floor, cushions strewn, wet and shredded, debris everywhere. It looked like someone trashed the place in a big fight. It was all very sorry-looking. I wondered why the hotels met this fate after all Minakami Onsen is known for its hot spring ryokans and its soft adventure tourism.

From Minakami Onsen it took another half hour to arrive at Takaragawa Osenkaku.

As with all ryokans, the house slippers were out and ready for us at the entrance. We barely sipped the welcome  tea before we were urged to choose our yukatas and then quickly shown to our room. It was all a bit of an efficient rush.

We were given a room in the second-oldest wing. It was quite sizeable and came with a toilet and sink but no baths of course. I was glad that it was a corner room with windows that filled the room with light. The river ran just below the room. Everything fitted – the decor, the soundscape, the light, the feel of tatami. Unmistakably Japanese.

The ryokan had indoor segregated baths but of course, the star attraction here is the rotemburo. It has to be accessed across the river via a quaint bridge which we could see from our room.

Once across, the first thing you see are the cages. Takaragawa Onsen has the unfortunate reputation of housing several bears in cages. These are not small cages but neither are the bears obviously in their natural habitat. It was disconcerting to see them pace the cages, roaming up and down restlessly and occasionally growling. On hotel review sites on the internet, the ryokan has had bad reviews due to this. The fact that they serve bear soup also makes one wonder if they are serving up the bears we see in the cages! While I am not comfortable about them keeping bears in cages, I don’t think this is because they are running a bear farm on the side or that they do so for the entertainment of guests. A more plausible insight was offered by folks who have lived in the area long enough – that 20 or 30 years ago, these bears or their parents roamed freely and in fact were tame enough to bathe with the guests. But with time came regulation and health and safety concerns and soon it became mandatory that bears either needed to be shut in the cages or put down.

To be honest I would not rate Takaragawa Onsen highly but this is not due to its bear issue. Leaving that aside, I thought the inn was run so briskly, so efficiently that it lost the tradition of being watchful and attentive to the needs of the guests. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First – the baths.

Once across the river there are changing facilities which are gender segregated. Women can wear a blue modesty towel into the bath while the men go in starkers. Or use a teeny white towel which hides nothing. I don’t know why some men bother. I started out a bit self-conscious and sheepish about the whole thing. But having the husband in the same bath made me feel more comfortable. It helps that the baths are also sprawling so you can easily stake out your own little nook where no one can see you. After a while, you just get used to seeing everyone’s bits and realise that man or woman, it’s just a different anatomy so no point getting the knickers in a twist about it. Plus if you go as a couple, it is nice to be able to enjoy the onsen together.

There were a few foreigners in the bath and one even brought her baby in! He couldn’t have been more than a year old and at first I was worried that the high temperature would not be good for him but he seemed to like it. It would have been more considerate though if the mother had put the baby in a swim diaper to prevent any poo accidents. 

Another bath lay a quick hop behind the changing rooms. This was smaller and a lot cooler. Further downstream sits the women’s bath which I did not try. Across the river and linked by a bridge, is another large mixed bath.

Most of the guests seemed to be elderly men and women who did not seem shy about being in the company of the opposite sex in the baths. But with three big mixed baths, there was really plenty of space to loll about in the heated water.

As with all ryokan stays, dinner and breakfast were included. And here’s where I say the inn falters. Being in the mountain, the menu featured a lot of vegetables, especially root vegetables. There was also the ‘bear’ soup which I did not try. The staff served all the dishes at one go – unlike other inns, which would pace the service to match the guests. This meant that soups and stews ran cold before you could get to them. Like I said, it was all very efficient but too much so. We also had to pay for drinks when I remember at least one complimentary drink being part of the meal at other places.

We spent a very restful night and although it must have been very atmospheric to visit the baths at night, it was really too cold and the futons too inviting. We visited the baths again the next morning before breakfast and were glad to see that all the baths were empty so we had the whole place to ourselves!

I still think Takaragawa has hands-down the prettiest setting in terms of a rotemburo. The fact that it is mixed just makes it more interesting. But if you’re looking for a quintessential pampering ryokan experience, I don’t think this is the place for it. If I go by my original yardsticks of setting, quality of the bath and the inn, I’d say two out of three isn’t bad for Takaragawa Onsen. Go for the baths only and you won’t be disappointed.

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