By Amanda Lynn Marcroft
There are two types of people on JET: those addicted to onsen and those who haven’t been yet. They’re the gateway drug of Japan. You may have come fully intending never to get near one, but one day you’re gonna break. Maybe you’re crashing at a friend’s and realize you haven’t bathed for three days. Maybe your pipes froze. Maybe you fell in with a bad crowd and before you knew it you were in a changing room. It’s okay. You’ll survive. We’ve all been there.
I myself came with 0% shame and 100% intention to live the onsen life. And I set my sights high. Sure I’ll take a dip at the local bath with friends or warm up after a good day of boarding, but in my heart of hearts there was always only one: Kappa-no-yu. Kappa encapsulates everything that an onsen is: it’s secluded, deliciously hot, and completely natural. It had been on my bucket list since before I ever saw Japan. But it is not for the faint of heart. When I say secluded, hot, and natural, I mean secluded, hot, and natural. There is no public transportation; you absolutely must drive. The water is so warm snow will melt before touching it. And there’s barely even a changing area because, in the way of the true onsen, Kappa is one step above hopping naked into the river.
In January of last year conditions were perfect, and I was determined to achieve my dream. So, through craft and sheer enthusiasm, I convinced two friends to drive six hours through a blizzard with me so that we could take a dip in the hot spring of my heart. There were many points where we feared for our lives and a reasonable couple attempts at mutiny. But onsening is not for the weak and we persevered. And it was magical. Everything an onsen should be and more. I have three words for you: onsen snowball fight. I have been to many onsen before and since and I have not found one that captures my heart like Kappa. The water comes bubbling up, hot and blue; the scenery is gorgeous; and the area is completely deserted. If you’ve never been in an outdoor bath while it snows I ensure you it was worth every moment of sheer terror to get there. Whether you’ve just caught the onsen bug or you’re a seasoned aficionado, check out Kappa before you leave Japan and live life secure in the knowledge that you’ve been to the best onsen that the world will never see.
P.S. In case you’re curious how Kappa-no-yu got its name, kappa are Japanese water spirits. Traditionally tricksters, they can range from benign to terrifying and are known both for eating small children as well as killing divers by reaching up and pulling out their livers (not through the mouth, think lower). Consider bringing some cucumbers to appease them. Happy bathing.
- For more about the onsen check it out here
- For more about the water spirit check it out here
- If life-risking romps in the snow aren’t your thing, consider checking out Kappa during another season instead. I’m sure it will still be lovely (not as lovely as in winter, but that’s what you get for prioritizing health over scenery).
There’s really no other option. Give in.
- Check out the beautiful Yagen Valley while you drive through it
- Visit lovely nearby Mutsu and take a trip to Osorezan, the Hellmouth
Travel Tip: Never underestimate the dangers of the places you plan to travel to; always do your research. Unlike Western folklore—easily appeased by revenge or exorcisms—Japanese creatures do not mess around. If you’re bathing, bring cucumbers. If you’re going to the mountains, watch out for Yamamba. Always carry candy in urban areas in case you meet KuchisakeOnna. And if you see a two-tailed cat lapping up lamp oil at any point, hunker down and pray for the best.