As I write this article in my head, I am soaking away all of my worldly concerns at Kita Onsen Ryokan in Tochigi Prefecture’s Nasu region. As I begin to boil in the 43° C waters, I slowly stop fretting about that one Google Ads campaign that isn’t performing well enough (and other such trivialities). Gazing above, I am greeted by the sight of the ginormous tengu mask in the photo above. Lazily looking around at the rest of the decor, I quickly wonder what century, let alone what decade, it is right now. Alas, any mental inquiries quickly melt away into hot spring bliss.
Ever since I first stumbled across Kita Onsen Ryokan a few years ago, I’ve been itching to go. Secluded deep in the mountains of the Nasu Highlands, this hidden hot spring is the type of establishment that I originally set out to feature when I started blogging. Perfectly balancing that impossibly fine line between unknown locale and somewhere of interest to overseas visitors, Kita Onsen Ryokan is far more than just a “hotel.” Instead, a stay at this ancient Japanese-style inn will be a standout memory of your travels that’s sure to stick with you for a lifetime.
At least as far as I can tell, some incarnation of what is now Kita Onsen Ryokan has been around for at least 1,200 years. The earliest records we have date from 738 and indicate that nobility from the imperial court in far away Nara had made many expeditions here to bathe in the hot spring’s rejuvenative waters. Some other sources also suggest that the historic complex used to bear the name of Fudo-no-Yu in homage to Fudo Myoo, the Immovable King. Even today, you can still find all sorts of references to this former reverence of the fiery Buddhist deity.
The connection with Fudo Myoo makes a lot more sense when you realize that the entirety of the Nasu Highlands used to be a center for Shugendo and the practice of mountain asceticism. What’s more, the facility that is now Kita Onsen Ryokan was formerly a training ground for yamabushi who were practicing in Nasu. After pushing themselves to their breaking points, these ascetic followers of Shugendo would recuperate in the hot spring waters of Fudo-no-Yu. The custom continued until the Tokugawa shogunate sought to eradicate the hard-to-control yamabushi and their cult of tengu worship entirely from Nasu.
The present day Kita Onsen Ryokan got its start immediately following the removal of ascetic adherents from the mountains of Nasu. After the campaign, the Ozeki family took over control of Fudo-no-Yu at the behest of the shogunate. Rather than continue as a secret retreat for those training on the peaks of Nasu, the yamabushi’s compound was transformed into a Japanese style traditional inn. Over the years, the property passed from owner to owner, ultimately ending up in the hands of the Kumagai family at the very end of the 19th century.
All things considered, a stay at Kita Onsen Ryokan is going to be a memorable highlight of any Japan trip. From the moment that visitors step foot into the facility, they are whisked away into a timeless era where the convenient trappings of modernity are all but forgotten. In fact, seeing as how some of the buildings date from the same year that Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Shimoda, you’ll be hard pressed to tell what year it is during your visit. In addition to the healing power of the spring, this old-time vibe is just one more facet for guests to enjoy.
How to Get There
Given the description above, it really should come as no surprise that Kita Onsen Ryokan is a bit hard to get to. To begin the journey, you’ll want to take one of the northern-bound bullet trains to Nasushiobara Station (refer to Jorudan or a similar service to help calculate which train you should take). Found on the border of Tochigi and Fukushima Prefectures, this Shinkansen stop will be your first jumping off point. From Nasushiobara Station, you’ll then want to take a bus bound for the Nasu Ropeway up in the hilly highlands around Mt. Chausu. Be sure to keep an eye out for the Kitayuiriguchi bus stop as this is where you need to disembark.
From Kitayuiriguchi, you’ll then need to trek deep into the mountains of Nasu to get to the Kita Onsen Ryokan spa property. All in all, the journey on foot will take around 30 minutes or so (refer to this Google Map link) but do be careful en route. Especially during the colder months when there’s snow on the ground, the road can get incredibly icy. While winter is most certainly the best time of the year to stay at this fantastic facility, those coming on public transportation will want to be extra careful when trekking over. You don’t want to slip up here as it will take an ambulance a good while to get to you!
Of course, those of you who feel comfortable getting behind the wheel of a rental car will be able to reach Kita Onsen Ryokan much easier than those who need to use the infrequent buses. In this case, you’d be wise to first take the bullet train up to either Nasushiobara or Kuroiso Station and then find yourself a set of wheels. From there, you should be able to reach the Japanese style inn’s nearest parking lot in around an hour or so. If you can figure out the car’s GPS, just plug in 151 Yumoto Nasumachi Nasugun and follow the navigation to where you can park.
