This past weekend, I went on a trip with some friends to what would turn out to be hands down, the best ryokan and onsen experience in the Shizuoka area. And I’m saying this with confidence without having gone to any of the other Ryokan/Onsens in the area. I might even go as far as saying it’s the best Onsen that you can get to from Tokyo within a day, but more research is in order.
(Note: Ryokan means a traditional Japanese Inn, and Onsen is a Japanese hot spring bath.)
The Ryokan/Onsen(Hot spring) in question is called Amagiso, in a place called Kawazu, about an hour away from shizuoka and 2-3 hours ride from Tokyo. There, I enjoyed the most scenic and enjoyable weekend I have had in Japan, ever. (And I used to live in scenic Kyoto for a year.)
Journey From Tokyo / Exploring Surrounding Area
First things first, before we get to the actual Ryokan itself, let’s deal with the journey to get there. The best way to get there from Tokyo is definitely by car(ROAD TRIP!) but you can also take the train to Kawazu Station, and from there take the bus to Komamori Jinja(shrine). If you live in Shizuoka, getting there is a lot simpler, and you could get away with a day trip to the onsen portion only, and actually skip the ryokan itself.
If you have the opportunity to go in fall, during the 紅葉(kouyou) season, by all means do so. Unlike normal road trips where conversation and boring singing games take most of people’s attention, on this ride the scenery was front and center.
If you’re driving from Tokyo, depending on the route you choose, you get to drive past Mt. Fuji. This is just an easy picture I snapped from inside a moving car, without lining up for hours or paying to go on any fancy cable cart rides, or viewing bridges. (Which you definitely could do if you were so inclined. People sometimes joke that Mt.Fuji is a mountain that you climb other mountains to look at, not a mountain to be climbed.)
And as if that wasn’t enough eye candy, we stopped along the way to enjoy some fall colors. Last weekend was the first weekend of December, and fall was definitely in full swing (with even a couple of bare trees here and there). We actually stopped in the Izu area around Shuzenji Temple just to take an in person look at some of these beautiful fall colors.
Then after walking, sitting and standing around just enjoying being surrounded by all these colorful trees for a good 45 minutes or so, it was time to grab a bite to eat so I ended up buying Mikan, and this yakimochi(grilled Japanese rice cake) that everyone were bragging about, but I was surprised to find tasted mostly like salt and of course it was wrappe in Nori Seaweed for good measure. The mikan however, were surprisingly cheap and very delicious.
Then we went to the actual temple as well. Somehow we had trouble finding the temple, even though the signs were pretty clear in hindsight. The temple itself was a pretty straight-forward, stereotypical Japanese temple. But the thing that made it worth our while, was how the fall colors blended with the temple structures making for a much more scenic spiritual experience than normal.
The main temple building however, was sadly not surrounded by pine trees, not trees with fall colored leaves, but still looked pleasant enough in and of itself.
I looked up the temple before we arrived and I noticed that some comments on Trip Advisor complain that there are a lot of tourists visiting the temple. Many called it things like busy, or loud or crowded. While we were there fairly early in the afternoon, it wasn’t too crowded. (Although maybe it didn’t seem crowded to me just because I’m familiar with the crowds in Asakusa, and some of the more popular temples in Kyoto.) I will say that if you are looking for a remote Buddhist refuge, this is definitely not your dream destination, as it’s basically right next to one of the main roads in the area.
(We had heard rumors about some sort of picturesque bridge that might be a nice photo opportunity for the instagrammers in our group, but it wasn’t anything special to begin with and due to construction it definitely was a bit of a disappointment. I ended up not taking a picture at all.)
All in all Shuzenji itself definitely not a must-visit but the fall colors in the surrounding area were breath-taking. Hopefully praying at the temple, and giving 100 yen cause I had no smaller change will give me tremendous look in the near future. If that is the case, I will report back and update it to must-visit status.
Ryokan Amagiso: Location
The picture of the view from the rooms below will tell you all you need to know about the location. Located up in the mountains about an hour from Shizuoka (and a couple of hours from Tokyo), there’s not too much you can complain about unless you’re looking to do a quick, half-day trip. The location is on the very edge of a ledge overlooking a valley and the river and forests below. There’s also a very peculiar feat of engineering in plain sight, as a nearby mountainside must have been too steep or difficult to build a road normally, so there’s a giant kind of downward spiral you’d expect to see in parking house.
Location is ideal for a getaway weekend from Tokyo/Shizuoka or probably anywhere else in the Kanto area.
