The Ultimate Japanese Experience: Staying in a Traditional Ryokan In Kinugawa Onsen

Staying at a ryokan is an unforgettable experience to have during a trip to Japan. For my first ever experience, I chose to stay at Tsuganoki in Kinugawa.

Kinugawa Onsen (鬼怒川温泉) is a hot spring resort town along the Kinugawa River in Tochigi Prefecture. Being close to the popular Nikko, it makes an ideal stop for a weekend getaway in the city. Gorgeous outdoor onsens, beautiful natural scenery, clear river and outdoor activities: This is a destination where you can experience a relaxing break without the crowd.

How to get to Kinugawa Onsen

You can get to Kinugawa Onsen from Asakusa Station in Tokyo by taking the Tobu Railway. Take the Nikko-Kinugawa Line from Asakusa station to Kinugawaonsen Station in about 2 hours. You can also travel from Shinjuku Station for roughly the same time.

From Nikko, you take the same line to Shim-Imaichi Station and then take the Tobu-Nikko Line to Tobu-Nikko Station. It takes about 35 minutes. Nikko Pass offers international travelers a round-trip train fare from Asakusa, train and bus fare in the Nikko area, and train fare in the Kinugawa Onsen area. Get your Nikko Pass here.

Staying at a traditional Ryokan in Kinugawa Onsen _ the ultimate Japanese experience

Tsuganoki, a perfect destination for an ryokan stay near Nikko

Tsuganoki is a small and lovely ryokan in the hidden gem resort town of Kinugawa. Located about 15 minutes from Kinugawa Onsen Station, the hotel offers an authentic Japanese onsen experience. The ryokan is both clean and well maintained and offers Japanese style and western style rooms.

Staying at a traditional Ryokan in Kinugawa Onsen _ the ultimate Japanese experience

What is a ryokan and what are the differences between a stay in a ryokan versus a hotel?

Staying at a ryokan is an unforgettable experience that any traveller to Japan should have. You get to enjoy hot springs baths and taste delicious multi-course meals and witness Japanese hospitality. Stays at ryokans include evening dinner and breakfast. Some modern ryokans may serve buffet-style meals. In fact, some people will stay at a ryokan for the food and spa experiences alone.

The difference between the two is that at a ryokan you sleep on a futon in a Japanese tatami room and you have to take off your shoes at the entrance of the room. Whereas in a hotel you sleep on a western bed and have carpeted floor.

The room at Tsuganoki

After check in, we were escorted to our room with the staff member making sure that we knew where the utilities such as yukata were located. The room had a genkan where we had to take off our shoes and wear the in-room sleepers instead.

Staying at a traditional Ryokan in Kinugawa Onsen _ the ultimate Japanese experience

Our room was a typical Japanese room with tatami mat. The room was divided into three separate areas. The first room had the closet on one side and the tokonoma, a raised alcove displaying a bonsai and a calligraphy scroll. The second room separated by sliding doors had a low table (kotatsu) at the centre but no bed. This is typical to Japanese ryokans, at night, the furniture is stored away and the futons are laid in place of beds. The third room is like a winter garden with a small table,  a set of chairs and a massage chair in the corner. There’s also a balcony overlooking the Kinugawa River.

The bathroom was quite spacious and came in three separate sections too. As you enter, you have the sink with all the amenities and two doors leading to the toilet and bathroom which has both shower and bathtub. For me (I’m sure it’s the same for many travellers), bathrooms in hotels are very important and have to be spotless. The one at Tsuganoki is just perfect and the amenities on offer were amazing too. I really liked that the ryokan had so many beauty products such as moisturising cream or cleansing oil. You can almost get there without a toiletry bag as they also offer toothbrushes.  

After checking the room, we helped ourselves with a nice cup of green tea with Japanese sweets. We took a wander around the hotel and used the onsen before dinner. When we came back from dinner, the middle room was set up with the futons laid on the tatami floor. I moved my futon to the first room, creating a bedroom for myself. The mattress was firm but very comfortable and I had a great night sleep.  

The hot springs

Being a hot spring town, all the ryokans in Kinugawa have naturally-heated onsen and our ryokan was the same. The hotel had two baths (male and female), opened all the time except during cleaning time. The male and female baths swap between morning and night so guests can have the opportunity to experience the different pools.