Regardless as to whether you bus it over or come via rental car, you’ll still need to wind your way down the 400 meter-long path from the free parking lot. Especially if there is snow during your visit, you’ll need to be extra careful to check if there is no black ice to slip on. At points, this narrow pathway barely feels as if it’s clinging to the cliff face so be extra vigilant on this snaky slope. Kita Onsen Ryokan is nestled at the very end of this lane. Unless shrouded by a veil of icy fog, you should be able to view it through the trees during your descent.
Upon entering into the Kita Onsen Ryokan spa complex, an old-fashioned wooden stove will be waiting to welcome you. In all likelihood, the friendly hotel staff will also be waiting to greet guests somewhere nearby, be that behind the counter or out in the foyer. I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to comb through the specific details but know for now that check in times are quite early with the final cutoff point being around 6:00 PM. Thankfully, this doesn’t impact travel plans as little else is open past sundown in Nasu.
As far as I am aware, the inn doesn’t yet accept credit card payments. As such, you’d be wise to bring a heaping handful of cash. Likewise, you should also arrive with a number of things to munch on. While some plans do include a meager Japanese dinner and breakfast, these meals are subject to availability. To be on the safe side, pack at least some snacks to hold you over if you eat a late dinner elsewhere. There’s a full kitchen on-site should you want to make something yourself as well.
The Kita Onsen Ryokan Spa Complex
As remote as Kita Onsen Ryokan is, know that it is also quite the popular spot (both with domestic guests as well as travelers with a different nationality). As such, snagging one of the rooms is surprisingly difficult in comparison to the availability of other hotels. Likewise, prices for staying overnight at the property are also higher than what you might expect for what you get. At the same time though, Kita Onsen Ryokan is something of an attraction unto itself and therefore you shouldn’t view it as “just another hotel” to stay at. Instead, it’s a spiritual retreat.
While there are a total of three interconnected buildings on the Kita Onsen Ryokan spa grounds, I suggest that you ignore their number and try to book yourself a night in a Matsu-no-Ma (lit. “Pine Room”) if available. These rooms are all located in the part of the property that dates from the late Edo period (1603–1868). As you meander about its maze-like corridors, the wooden floorboards creak with the echoes of the ages. It’s a real vibe that you just can’t find in anything made in the past century.
In total, the entirety of the Kita Onsen Ryokan spa complex has seven distinct baths to enjoy. I’ve listed them up below along with a brief description of each. That said, I highly suggest that you sample as many as you can during your stay. As far as I can gather, all seven of the baths are open 24/7 so feel free to peruse them at your own leisure…
While there are a lot of baths for guests to choose from, this is the one that I am going to say that everyone staying at Kita Onsen Ryokan needs to experience. Essentially an aged slab of concrete with a giant dugout in the center, this indoor bath is surrounded by the huge tengu masks that are pictured at the start of this article. Bathers beware though — Tengu-no-Yu is a mixed gender hot spring and there’s little to hide your privates!
Found just outside of Tengu-no-Yu, this pair of overhead sprouts gush hot water onto the backs and shoulders of those standing below. The pressure of the mineral-rich spring liquid on weary muscles is a great way to relieve the stress of the real world back in modernity. Oh, and for those of you who’ve been paying attention, know that the name Fudo-no-Yu is an homage to the venue’s ascetic legacy.
You’ll come across this one just beyond Fudo-no-Yu. Unlike all of the other baths at Kita Onsen Ryokan, Kazoku-buro is a private facility. Secluded away within a small wooden building, bathers at Kazoku-buro can lock the door after entering and enjoy a soak without the prying eyes of other bathers. Especially for the tatted readers out there, this is a great way to partake in the Kita Onsen Ryokan spa experience without catching any flack.
While all of the other baths are either separated by gender or are mixed, Me-no-Yu is limited to women-only. Obviously, I cannot comment on what it’s like first hand but I’ve read online that it has a killer view. Should my female readers be feeling a bit bashful about any of the other options, just consider defaulting to Me-no-Yu!
This pair of hot spring pools is hidden away down by the Yosasa River. To get there, patrons will need to pass through the Showa period (1926-1989) additions to the Kita Onsen Ryokan amalgam of buildings. While nothing memorable like Tengu-no-Yu, Kawara-no-Yu is a gender-separated hot spring that makes for a solid compliment to the rest of the experience.
As the Japanese readers out there will by now have realized, the name for this behemoth-size bath literally means “Swimming Hot Spring.” That’s right — this tub is more akin to a pool than it is a bath meaning that you can actually do a few laps in here (an act that is usually anathema to bathing culture). Honestly, it is just one more reason on an already long list to book a room at Kita Onsen Ryokan.
