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An amazing back-to-nature experience in Japan.
SPA OF THE MONTH
Takaragawa, Japan Just over an hour from Tokyo lies Takaragawa, the largest onsen (hot spring resort) in Japan, set in a secluded spot in the Gunma region. Flanked by mountains and intersected by a wide, fast-flowing river, the resort exudes dramatic, rugged charm. The onsen has reportedly been used since prehistoric times and there’s a keen sense of heritage – traditional customs, cuisine and dress are upheld.
The Takaragawa building has 55 rooms, spread over three floors. Shoes are swapped for slippers on entering, and once you’ve chosen your yakata (robe), a member of staff shows you to your room. Sliding back the doors, we were transfixed by the beautiful views of the Takaragawa river below us. I could have sat for hours just watching the water rushing past. The rooms are decorated in traditional ryokan style with tatami mat flooring, sliding wooden/paper doors and a chabudai (low table) with tea-making facilities (green, of course). While you’re at dinner, futon beds are prepared for you on the floor of your room, then rolled back up again while you’re at breakfast. Some of the rooms have private bathrooms, some are shared.
THE SPA RITUAL
Doing very little is the real draw for Takaragawa. There are no beauty treatments or yoga classes – the focus is purely on bathing in the hot springs. Wake up, have breakfast and saunter down to the three sizeable hot springs pools when you’re ready. Simply dip in and out all day, and feel yourself start to unwind. The pools (two mixed and one women-only) are open 24 hours a day, so if you feel like a midnight dip, go for it. It’s pretty romantic if you’re with your loved one.
On our first morning, I walked down to the ladies’ pool in the sunshine to find it completely deserted. I soaked for at least an hour with absolutely no sign of another soul. I felt so relaxed, I even let myself stay naked when people started arriving (swimsuits are not allowed – it’s either naked, or wear the resort’s swim dresses). The experience felt timeless, a ritual people have been following for hundreds of years – so much more rewarding and relaxing than the usual spa resorts.
Leave plenty of time for breakfast. We were served generous portions of fresh fish, vegetables, natto (a string bean dish wrapped in a leaf), soups, egg dishes, miso, rice and bottomless green tea. The evening meal is the main event. Once dried off and robed-up, you head down to the dining room for your very own Japanese banquet. We sat down to a huge array of delicately prepared food – plates of sashimi, sushi and small vegetable and meat dishes, cooked on our own hot-coal grills. We each had our own traditional broth pot, full of vegetables, meat and tofu, bubbling away on a heated plate. When it was hot enough, the staff gave us an egg to crack into it. Light tempura dishes followed, as did miso soup and rice. We had a shochu cocktail, and light desserts such as fresh fruit and strawberry pudding.
If you’re up for a little more action, you can explore the rural surrounds by foot. In spring and summer, you can try whitewater rafting and canyoning on the river.
The staff (mainly aged 40 plus) give the place an unintimidating friendliness. Whether showing you how to tie your yukata, eat the very-tentacle-heavy squid at dinner (down in one), or making green tea, they do it with a smile. You’re there to enjoy the therapeutic qualities of the pools, and eat fantastic, healthy cuisine. And you certainly will. I’d love to return in the winter when the springs are surrounded by snow.
10,800JPY (£71) pp per night based on two sharing a room with shared bathroom, inc dinner, breakfast and use of amenities; takaragawa.com.
'I could have sat for hours just watching the water rushing past'
Enjoy the natural hot springs on the Takaragawa River