Written by Milan(GREATERTOKYO_Explorer)
Close To Nikko! Discover Tochigi's Dragon Tales In Kinugawa Onsen
Kinugawa Onsen has long been a loud secret among the Japanese. Is it because of the fantastic views in the area? Or is it the tales about dragons and demons that await at each corner? Visit Kinugawa Onsen on a day trip from Tokyo and find out.
Picture courtesy of Tochigi Prefecture Tourism Department
Thanks to its excellent hot springs and amazing views, Kinugawa Onsen, just about 15 km north of Nikko, is a popular travel destination and resort area. Visit in the spring, and you can fully enjoy the fresh green color of the forest covering the mountains in the area. In the summer, the boat cruises along the Kinugawa River are a popular, refreshing attraction. In the fall, the beautiful foliage is simply breathtaking.
This time, we thought of a route that would allow travelers to fully enjoy the charms of Kinugawa Onsen. The starting point of this itinerary is Asakusa Station in Tokyo.
First, we head to the magnificent Ryuo-kyo ("The Valley of the Dragon King") and then to Asaya Hotel for a luxurious lunch. After recharging, we’ll ride the ropeway up to Monkey Mountain then enjoy the Kinugawa River Boat Ride and end our day trip with a relaxing foot bath before heading back to Tokyo.
8:00 – 10:12 -- From Asakusa Station to Ryuokyo Station
To travel to Ryuokyo Station, we will be taking the Tobu Line Kinu 107 Express departing at 8:00 from the Tobu Asakusa Station.
Tobu Asakusa Station is located within the EKIMISE Asakusa building. From the ticket vending machine, we need to buy two tickets: a large one for Shin-Fujiwara Station (2,890 yen) and a small one for Ryuokyo Station (190 yen). The total is 3,080 yen. It’s a bit tricky so it’s best to get help from the friendly staff who can guide you with using the ticket machine in English.
You can choose your seats just like on the bullet train. Try to select the front carriages so you can easily switch to your connecting train at Kinugawa Onsen Station where you have two minutes to transfer.
Take the escalators to the second floor and insert the 190 yen ticket into the gate, then present the large ticket to the staff.
After a relaxing two-hour ride, you'll be arriving at Kinugawa Onsen Station. Here you need to change trains and take the Aizu Mount Express heading for Aizu Wakamatsu. 11 minutes later, you'll be arriving at Ryuokyo Station.
10:12 – 11:40 -- Take a Hike through the Impressive Ryuo-kyo Gorge
After exiting Ryuokyo Station, you'll notice the torii (shrine gate) which marks the entrance to a sacred place and the beginning of the free hiking trail through the Ryuo-kyo Gorge. From the four courses ranging from two to six kilometers, I chose number one which is a 3 km loop route.
Within minutes of descending, I heard the raging flow of fresh water cut through the 3 km gorge made of volcanic rocks, which were formed 22 million years ago by undersea eruptions.
After stopping by at Goryuo Jinja, a shrine dedicated to the Dragon King, I descend to Nijimi-bashi ("Rainbow-watching Bridge") where I take in the fabulous view of the Ryuo-kyo Gorge. It's so breathtaking that I had to turn around twice!
From this side of the bridge you can see the riverbank. Although there are no signposts to stop people from swimming in the river - especially in summer - beware of the shifting current.
Hints of fresh vegetation color the crisp air as I make my way through this marsh area. Not all trails like this one have boardwalks so make sure you're wearing shoes with grip as the ground and stone paths are sometimes slippery and uneven.
From the bridge called Musasabi-bashi ("Flying Squirrel Bridge"), I finally discover the meaning of the shrine I saw earlier. Seen from above, the gorge resembles a dragon’s body – long, slender, winding. In fact, Ryuo-kyo means “Valley of the Dragon King.”
This place marks the mid-point of the trail because I can just see Nijimi-bashi Bridge on the other side. The fresh breeze cools away my sweat while I rest for a bit and buy a drink at the log café called Musasabi-chaya.
Continuing along, I see Tategoto no taki ("Harp Falls"). Streams of clear water from Mt. Keicho, a 1765 m high volcano, cascade rhythmically forming a shape similar to the strings of a harp.
Amidst the falls and flora, exotic wildlife like white skunk cabbage, kingfishers, gray wagtails and green tree frogs inhabit the area.
After 75 minutes of easy hiking, I completed the trail. I walked back to Ryuokyo Station, bought a one-way ticket (1,220 yen) and jumped on the Tobu Line express train Revaty to move to the next part of the itinerary which starts from Kinugawa Koen Station.
Please be aware that trains don’t run often so sync your hike and train time. And if you choose to hike the longer courses, buy drinks and snacks across the station first.
11:40 – 11:56 -- From Ryuokyo Station to Kinugawa Koen Station
At Kinugawa Koen Station, I got out the station and turned right towards Kinugawa Bridge. When I arrived, I instinctively took my camera out and shot away at the eye-popping views from both sides of the bridge. After dozens of similar shots, I turned left and carried on for 5 minutes.
12:15 – 13:15 -- A Luxurious Lunch at Asaya Hotel
Asaya Hotel is an award-winning hotel that has been satisfying customers with their quality services for over 130 years. A whopping 192 Western and Japanese style rooms are offered! Some of them are provided with en suite hot springs.
I had lunch at Asaya Hotel's Japanese Dining Wasaikobo, an elegant restaurant that allows guests to dine in a vibrant, welcoming Japanese atmosphere with a great view of the Kinugawa River.
