The Devil's hot spring: A different onsen experience awaits in Kinugawa

The Devil's hot spring: A different onsen experience awaits in Kinugawa

Hot baths, river rafting and cheesy theme parks in this alternative to the tourist-packed options
Kinugawa Onsen
Even the Lord of the Underworld likes to chill in Kinugawa.

As temperatures nosedive toward winter, it’s an unusual Tokyoite who’s not thinking about weekend hot spring escapes. But if the over-visited Hakone is sounding a little too ho-hum and nearby Atami’s been done, then why not head north to Tochigi and the quirky hamlet of Kinugawa Onsen?

Devil of a time

Kinugawa OnsenUp the creek without a paddle -- literally, in the case of Kinugawa.

Kinugawa Onsen sits atop the rocky banks of the Kinugawa River, which is usually translated as “Angry Demon River.” As you might imagine from the name, the waters are lively, and taking traditional wooden boats out into the rapids is a popular activity for visitors.

All the boats have vinyl sheeting attached to the sides so riders can shield themselves from the spray, so don't worry about getting soaked.

The high-energy guides use poles to steer the shallow vessels through the rocks, while enthusiastically explaining the history of the area, reminiscing about that one time Leonardo DiCaprio visited, and pointing out interesting rock formations like a gorilla face or a hunched old woman.

They'll even be happy to snap a picture of you while balancing precariously on the stern, but if you have an expensive camera, they'll try to give you a heart attack by pretending to lose their balance.

Cheesy theme parks

If you are the kind of person who thinks Tokyo Disneyland isn't quite kitschy enough, you'll be very excited about Tobu World Square, a theme park that features 1:25 size replicas of famous places around the world, including 45 UNESCO sites.

The buildings are lovingly recreated down to the smallest detail, including real bonsai trees that change with the seasons and hundreds of thousands of tiny, unique people.

Stomping around Godzilla-style and taking pictures of yourself looming over the Eiffel Tower is more fun than should be allowed and a fair bit cheaper -- adults ¥2,500, children ¥1,200 -- than a plane ticket.

History buffs will be more likely to enjoy Edo Wonderland Nikko, though we should point out that it is definitely more entertaining than educational.

The park is a recreation of Edo-era Tokyo, complete with actors who enter into the spirit of things. Guests can join in the fun by renting costumes and being trained as a ninja or a police constable. Studios offer a variety of lessons in once-important daily skills like cloth dyeing, shuriken throwing or kyudo archery.

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There's also a fantastic ninja show, traditional shadow puppetry and other live performances. You may not exactly feel transported back in time, but you'll be having too much fun to care.

A good option if you plan on visiting either spot is the Kinugawa Theme Park Pass -- adults from ¥4,000, kids half that -- offered by Tobu Railway, which includes the round-trip train fare from Asakusa in Tokyo and entrance to one or both of the parks.

Brave the cold

Kinugawa OnsenHiking the riverside hills is the perfect warm-up before hitting the onsen.

If the winter cold and a dusting of snow aren't enough to keep you out of the woods, there are decent hiking trails all around the area.

The course around the Ryuo Valley to the north of Kinugawa Onsen is not to be missed. You'll see picturesque waterfalls, scenic views of the river winding between rocky cliffs and some spectacular autumn foliage if you time it right. The path also takes you over a bridge that spans the gorge, offering the perfect photo op.

After being out in the cold all day you'll, of course, want to take advantage of Kinugawa's abundant hot springs.

Founded in the 1750s, the town was originally for the exclusive use of the monks of nearby Nikko. It was later opened to the public and became a favorite destination for Kanto's onsen-lovers. However, like many resort towns in Japan, it was overdeveloped in the bubble years and has struggled since.

Several of the big hotels have closed their doors in the last decade, but there are still a great many charming ryokans and other places to stay that can be reserved at bargain prices.

Most of the hot spring facilities have day rates as well if you just want to use the baths and head home.

Wind down and warm up

Kinugawa OnsenWarm your toes and massage your feet on the rocks. Why doesn't every station have a waiting room like this?

The waters in Kinugawa have a light alkalinity and low mineral content, making them colorless and odorless, though it seems a shame that the devil's hot spring doesn't have a whiff of sulfur.

Naturally, the best place to soak is in an outdoor bath or rotenburo, available at almost every facility, where you can commune with nature while you relax. If you are traveling with your significant other, you may want to find a place where you can reserve a private bath. Either way, save a few yen and bring your own towel.

If you are pressed for time or can't handle communal bathing, there is also a free hand and foot bath just outside the station -- a perfect place to chill out for half an hour while waiting for your train back to the big city.

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Getting there: The easiest route is to take the Tobu Kinugawa Line from Asakusa. The Kinu limited express, which requires a reservation, will get you there in about two hours for ¥2,800. Regular express trains can take up to three hours, but cost just ¥1,500.

JR runs twice-daily trains from Shinjuku to Kinugawa, stopping at Ikebukuro and Omiya as well. A ticket is ¥3,800 each way, but if you are planning to stay overnight you can also choose the ¥7,800 Nikko Kinugawa Free Pass, which includes one round-trip and unlimited use of local Tobu trains and buses for three days.