We enjoyed the onsen three times during our short stay: before and after dinner and again in the morning before breakfast. Typically Japanese people will use the onsen several times. It might seem a lot but when you have the chance to soak into therapeutic mineral water, you want to make the most of it.

Staying at a traditional Ryokan in Kinugawa Onsen _ the ultimate Japanese experience
credit: Tsuganoki

Tsuganoki hotel has a sister brand named Hotel Sunshine Kinugawa located just next door. This means that guests are able to use the facilities at both ryokans. While Tsuganoki has two smalls baths, Sunshine Kinugawa offers two large open-air public baths which overlook the Kinugawa River and gorge. In addition to the two public baths, the hotel has a private bath which can be hired. It’s the ideal option for couples, families or people with tattoos. Tattoos are not allowed in public baths.

Bathing procedure and etiquette

When you enter a public bath in Japan, be it at an onsen or not, you have to follow some strict rules. First of all, you have to take off your clothes in the changing rooms before entering the bathing area. Once in the bathing area, guests have to wash before entering the hot water. You can use the towel to cover yourself while walking around the facilities but it should not be put in the water.

The kaiseki food at Tsuganoki

The thing that makes a ryokan stay special for me is the food. The food served at ryokans is the traditional course meal known as ryori kaiseki. Kaiseki consists of many small dishes with different tastes, colours and textures.

Tsuganoki doesn’t disappoint on that front. Dishes were served one after the other and they were each beautifully plated. The food was incredible and perfectly balance, using only seasonal ingredients.

Staying at a traditional Ryokan in Kinugawa Onsen _ the ultimate Japanese experience

We loved all the food, there was just one that I didn’t enjoy as much but that was only because I couldn’t figure out what I was eating. We didn’t dine in our room as some ryokans offer but in the dining room. Each section of the dining room was managed by a member of staff. Breakfast was equally amazing. Again, it was a multi-course meal with the freshest ingredients.  We had everything from miso soup, tea, grilled fish and rice to hot pot.

The rate & Service

Contrary to hotels, rooms in ryokans are calculated per person and per night. As previously mentioned, they typically include dinner and breakfast. Rooms are often for two to four guests however larger rooms are also available. We chose a 4 people and paid each 15,000 yen.

Customers are always “king” in Japan and even more at a ryokan. From the moment we arrived, we were greeted by the staff. Our items of luggage were taken right away and we were offered tea while we checked in. We were also offered a cute flower pouch bag each, which was a nice touch. Our dedicated staff took us to our room and explained everything to us. She even made sure that our shoes were aligned perfectly in the genkan. When we came down to the lobby, having decided to take a walk, she was waiting with a map of the area. She had highlighted places of interest. During dinner, they were attentive and complied to the smallest request. They explained the dishes to me and made sure that my dietary requirements were followed.

Staying at a traditional Ryokan in Kinugawa Onsen _ the ultimate Japanese experience

Overall stay experience at Tsuganoki ryokan

Although staying at a ryokan is not exactly cheap, I thoroughly enjoyed my first-time experience. Everything was amazing from the course meal to the hot spring. The staff were friendly, helpful and were able to communicate well in English. Most of all, the room was spacious and clean with a stunning view of the Kinugawa River. I would highly recommend this ryokan to anyone visiting Nikko or wanting to experience the true Japanese hospitality.

For all the properties in Kinugawa Onsen, check here.

  • Tsuganoki
  • Address: Tsuganoki – 321-2522 Tochigi, Nikko, Kinugawaonsen Ohara 1438-1
  • Book on: Booking.com

Things to do in Kinugawa Onsen

Kinu-tateiwa Otsuribashi Bridge

Staying at a traditional Ryokan in Kinugawa Onsen: the ultimate Japanese experience

After checking in, we went on to explore the surrounding. The first thing we did was head towards the Kinu Tateiwa – Otsuribashi Suspension Bridge. It is a 140 meters long pedestrian-only suspension bridge which connects Kinugawa Onsen and Tateiwa. Walking on the bridge which is 40 meters above the river can enjoy a wonderful view of the river’s rapids and the surrounding mountains. After you’ve crossed the bridge, you can walk to the observation deck in Tateiwa for more breathtaking views.

