Takaragawa review | hot springs resort, Japan
Secluded hot springs resort just over an hour from Tokyo
The Quick Read: Takaragawa is the largest onsen (hot springs resort) in Japan, set in a secluded spot in the Gunma prefecture. Flanked by mountains and intersected by a wide, fast-flowing river, the resort exudes a dramatic, rugged charm. There’s also a keen sense of heritage (the onsen has reportedly been used since prehistoric times), and traditional customs, cuisine and dress are upheld throughout the resort. If you have the willpower, turn off your phone/wifi and try to make it a complete digital detox – perfect if you’ve just left the dizzying sights of Tokyo.
Price symbol: £
Who it’s best for: A tranquil resort in a secluded location with fantastic food, Takaragawa is ideal for visitors to Japan who, maybe after a week or so of sightseeing, want to switch off and regroup. Bathing in the hot springs is the focus, however – there are no yoga classes or treatments. For those who aren’t quite ok with completely switching off from civilisation, don’t worry – wifi is available.
What you can do: Doing very little is the beauty of Takaragawa. You wake up, have breakfast and saunter down to the three sizeable hot springs pools when you’re ready. Simply dip in and out all day, and try to unwind. The pools are open 24 hours a day, so if you feel like a midnight dip – go for it. It’s pretty romantic if you’re with your loved one. (Two of the pools are mixed, one is women’s only).
The evening meal is arguably the main event. You can choose what time you eat (from 6pm onwards) and, once fully dried off and robed-up, you head down to the dining room for your very own Japanese banquet. For those up for a little more action, you can explore the rural surroundings by foot. Or, for real thrill-seekers, you can take part in white-water rafting and canyoning on the river from spring onwards.
Where you stay: The Takaragawa accommodation building comprises 55 rooms, spread over three floors. Takaragawa Onsen has an almost Alpine lodge feel to it, in terms of decor, with lots of polished pine floors and walls. In that respect, it doesn’t feel hugely contemporary but neither is it old-fashioned – somewhere in between. Shoes are swapped for slippers on entering, and once you’ve chosen your yakata (robe), a member of staff will show you to your room. Individual rooms are of the traditional ryokan style, with tatami mat flooring, sliding wooden/paper doors and a chabudai (low table) with tea-making facilities (green, of course, not English Breakfast) and a fridge with various refreshments – water, beer, etc. While you’re at dinner, futon beds are prepared for you on the floor of your room, then rolled back up again while you’re at breakfast. Some of the rooms have private bathrooms and toilets, others have private toilets, some have neither – guests staying here are to use the shared bathroom and showers. This may be off-putting for some, but you’ll struggle to find many ryokans in Japan that offer private bathrooms.
How was it for us: There are few ways to describe an impressive view without sounding trite, but it is not an understatement to say then when we were taken to our room, we were transfixed by ours. On drawing back our sliding doors we found we were directly above the Takaragawa river, that runs through the resort. Like staring into a fire, I could have sat and watched the water rushing past us for hours.
The morning of the next day was the highlight of my trip, however, when I walked down to the ladies’ pool in the blazing sunshine, to find it completely deserted. There I soaked for at least an hour, with absolutely no sign of another person, no noise expect the running water. I’d relaxed so much I even let myself stay naked when other people started arriving. (I’d taken my ever-so-stylish swimsuit with me, but alas it wasn’t allowed – it’s either naked, or wear the resort’s swim dresses). The rest of the day I spent in and out of the pool, sometimes with a book, sometimes just my thoughts.
What struck me most was that I didn’t feel guilty, like I normally do when lazing around in such a place. I was indulging myself without feeling like staff were forced to make me feel like they were there solely to serve me. I wasn’t in a glitzy resort surrounded by locals who would never be able to afford to stay there. I was in a spot that felt completely timeless, taking part in a kind of ritual that people have been doing for hundreds of years before I arrived, and doubtless will for hundreds more after I leave.
What we took home: My stay was in the middle of a four-week Japan trip, and gave me the chance to recharge my batteries, while still taking part in a uniquely Japanese experience – much more rewarding, and relaxing, for me than heading to a more homogenous-style resort.
Would we go back: I would certainly go back for one or two nights in the winter time, when it’s surrounded with snow. I’d take my boyfriend with me this time, as it is quite romantic (although single people certainly won’t feel out of place).
People watch: The resort seemed to have more older members of staff – 40 years plus – giving the place an un-intimidating friendliness. Whether showing you how to properly tie your yukata, eat the very tentacle-heavy squid (down in one), or make the green tea, they all did it with a smile.
Food watch: The food was incredible. Both nights we sat down to a huge array of fresh, delicately prepared food, such as plates of sashimi, sushi and various small vegetable and meat dishes. We had our own hot coal grills on which to cook portions of fish and vegetables. We each had an individual traditional broth pot, full of vegetables, meat and tofu, bubbling away on a heated plate. When it was hot enough, the staff let us know it was time to crack the egg onto it. Light tempura dishes followed, as did miso soup and rice. We had a shochu cocktail, and light desserts – fresh fruit and strawberry pudding.
When it comes to breakfast, do yourselves a favour and leave a good 45 minutes between waking up and heading to the dining room – you won’t be able to fit it all in otherwise. Again, we were served generous portions of fresh fish, vegetables, natto (a string bean dish wrapped in a leaf), various soups, egg dishes, miso, rice and bottomless green tea.
What’s lowly: The two bears in cages on the other side of the resort. A very surreal, sad sight. (Their ability to escape can also play on your mind a little when you’re bobbing about in the onsen at night…)
Insider tip: If you’re not comfortable being naked around strangers – try to work on that! Particularly men – there’s no swim dresses for you, just modesty towels.
Price with a companion: 10, 800 JPY (£71) per person, per night for a room with shared bathroom. Price includes dinner, breakfast and use of amenities.
Price going solo: 14, 500 JPY (£95) per night for a room with shared bathroom. Price includes dinner, breakfast and use of amenities.
Value for Money: Incredibly reasonable, considering the food provided
Reviewed by Cherry Casey
© Queen of Retreats