Takaragawa Onsen in the mountains of Minakami is not your average onsen. This one is mixed and allows for the rare opportunity to visit an onsen as a family or with friends.
Most of us are probably reasonably familiar and comfortable with onsen etiquette by now. However mixed bathing provides a whole new set of uncertainties and potential to ‘do something wrong’. So here is my guide to mixed bathing to help out anyone who might be as unsure as I was the first time I went.
Takaragawa Onsen is fairly easy to find. From the Minakami I.C take route 291, turn right onto route 63 and left onto route 264. It should take around 30 to 45 minutes. The road is a little narrow and is generally covered in snow and ice in winter so please be careful. There are also public buses available from Minakami Station, and a courtesy shuttle bus by appointment. The Takaragawa Onsen website has more information in English.
Tickets are 1500? which you can purchase from the front counter. I recommend bringing your own large towel, but renting another towel for use in the bath itself. You can leave this one behind when you are finished so you do not have to drag a take a sopping wet towel home. Ladies will need the large towel to cover themselves, while men can get away with using only a small towel.
Once you have purchased your tickets there is a locker area at the front entrance where you can leave your bags and other things. From here just take your towels and ticket. This is not the change room, so please do not get naked quite yet!
The staff are helpful (though do not speak much English) and will probably show you where the showers are, or at least give you an English map of the place as it is quite large.
Now, this is where I still get a little confused. When you go to a regular onsen, you must shower before you get in. However, at Takaragawa Onsen, the showers are far from the rotenburo (outside baths). So you would have to undress, shower, get dressed again, walk down to the baths, undress again and then get in. This is actually what I do, as I do not want to cause offence. I have seen people Japanese people in the showers, but there is an indoor bath there too that they were using. I do not think it is necessary to shower beforehand (unless you are particularly dirty!) Getting dressed again and walking down to the baths would reverse any cleaning the shower did. It would be easier if you had a robe to change in to instead of your clothes. It is your call on that one.
There is a short path down to the rotenburo, which passes by a whole lot of stuff that must have been collected over a long period of time, as well as some caged bears. Yes, bears! (You can also try the ‘bear soup’ on the menu as a post-bath meal. I hope this one is lost in translation…) On weekends you may have to show your ticket, but you also get a free prize! (I got a packet of chopsticks last time).
There are four baths in total which are on either side of Takara River (upstream of Tone River). It is quite a beautiful spot. There is one ladies-only bath which is the furthest bath on the east side of the river (Maya bath). It is closed off and clearly signed in English and Japanese, so it would be difficult to accidentally walk in. Ladies do not have to wear towels in the bath here. The other three are mixed baths. There are two on the east side called Maka and Hannya, and one on the west called Kodakara. Each has its own change room and you are welcome to walk between the various baths to try them all out. This is where the towel comes in particularly handy.
The onsen is connected to a large hotel, so if you feel the drive is a bit far, or you loved it so much you have to stay longer, staying the night is an option. Takaragawa Onsen is mentioned in the Japan Lonely Planet, so more information can be found on it there.
So there you have it! I hope you can find the time to enjoy this particularly beautiful and relaxing onsen, with friends and family.