After spending more time in Japan, I have become quite an onsen junkie and decided to re-write this post.
I looked up the best rotenburo (outdoor bath) that one could make a quick weekend visit to and found out from the secret japan onsen page, about Nasu Shiobara (那須塩原).
The Ryokan of choice was Yama No Yado Shimofujiya, in Nasu of the Kanto region.
Nasu Onsen (那須温泉) is a spread out hot spring resort on the slopes of Mount Nasudake, a highland area also referred to as the Nasu Highlands (那須高原, Nasu Kōgen). The center of the resort is the hot spring town of Yumoto, halfway up the mountain. Nasu’s hot spring baths were discovered during the Nara Period (710-1185) and have been highly regarded for their restorative properties ever since.
Taken from Japan-Guide.com
From the outside, the hotel did look a bit dated, slight tinge of feeling like one is walking into one of those The Shinning movie moments, but hey, I already read from many reviews online that the hotel itself is not great but the onsen they have is amazing.
I was actually quite happy with the size and cleanliness of the room, it was rather large and we had a balcony and an attached bath.
Their indoor cypress bath has natural, high-sulphur content water flowing directly from the hot springs, but it is the outdoor baths that are unforgettable. The rotenburo (outdoor bath) 露天風呂 is located across the road from the hotel, and one has to walk down a flight of 300 steps to access it.
At the top of the stairs, one can already hear the therapeutic sounds of the rushing river, which reveals itself in sight as one descends.
There is a ladies only outdoor bath area, which was located at the highest level above the river. That is also where the ladies changing area is. The rest of the baths are mixed, and there is a mixed changing area. Because it is a mixed open, outdoor bath, this ryokan allows women to enter the bath with a colored large towel wrapped around their bodies.
There are 3 other outdoor baths, the first one is a flight of stairs (that is really just stepped rocks) leading down from the ladies bath. It does provide an amazing view of the rushing river rapids and a small waterfall just meters beneath. (Note photograph doesn’t do the entire area justice) There was a family using this bath before us, so we moved to the next one until it got darker and we had the whole bath to ourselves.
Another flight of rocky, slippery stairs led us to a cave onsen pretty much by the river, or should I say almost segregated from a part of the river itself. This was my fave spot I think. The hotspring water is dispensed from inside of that covered area while the river water is cold, seperated just by that 1 stone wall. I reached over to touch the clear cool river water and splashed it on my face to cool down when the onsen got too hot. This is the closest Ive come to bathing in/by a flowing river and I relished the proximity of nature. The problems of city living seems small when one is immersed in nature like that.
Dinner was served in the room by our attending mamasan and breakfast was served in the communal area.
There were also private outdoor cedar baths built in private rooms that overnight guests can book for a timeslot. We booked it after dinner and ventured in the dark towards the private outdoor baths. It was nice and quiet and quite an experience watching the moon while soaking in the hot bath, scent of cedar wood around you and feeling cool night air on your face. The trees surrounding the bath hut was lit up so we could still enjoy the shadows of the wonderfully formed branches.
I always sleep extremely well in Ryokans, but then again surely everyone does. That is the whole point after all, soaking up in nature, cleansing yourself physically, psychologically, mentally and emotionally in nature and allowing the ryokan to take care of you, feeding you, clothing you in their basic yukatas without you having to think too much about clothes and laying your futon out for a night of quality sleep. I crawled sleepily and satisfied into my futon to find an old school hot water bottle in there waiting for me as I snuggled in warmly with half shut eyes.
Nasu Shiobara is known for its saltwater hotsprings, so there are other ryokans and onsen resorts in the area, but I specifically enjoy outdoor baths that take me as close to rivers and waterfalls as possible, so this one is a winner for me.
Access to Nasu Shiobara from Tokyo :
By Shinkansen Bullet Train – JR Tohoku Shinkansen 5500 yen +/- 75 mins ride
Alight at Nasu-Shiobara station and take a bus, or if staying overnight, most ryokans will pick you up from the station. (which was what I did)
By local train – from Ueno station take the JR Utsunomiya Line to Nasu-Shiobara station 3000 yen +/- 3 hour ride.
If going by bus, there are 3-4 highway buses from Shinjuku to Nasu Onsen daily 3000 yen 1 way, 5900 round trip and takes 3 and a half hours. This is the JR Kanto Bus you want to be looking up.
The Nasu-Shiobara station allows access by bus to all the other sights in the area.