The Kinugawa Line Kudari River Cruise

Staying at a traditional Ryokan in Kinugawa Onsen _ the ultimate Japanese experience

A great way of discovering the beauty of the Kinugawa gorge is by taking a river cruise. The cruise in a wooden boat is a delight and the views are just amazing. As per the picture, the area is really stunning in autumn with the fall colours. The 40 minutes ride was pretty smooth and we were entertained by the boatmen as we passed through unusual rock formations. Their explanation as to why some rocks looked like dogs or bears were quite funny. Since I was the only visible foreigner on the tour, one of the boatmen made sure to explain things to me in a mixture of Japanese and English.

Kinugawaonsen Ropeway and Osarunoyama Monkey Park

Staying at a traditional Ryokan in Kinugawa Onsen _ the ultimate Japanese experience

Nikko is associated with monkeys (think of the 3 wise monkeys of Toshugu Shrine) Kinugawa Onsen is surrounded by mountains and one of them is inhabited by monkeys. Osarunoyama Monkey Park or know as “monkey mountain” is accessed via a ropeway. I didn’t particularly enjoy the monkey park as it was quite smelly. Aside from the park, the area features some great and hiking paths. Most importantly,  it offers on sunny days a great view of the town mountains and river below. It is worth taking in the view.

Kinugawao Onsen Ropeway can be booked here.

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Hi there! I'm Mayi. Welcome to my blog SecretMoona! I hope to share with you the hidden secret of places I visit.

20 thoughts on “The Ultimate Japanese Experience: Staying in a Traditional Ryokan In Kinugawa Onsen

  1. Awesome! It sounds like you chose a fantastic place for your first Ryokan experience! It is hard to decide what is more awesome, those hot springs, or the food! They both look fantastic!

    I miiiiss staying in gorgeous places like this!

    1. Thanks, Josy! I was really pleased with my choice. I can’t decide either, they were both amazing 🙂

      1. If you ever fancy visiting another onsen town, my favourite one so far was Kinosaki Onsen (in Hyogo) It’s like Japanese heaven, especially when the fireflies are out in the summertime.

      2. Thanks for the tips. Aww sounds so cool! I would love to go to Japan again so yes, I will add Kinosaki to my list.

  2. Oh this looks absolutely gorgeous. We really hope to visit Japan soon and will venture for our own Ryokan experience. I love the hot springs. The food looks absolutely incredible!

  3. What an incredible Ryokan experience. I’d love to experience something similar. I love the idea of the mineral baths and all the amazing food you showed. You’ve done a fantastic job with your descriptions and pictures, so much so, I’m tempted to book a flight now and just go!! Great article!!

    1. Thank you. I absolutely wanted to try out the hot spring water having heard a lot about it. It was a great experience although I had to adjust to the heat. Highly recommended!

  4. I haven’t heard about Ryokans before, so this was such a treat to read about. It definitely sounds like an authentic way to experience Japanese culture and their customs. I think the river cruise also looks fantastic. A nice breath of fresh air after spending the day relaxing in the spa-like amenities — I’ll take it!

    1. Thanks Martha. The cruise was nice and very entertaining. The river was so clean! I had never seen such clear water!

  5. This looks like a delightful place to stay!! I didn’t know what ryokan was before this post, but they sound lovely. That food – yum!!

  6. What a great experience! The accommodation looks absolutely magical and the hot springs must have been awesome. It is great that you have enjoyed it so much and I’m surprised that it is very affordable!

    1. Thanks. It was a good deal indeed. The booking was made by one of my Japanese friends, maybe she managed to get a deal! I would have stayed there even for ¥25,000! The level of service was just impeccable.

  7. I stayed in little ryokans during my trip to Japan a few years ago and I have fantastic memories of them. I agree with you that one of the best things of staying in a ryokan is the great traditional food that you get to taste!

  8. The onsen looks amazing. Who doesn’t love a hot spring session? I love the idea of trying out a traditional ryokan!

  9. This looks like an incredibly peaceful experience. The thermal pools are beautiful. I appreciate the detail you put about the cultural norms for visiting – I find that to be one of the most intimidating things about visiting a spa in a new place. I always want to make sure I’m being respectful while also observing tradition. Your photo of the boat cruise is beautiful – I love the colors of the natural scenery.

  10. This is something I REALLY want to do! I love thermal pools and I’ve always wanted to go to a Japanese Onsen!

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