Best Kept Secret Hot Springs! Vol. 4: Ryūjin Onsen, Kamigoten Ryokan.
Best Kept Secret Hot Springs! Vol. 4: Ryūjin Onsen, Kamigoten Ryokan.

There are believed to be as many as 27,000 natural hot springs in Japan, yet no two onsen are exactly the same. Each has its own unique combination of water temperature, flow and mineral components. With such a great variety to choose from, Japan’s hot spring resorts range from enormously famous spots attracting hordes of visitors, to rustic affairs visited only by those in the know.
Japan’s harder-to-reach hot springs are also known as “hitou”, or “secret hot springs”. While some of these are authentically hidden in the sense that they are off the grid and you literally have to climb a mountain to get to them, others have modernised along with the rest of the world and many have become relatively easy to access.
In this series we introduce Japan’s finest “secret hot springs” where visitors of all ages can relax and enjoy nature’s blessings.

Text : Sasaki Takashi / Photos : 平島 格 Kaku Hirashima / English Version : Judy Evans

Keyword :

Beautifying Hot Springs with Over a Thousand Years of History.

Surrounded by layer upon layer of the Kii Peninsula’s mountains and valleys, Ryūjin Onsen has long been known as one of Japan’s top three Bijin no Yu, or beautifying hot springs (the other two being Kawanaka Onsen in Gunma Prefecture, and Yunokawa Onsen in Shimane Prefecture). These sodium hydro-carbonate mineral springs also contain plenty of radium. The waters remove excess oil from the skin, leaving the skin silky smooth.

Ryūjin Onsen boasts an extraordinarily long history, beginning in the 8th century when the hot springs are said to have been discovered by En no Gyōja, the priest and mystic who founded the ascetic Shūgendō mountain faith. Then, in the early Heian Period (794 – 1185), the Buddhist monk, Kūkai (known posthumously as Kōbō Daishi), having received a dream of the Dragon King Nanda, is said to have had a bath house built here. This, incidentally, is where the hot springs get their name – Ryūjin means Dragon King.

The rotenburo (open-air bath) can be reserved for guests’ exclusive use. Here bathers can enjoy the mineral springs while soaking up the sights and sounds of the Hidaka-gawa River below.

Thermal Springs Fit for a Samurai Lord

Despite its remote location deep in the Kii Mountains, Ryūjin Onsen got a name for itself during the Edo period, when the hot springs came under the patronage of the Tokugawa lords of the Kii-Wakayama Domain. Among them, the first lord of the domain, Yorinobu Tokugawa was exceedingly pleased with the waters of Ryūjin Onsen. So much so, in fact, that he had a bathhouse and lodge built here, and exempted the onsen from having to pay taxes. Yorinobu’s lodge, now the Kamigoten Ryokan, was used by successive feudal lords who came here to take the waters. The two-storey timber main building containing Onari no Ma, the room that Yorinobu used, was designated by the government as a Tangible Cultural Property in 1999.

Still looking much as it did during the Edo Period, the main building at Kamigoten Inn has been designated a Tangible Cultural Property of Japan.
Guests can sample wild-harvested food from the surrounding Kii mountains, such as wild herbs, freshwater fish, venison and wild boar, all bursting with flavour.

Tranquil Indoor Baths Made from Prized Maki Timber

At Kamigoten there are separate indoor baths for male and female bathers, while the open-air rotenburo can be reserved for exclusive use. Both the the floorboards and the bathtubs themselves in the indoor baths are made from Buddhist pine (maki), a local specialty timber. The crisp fragrance of the timber only adds to the pleasure of the bathing experience. From the open-air rotenburo, situated beside the Hidaka-gawa River, the bathing experience is accompanied by the sounds of birdsong and the constant murmur of the river below.

Meanwhile, for history buffs, the building is a fascinating treasure trove of artifacts relating to the Tokugawa family and the former Kii Province.  Let yourself be transported back to a time when these waters were enjoyed by samurai lords!

The indoor baths are constructed with costly maki (Buddhist pine) timber instead of the usual hinoki cypress.
Top left: The guest rooms retain the atmosphere of the samurai era. Guests can even stay in the Onari no Ma, the room where the feudal lord, Yorinobu Tokugawa, used to stay. Bottom left: The picturesque Koya-Ryūjin Skyline Road is a pleasant drive with breathtaking views. Right: It’s just a stone’s throw from Ryūjin Onsen to Kōyasan (Mt Kōya), the centre for Shingon Buddhism. Pictured is Konpon Daitō pagoda, standing at the heart of Kōyasan’s sacred temple complex.

Address: Ryūjin 42, Ryūjin-mura, Tanabe City, Wakayama Prefecture

Phone: 0739-79-0005

Website: English and Japanese)

Check in: 16:00 / Check out: 10:00
Accommodation rate including dinner and breakfast: from 15,270 yen per person.
No daytime-only visits.

Access by public transport:
◎ From JR Kii Tanabe Station, take the Ryūjin Bus from (via Toragamine). Approx. 1 hour 25 minutes.
◎ From the Kōyasan cable car Kōyasan Station, take the Nankai Rinkan bus, transferring to the Ryūjin Bus. Takes just under two hours.

Access by private vehicle:
◎ Approximately 49 km/ 1 hour 30 minutes from Kōyasan via the Koya-Ryūjin Skyline Road (Highway 371)
◎ Approximately 45 km/ 1 hour 30 minutes from the Hanwa Expressway Nanki-Tanabe Interchange, via Highways 29 and 371.

Text: Sasaki Takashi

Takashi Sasaki represents the editing office, Studio F. He is a writer and editor whose work includes ‘mook’ series in Japanese such as Scenic Drives (Gakken Plus Publishing) and Motorcycle Tours for Adults (Yaesu Publishing). He has authored several books, including ‘Touring Japan’s Kaidō’ (Gakken Publishing) and ‘Understanding Mongolia in Two Hours’ (Rippu Shobō Publishing).

Photos: 平島 格 Kaku Hirashima

Kaku Hirashima gradutated from Nihon University College of Art with a degree in photography. After working in magazine production, he became a freelance photographer. He works in various media, mainly specialist motorcycle and automobile magazines. He travels all over Japan capturing images of magnificent scenery, onsen and local food culture.

English Version: Judy Evans

Editor and Japanese-English translator Judy Evans has a background in education, the arts, production horticulture and landscape design. A secondary school teacher of Japanese and English who spent many years living and working in Japan, Judy now lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and remains a frequent visitor to Japan.