A mere two hours away from the noise and lights of Shinjuku is the semi-forgotten onsen town called Kinugawa. With a direct express train leaving from Shinjuku station and the option of a free or reduced price onsen bus leaving from Ikebukuro, it is easy to get out of town for a night.
Kinugawa seems like it was a hopping place at one point, but the town has a palpable dated feel to it. New and shiny onsen built juxtaposed to hotels from four decades ago. Depending on what you are looking for, you could easily spend over 20,000 yen a night at one of these fancy hotels. Or, like me, you don’t have that kind of cheddar to spend on a one-day vacation. I stayed at an older hotel with a decent bath, outdoor bath and private bath. Dinner and breakfast (both buffet style with all you can drink) were included as well as the reservation for the private outdoor bath. For everything, the price per night for one person was under 8,000 yen (Digging it? Click here for the website, in Japanese only).
I decided to take the bus out of Ikebukuro. We left around 9 am, stopping once halfway at a rest stop near the border of Tochigi prefecture. Tochigi is famous for its strawberries and does its best to make sure you don’t forget it. Strawberry gelato, strawberry cookies, cakes, and preserves are available to buy in every store. Oddly, there were no fresh strawberries for sale but I recommend the gelato!
We arrived at out hotel at 1 pm. Check-in wasn’t until 3 pm – like most places, but the hotel was willing to hold our luggage and give us a map of the area. Most of the attractions were within an easy walking distance, especially on a warm, sunny day.
We walked to the Saruyama Ropeway which took about 30 minutes at a mildly brisk pace (as brisk as one can walk while eating ice cream). The top of the ropeway provides the best view of the area. In autumn or even later in spring, this would be a million dollar view. Sadly, we were just a little too early for that but the view alone was well worth the trip.
There is also a small wild monkey park at the top of the mountain and for 100 yen you can feed the monkeys small biscuits – I guess it wouldn’t be right to call it “Saruyama” without a monkey park, as ‘saru’ in Japanese means monkey.
The next place we visited was a local sweets shop famous for manju buns. Of course, there was onsen manju – soft, steamed bread buns filled with sweet red bean paste. Kinukawa’s specialty is karintou manju – where instead of the outer bread being soft, karintou manju is partially fried, so the outer bread becomes crunchy. As far as manju go, karintou manju is just a little bit different but apparently different enough to be featured on T.V. at one point. You can buy and eat these treats (along with free tea) for 120 yen a pop.
The last place we visited before heading back to the hotel was the foot bath. There are several free public foot baths in Kinugawa. All of which are well marked on maps and with signs. Towels aren’t provided, so be sure not to forget yours!
The room at the hotel was better than I had been expecting. The dinner buffet had all the standard buffet foods with the exception of all the crab legs you could eat. For dessert? Strawberries, of course.
After dinner, we went to the private outdoor bath which is a great option for shy people, couples, and those with many tattoos. Since we arrived after dark, I couldn’t tell if it had a nice view or not. In the private bath, you must provide your own towels, soap, shampoo, etc. Unlike the large bath, you can also take your own drinks. The first cold drink after getting out of a hot bath is great. Enjoying a drink so cold your teeth hurt while you’re in the bath is even better. We visited the large baths both at night and before we checked out in the morning.
Instead of taking the slow route back home, we decided to take the express train back to Shinjuku. After buying some drinks and a local “ekiben” lunch from the station (and some last minute strawberry- souvenirs for friends), we enjoyed the scenic route back to Tokyo and our noisy lives. So why not get out of Tokyo and enjoy a one-day vacation on the cheap! We did Kinugawa in 18 hours and spent around 10,000 yen per person!
Itoen Hotel Website*Japanese Only
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