Kawaji Onsen & Ryuokyo | A Hot Spring & a Gorge in Tochigi

Ryuokyo is a gorge that is barely even on the maps of overseas visitors to Japan

Since as long as I’ve been writing travel articles on this blog, I’ve always made a pilgrimage back to Nikko during the month of November. Not only is the area absolutely gorgeous during this time of the year, it is also somewhere that always begets new adventures. For example, though the primary purpose of my recent trip to Nikko was to realign with my life’s mission, I also ended up exploring a few new areas. Of the spots I visited this time, the hot spring town of Kawaji Onsen and Ryuokyo really stood out as locations with potential for international tourism.

Now, of all of the locations in the vicinity of Nikko, Kawaji Onsen and Ryuokyo aren’t exactly what I would call the “mainstream. In fact, even I only got around to recently visiting this pair of locations for the first time. That said, the convenient duo of attractions is great for those of you who are looking for a secluded getaway that is also located close to the likes of the Toshogu Shrine and Edo Wonderland. What’s more, Kawaji Onsen and Ryuokyo are also extremely photogenic during the months of autumn.

Especially for those of you who have visited Nikko before and want a change of pace, consider giving Kawaji Onsen and Ryuokyo a look. If you’re well traveled like myself, a visit to these two is sure to add a new take on the standard Nikko itinerary. All in all, they are a refreshing alternative for those who have done this wonderful locale on other trips and want to get a bit more off of the beaten path.

How to Get There

As can be seen when you look at a map, there are a lot of hidden gems in the area above Nikko and Kinugawa

Honestly speaking, getting to Kawaji Onsen and Ryuokyo is really simple. All you need to do is take one of Tobu Railways’ Revaty Limited Express trains from Asakusa Station to Kinugawa Onsen Station. From there, you can transfer to the local Yagan Railway that runs all the way up to the Aizu region in Fukushima Prefecture. Especially for this leg of the journey, you’ll want to refer to a service such as Jorudan to calculate the departure times as trains are pretty infrequent in this part of Japan.

Logistically speaking, the majority of the accommodations in Kawaji Onsen are located a decent ways away from Kawaji Onsen Station. Because of this, it would be better if you got off at Kawaji-Yumoto Station instead. As can be seen in the Google Map linked here, this top on the Yagan Railways is positioned far better for those without their own set of wheels. Most of the ryokan and hotels are clustered around this station making it far more convenient for most travelers than the alternative of Kawaji Onsen Station.

All things considered, there isn’t really a ton to DO in Kawaji Onsen per say. After all, it’s one of those places that you go to when you want to relax and enjoy nature. As such, I suggest that you head up in the late afternoon on one of the Revaty Limited Expresses. That way, you’ll get there just before dinner time at your ryokan. Assuming that you dedicate the following morning to exploring, you should have more than enough time to see both of these attractions before heading on down to Nikko.

Stay at Kawaji Onsen

A grouping of hotels and ryokan in a small, natural hot spring town where the Ojika River and the Kinugawa and River merge.

Found along the banks of the Kinugawa River, this hot spring town is one the most well renowned of its kind in Tochigi Prefecture. That said, Kawaji Onsen still has very little overseas awareness. In the days of the Edo period (1603–1868), this hot spring hamlet served as a post town on the route that connected present day Nikko City with Aizu-Wakamatsu up in Fukushima Prefecture. Thereafter, it culminated in the resort getaway that you see today on the spot where the Kinugawa and Ojika Rivers converge.

Unlike with a getaway such as Kusatsu Onsen, there are few actual sightseeing spots in Kawaji Onsen. Truth be told, this is the type of place that you go to with friends or loved ones to relax and forget the worries of the world. As a result, it isn’t really all that conducive to solo travel unless you are a loner like me who likes to treat themselves to onsen retreats. Should you need something to do while staying here though, consider checking out the charming strip down by the Ojika River. Additionally, this croquette shop is also legendary among locals.