Somehow I forgot to take pictures of the rooms, the picture above is of the corridor, but if you visit their website or booking’s page, you’ll see a lot better pictures of the rooms than I could take. We stayed in a standard room for 4 people, with a simple private bathroom but no shower. (Which wasn’t a problem considering that it’s an Onsen ryokan so we were literally there mostly to chill at the onsen.)
The rooms are traditional Japanese ryokan rooms with Tatami(bamboo mats) flooring, and futons on the floor. While a thin Japanese futon on western floor is anything but comfortable, it’s actually quite comfortable to sleep on futons on a tatami covered floor. The flexibility and give in the bamboo mimics the feeling of sleeping in a comfortable bed.
The rooms standard rooms were quite plain, with common area with a sitting table, a tea making set and some tradition chairs meant for sitting on the ground (like having the back of the a chair only) and the futons. There was a small area with a mirror and a sink (with carpet flooring, not tatami), and large windows showing a great view.
Best Open Air Hot Spring/Onsen 露天風呂(Rotenburo) in Shizuoka
“You can see a waterfall from the Rotenburo!”, my friend said.
Despite being mostly broke, overly cash conscious and not having secured a steady job in Japan yet, I was convinced to tag along based on that sentence, and it alone. To get to the rotenburo, you have to go down to the lowest floor of the Ryokan, change your indoor sandals to outdoor ones, and then trek down a mix of stairs and road until you get down to where you can see the river. Then you continue walking until you see… it. The view itself would have been it’s own reward, but knowing that I would get to relax in an onsen with good friends while enjoying this view, made it all the more special.
This particular outdoor hot spring requires you to wear a swimsuit, as it doesn’t separate men and women. There are multiple outside pools lined with natural stones filled with hot spring water. Most have the waterfall in plain view. There’s also one right next to waterfall, but the water in this pool was fairly lukewarm and the splatter and mist coming from the waterfall was really cold in this season.
There was also a semi-covered hot spring with a roof and a back wall. That’s where I ended spending a lot of my time as the water was a bit hotter, which made the thought of swimming in the ice cold river water a bit more bearable. (My friend challenged me, so of course I had to do it right? Haha.)
There’s also a hand carved cave next to the waterfall with hot spring water, but because of the steam and the water dripping down from the rock above, I couldn’t exactly bring my humble Oppo phone in there to take pictures.
We chose to book our stay including breakfast as well as dinner. The food included was a pretty stereotypical sort of expensive Japanese food lineup, including things like organs of fish that I’ve never eaten before, wagyu-beef that you grilled yourself on a small Teppan (iron plate), as well as a seafood Nabe (stew/soup cooked in the same pot) with crab.
While the Wagyu beef definitely caught my attention, the highlight of the meal was when the hostess returned after we were done eating the seafood and vegetables from the soup, to dump a heaping bowl of rice into the pot. She also brought us some whisked eggs to pour into the pot. The end result was something like rice soup, but with lots of egg and all of the flavor from the things that had been cooked in the pot before it.
All of my friends sung high praises of the dinner and the breakfast, whereas the culinary highlight of the trip for me personally came when we stopped by a Tonkatsu place on the way back that offered unlimited refills of rice, potato salad and miso soup. I am generally a big fan of simpler Japanese dishes like Donburi, and anything else that involves a little bit of cooking and delicious Japanese rice… but maybe not so much the more expensive Japanese dishes that often involve animal insides or obscure seafood.
Side Note: Karaoke Room
Again no pictures, but if you are feeling in the mood to enjoy an old school Japanese evening of Ryokan, you can drag your friends and family down to the karaoke room. Rest assured, they have a wide selection of western songs, including sappy Karaoke classics by Backstreet Boys, Aha and of course, the voice finisher “Africa” by Toto.
I’m new to this rating places thing so, I don’t know where “will definitely go there again before I die” places on a scale from 1 to 5 stars, but I’m assuming its 5, so I’m going with 5. While the food didn’t blow me away, that was probably more a case of me not exactly being who they had in mind when they created the menu, than the food itself not being well prepared. The room itself wasn’t amazing either, and the price wasn’t thaaat cheap for an onsen ryokan. But when you factor in the rotenburo with possibly the best view of any rotenburo in Japan… it’s hard to give it anything but.
Conclusion; if you are in Japan in the general Kanto area, book your stay via booking.com now! (Or of course any other booking site of your choice.)