From the menu, I chose Asaya's Special Beef Stew which is a delicate combination of slow-cooked beef, rice, nameko mushroom miso soup, pickled radish and eggplant, local bean curd skin and for dessert, sweet azuki porridge with rice cakes. This succulent meal costs 1,700 yen including tax.
13:15 – 14:35 -- Kinugawa Onsen Ropeway and Monkey Mountain
Picture courtesy of Tochigi Prefecture Tourism Department
After leaving Asaya Hotel, I walked for 7 minutes to Kinugawa Onsen Ropeway, which is across from the hotel, behind the houses and to the right of a shrine.
At the ticket counter, consider buying the ticket that includes a ride on the Kinugawa Onsen Ropeway and the Kinugawa River Boat Ride for 3,300 yen. You get to save 600 yen!
I got on the cable car and the 300 m rise to the peak took just 3.5 minutes! The cable cars depart every 20 minutes and runs continuously during the peak seasons.
From the 8.6 m tall Maruyama Observation Deck, you can see the Monkey Park below, the Nasu and Tsukuba mountain ranges on the horizon, Kinugawa River snaking through the valley and if you're lucky, you might even be able to see Tokyo Sky Tree on a clear, sunny day.
In the summer, the view of the mountains is fantastic, in spring you can see the charm of the cherry blossom trees and in autumn, it’s like a splash of warm colors across the land.
About thirty resident monkeys are playing around and, if you observe them, you can see who’s running the show.
Please observe house rules. Feed the wild monkeys with the food only sold at the park (100 yen for 8 pieces) or they might get a stomachache. Don’t stick your hand through the cage and don’t walk too close to the cage especially if you have a backpack.
Tourists with extra mileage on their legs can try the two to four-hour hiking course which begins from the Onsen Shrine at the top. Otherwise, you can ride the ropeway back to the entrance. And once you exit, there’s a bus stop on the right where you can catch the free shuttle bus to the river cruise dock, the second last destination of the trip.
The bus service runs every day from 9:25 until 16:10 and leaves every 35 minutes, but you can request for it to come earlier by speaking to the staff there.
14:45 – 16:20 – Kinugawa River Boat Ride - Cruise along Kinugawa River
Imagine a river gushing like a raging demon. That’s one of the meanings behind the name "Kinugawa" but luckily the waters that the 40-minute cruise boat rides through are as calm as a docile dragon. In fact, it’s so safe that infants as young as one year old can join in on the fun!
After picking up the compulsory life jacket at the reception, I walked down to the waiting area where the staff was handing everyone a plastic bag to put their shoes in so they won’t get wet. We boarded and sat on the cushions. As we set off, a camera staff by the left bank took our group photo, which can be bought at the disembarking dock for 1,100 yen.
While cruising at a steady speed, only aboard the boat can you appreciate the true magnificence of the gorge and just as the kimonos' colors and patterns change with each season, so does the gorge's.
As the wind and speed pick up again, our front oarsman, Mr. Fukuda, instructs us to pick up the plastic covers and prepare for the oncoming rapids. For maximum splash, sit at the front.
We've just reached the calmer waters with the aid of our two skilled oarsmen who’ve been entertaining us with their anecdotes about the gorge. From our boat, we try to find the rock formations Elephant Rock and Gorilla Rock.
At the top of the dock just past the photo collection area, there's a rest stop where visitors can enjoy shaved ice with syrup, dumplings and grilled fish. After 15 minutes, the free shuttle bus will pick you up then take you on a 10-minute ride back to Kinugawa Onsen Station.
16:30 – 17:00 – Soothe Your Feet at Kinuta-no-yu
Before returning to Tokyo, I just couldn't bid farewell to this area renowned for hot springs (onsen) without bathing in one, or at least soaking my feet. Places like Kinugawa Onsen typically have foot onsen (ashiyu). Kinuta-no-yu is a free foot bath located right in front of the station.
Compared with onsen in hotels, which have an average temperature of 47°C, this foot bath is 32°C with a pH level of 9.1 which is on the alkaline side – great for health. Bring your own towel or you can get one for 300 yen nearby or just air dry your feet.
17:08 – 19:15 – From Kinugawa Onsen Station to Asakusa Station
After making my way back to the station, I bought a 2,580 yen express ticket for Asakusa Station. Aboard the train, I flipped through the photos I'd taken of the beautiful Kinugawa area and smiled.
From the Valley of the Dragon King to the Monkey Mountain and everything in between, you could get a slight taste of Kinugawa Onsen’s luscious landscape and learn the tales about the dragons and demons along the way. So why not bring your family and friends on an exciting day trip from Tokyo and discover Kinugawa Onsen for yourselves?
Asakusa Station → Ryuo-kyo Gorge → Asaya Hotel → Kinugawa Onsen Ropeway and Monkey Mountain → Kinugawa River Boat Ride → Foot bath Kinuta-no-yu → Asakusa Station.
Transportation expenses: 6,880 yen
Kinugawa Onsen Ropeway and Monkey Mountain: 1,100 yen
Kinugawa River Boat Ride: 2,800 yen (*If you buy the Kinugawa Onsen Ropeway and River Boat Ride package ticket for 3,300 yen, you save 600 yen.)
Lunch: 1,700 yen.
For more information on sightseeing in Kinugawa Onsen please take a look at Visit TOCHIGI, the official tourism website of Tochigi Prefecture.
Supported by Tochigi Prefecture