This final pair of gender-seperated baths can be found down by Oyogiyu. Seeing as the hot spring swimming pool has the most lukewarm waters of all seven options, a lot of people warmup in the indoor Ai-no-Yu before heading back in for another dip in the hot spring swimming pool.
Note that you don’t need to actually spend the night at Kita Onsen Ryokan to soak in its many baths. The facility also opens its doors for day-use too. While this is a great option for those of you who would prefer hotels that are more centrally located, I’d only suggest it for readers who have a rental car. The last buses up in this part of Tochigi leave really early and you don’t want to get trapped up here…
Japanese Style Mountain Worship
If you’re going to go to Kita Onsen Ryokan, you’d be wise to also add some of the Nasu Highland’s other allures to your itinerary. While there’s a lot to choose from in this part of Tochigi Prefecture, I definitely suggest that you at least check out Nasu Yuzen Shrine. Found near the town of Nasu Yumoto, this sanctuary enshrines the patron deity of all hot springs. Moreover, Nasu Yuzen Shrine is inexorably tied to the region’s history of Shugendo and asceticism. Given that it is entirely free to explore, consider swinging by on your way back to civilization.
In addition to Nasu Yuzen Shrine, there is also the Sessho-seki to see as well on this part of the mountain. This now-sundered stone recently made headlines everywhere when it suddenly split in two in early 2022. Allegedly, it housed the malevolent spirit of Tamamo-no-Mae. This terrifying yokai is the inspiration for the nine-tailed fox in the anime and manga series Naruto. While Tamamo-no-Mae’s tales (get it?) are indeed a sad one, they add a bit more folklore to an already amazing region.
Unfortunately, the Nasu Ropeway isn’t operational during the months of winter. Given that it closes between November and spring due to the crag’s cruel winds, you’ll need to pass on ascending to the summit if you’re following my recommendations for when to lodge at Kita Onsen Ryokan. Should you find yourself in the area at another time of the year though, definitely shell out the additional fee to reach the upper echelons of Mt. Chausu. The view of the lowlands from up there is simply to die for.
I’ve written reviews of all of the spots of interest in the Nasu Highlands before in this in-depth article. So, rather than make this exposé on Kita Onsen Ryokan any longer than it already is, I’ll just suggest you read my previous work for more details on Nasu. At the same time though, I will at least insist here that you try the local beef and dairy products before heading home as they are delicious treats that Nasu is known for nationwide.
Other Nearby Attractions
All things considered, a night at the rejuvenative Kita Onsen Ryokan spa property is something of a spiritual undertaking. All throughout the compound (which you’ll likely need a map to navigate), you’ll find the trappings of Shugendo and asceticism. While these may be wholesome for the soul, they aren’t very good for those of you who are traveling with children.
While I’ll admit that the Oyogiyu looks fun for families, the following spots might be a good compliment should you have kids. As always, I’ll include a link to a Google Map as well as a few introductory details below for your convenience…
- Nasu Animal Kingdom
Here, you can catch an assortment of critters in their natural habitats. What’s more, you can interact with these animals too. Should you have children in tow, this is a great way to burn through some of their adrenaline. Personally, I haven’t been yet so be sure to check prices and other such details before going.
- Nasu Safari Park
Like with Nasu Animal Kingdom, I haven’t yet had the chance to visit this one to date. As long time readers will know, these types of spots just aren’t my cup of tea. From what I’ve gathered though, Nasu Safari Park has larger animals like elephants, giraffes and lions which can be witness from afar.
- Nasu Highland Park
Not to be confused with the actual highlands up in the foothills of the mountain, this amusement park has all sorts of attractions for children on offer. On the grounds of this theme park, you’ll find intertwined roller coasters, water rides as well as a 3D theater.
- Nasu Alpaca Farm
If you’re an alpaca lover (and let’s be real, who ISN’T), this is the place for you. Here, you can feed, pet and play with hundreds and hundreds of these adorable balls of floof. 10/10 must visit!
Seeing as I was traveling solo, I instead elected to head up to Shirakawa in Fukushima. Truth be told, this part of the prefecture requires its own area guide to properly introduce. Since time immemorial, it has been considered as the gateway to Japan’s Tohoku region and was the last bastion of imperial sovereignty before the subjugation of the north. If you’re looking for a hidden gem to add to your itinerary, consider swinging by to see its historic castle (pictured above) and other sightseeing spots!
Until next time travelers…