With an autumn chill showing up, recently our thoughts have been turning to hot springs, or onsen, as they’re called in Japanese. But while you can find onsen in just about any part of Japan, Wakayama Prefecture’s Kawayu Onsen is definitely special.
Sure, you can find the standard selection of day-use baths and hotels with onsen bathing facilities for their guests in the neighborhood, which is part of the city of Tanabe. If you’re looking for a more personalized onsen experience, though, in Kawayu Onsen you can dig your very own hot spring bath.
Kawayu translates as “river with hot water,” and sure enough, as you walk along the banks of the Daito River that runs through town, you can spot places where steam is rising up from the ground. While the river itself isn’t full-on hot-spring-warm, the springs are close enough to the surface that by digging into the banks you can create an onsen to soak in.
We spent the night in Tanabe’s Kodama no Sato campground, then got up the next morning, grabbed a shovel, and walked about five minutes to the river in order to find a spot for our personal spring.
Near the river, we found pockets where water had already started bubbling up from the ground. We gingerly dipped our fingertips in, and sure enough, the water was hot.
So we started digging, looking to expand this partially formed hot spring into a full-sized version.
Since the water was particularly toasty, we initially thought to combine our hot spring with the cooler water from the main part of the river. However, this turned out to be a mistake on our part, and we ended up with a lukewarm temperature that was too cool for a truly relaxing soak. So this time we did what we should have done in the beginning and used our hand to feel the earth at the bottom of the pool of warm water, which helped us figure exactly where the heat was coming from.
Once we’d done that, we started digging again, with that point as our bath’s center, giving us plenty of warm water which we then sealed off by building an outer rim out of rocks.
Once our natural tub was formed, we grabbed a thermometer to check its temperature...
...which turned out to be 40 degrees Celsius, which a lot of Japanese hot spring enthusiasts will tell you is just about perfect.
Ordinarily, onsen bathing is a naked affair in Japan, but since there aren’t any privacy walls here, you’re supposed to wear a bathing suit while relaxing in your self-dug hot spring at Kawayu Onsen.
Digging a person-sized hole in the ground can take up a good chunk of your morning, but there’s nothing quite like the unique, relaxing satisfaction that comes from lying in an onsen you made with your own hands. The view isn’t half-bad either, and some of the feathery locals even came by to say hi to us.
The best place to dig is near the intersection of Routes 45, 241, and 242 (a map can be found here). There’s no fee for digging your own onsen, but bear in mind that from December to February the entire section of the river is dammed to create an extra-large onsen, so if you want to do your own digging you’ll have to make your trip before winter sets in.
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