Behold Ryuokyo Gorge

Located a few minutes from Kinugawa Onsen, Ryuokyo is a small but natural gorge that is blessed with nature

Situated directly to the south of Kawaji Onsen is the magnificent Ryuokyo (lit. “Dragon King Gorge”). From what I can gather, this 3-kilometer-long ravine was formed when an underground volcanic source erupted long ago. Over the years, the rockbed was eroded by the Kinugawa River resulting in the present-day Ryuokyo. Unlike a gorge such as Shosenkyo in Yamanashi Prefecture, it’s actually really simple to reach Ryukyo from Kawaji Onsen. All you need to do is take the Yagan Railway a stop or two south and you’re there.

Upon exiting from the underground Ryuokyo Station, you’ll find yourself in a parking lot. Assuming that you’ve just exited the train station, you’ll soon see a collection of vendors and eateries on your right hand side. In the middle of these, you’ll find a narrow alleyway that leads down to where the gorge is. This natural cravase has been formed over the years by water from the Kinugawa River slowly eroding the rocks below. There’s a lot of walking trails throughout the gorge but the main spots of interest are the small Goryuo Shrine (which is dedicated to five dragon kings) and Nijimi Bridge.

Unlike with the hot spring towns to the immediate north, the area around Ryuokyo is devoid of hotels. Because of this, you’re going to need to seek out lodging in the locale recommended above or in Kinugawa Onsen to the south. Either can work but Kinugawa Onsen is the more famous of the two options. Seeing as I am a snob about hidden gems, it shouldn’t be hard to guess which one I’d recommend!

Check Out Nikko City

Nikko City is an area of Japan that has so many amazing attractions that are both on and off of the maps of tourists

If you’re going to visit Kawaji Onsen and Ryuokyo, you really ought to take some time to enjoy some of Nikko. Though I suspect that more than a few of you have been to the region in the past, this spiritual center is home to one of the best collections of shrines and temples in all of Japan. Located atop of a gentle slope, here you’ll find attractions like the ostentatious Toshogu Shrine and the venerable temple of Rinno-ji. Whether as a full blown two day adventure or as a half a day add-on, be sure not to spit Nikko.

The following is a list of other allures that you’ll find clustered around Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine (which really need no introduction). To make it easier for you, the reader, to navigate, I’ll include a list of my favorite spots below along with a link to my previous articles or to a Google Map to help you plan a route…

Of course, one of the best things about Nikko is that the area is absolutely captivating during the months of autumn when the leaves start to turn. Should you be in Japan during October or November, be sure to swing by this amazing part of Japan. Along with the amazing scenery up Kawaji Onsen and Ryuokyo, Nikko’s bountiful nature and ancient allures make it one of the best spots in Japan for fall foliage.

Other Nearby Attractions

Rarely on the map for overseas tourists, Furumine Shrine is located about 50 minutes from the main area of Nikko

In addition to Kawaji Onsen, Ryuokyo and Nikko, there are a lot of other things to do in Tochigi Prefecture. Of my many recommendations, Furumine Shrine would be the one that is closest to the locations featured thus far. Found atop one of the peaks to the south of Nikko, this mountaintop sanctuary has a history that dates back over 1,300. As you’ll see if you travel there, Furumine Shrine pays homage to the quasi-mythical hero and prince, Yamato Takeru as well as the tengu. Especially during autumn, the shrine grounds are extremely beautiful.

In addition to Furumine Shrine, one other spot that also combines well with the topics of today’s post is the city of Utsunomiya. Officially the capital of Tochigi Prefecture, Utsunomiya is best known for its delicious gyoza. At the same time though, Utsunomiya also has a ton of great spots to check out for those of you who are interested in history and/or culture. From the Oya-ji temple complex to the Oya History Museum and the Four Seasons Bamboo Forest Wakayama Farm, there’s a ton to do in Utsunomiya.

Finally, know that Kawaji Onsen and Ryuokyo also combine quite well with a trip up to Aizu-Wakamatsu and Ouchijuku. Unbeknownst to most overseas travelers and indeed even Japanese, there are trains that run all the way from Kinugawa Onsen up to Aizu-Wakamatsu and Kitakata. I’ve detailed this route in this article so check out my prior work if you want to embark on an adventure that few tourists have heard about.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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