Vegetarian's Japan Guide

Tamagawa Onsen – Japan’s Best Onsen Town for Recuperation

Tamagawa Onsen (玉川温泉) in Akita Prefecture is a special hot spring resort. It consists of two ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) nestled in the mountains of Towada-Hachimantai National Park. Why is it special? Because it is ranked number one for both the acidity of the spring at pH1.2 and the amount of spring water gushing out from one source at 9,000 liters per minute!

With its strong acidity and the non-toxic traces of radium radiation from the rare rocks at the source of the spring, the onsen is said to be able to cure any illness. This is why Tamagawa Onsen is known as the Hot Spring For Recuperation.

Unlike other onsen resorts in Japan, which people visit for leisure, Tamagawa Onsen is used primarily to help its customers recover from illnesses. It is for this reason that nurses are stationed in the resort. As most of the resort’s guests stay there for at least a week before they depart, a part of the resort building is dedicated to those who would like to cook for themselves. And for those who don’t cook, the healthy meals at the ryokans change daily so the long-term residents won’t get bored with their meals!

A Bit of History and Some Facts of Tamagawa Onsen

© Lake Tazawa/Kakunodate Tourism Association

The spring source of Tamagawa Onsen – Ōbuki (大噴) was created back in September 806 by the eruption of Mt. Yakeyama (焼山) close by. However, the area wasn’t developed until 1680, when it was mined for its sulfur. As the era changed to the more peaceful Meiji and Taishō periods, the spot was opened to the public as an onsen resort in 1934.

Until the 1920s, this spot was called “Shika-no-Yu (鹿の湯)” because the onsen was discovered when a hunter found his prey – a deer, healing its wound with the hot spring.

If you are familiar with Kusatsu Onsen (草津温泉) in Gunma Prefecture, you might question why Tamagawa Onsen has the top place for the amount of water pumping out. Whilst it is true that Kusatsu Onsen receives the most spring water from the ground as an area, in terms of the onsen coming out of one single source, Tamagawa Onsen receives a lot more than Kusatsu Onsen. The Yubadake spring source (湯畑源泉) has hot springs gushing out at 4,000 liters per minute.

While you might dislike the smell of sulfur, because of the onsen’s radium characteristics, you will get the hot spring’s medical benefit just by breathing in the moisture in the air (=゚ω゚)ノ. But don’t be greedy and indulge yourself in the pH1.2 water for too long (your body might eventually dissolve if you stay long enough…(´▽`*)).

So How Long to Spend in the Onsen Pool?

Because the acidity of Tamagawa Onsen is at pH1.2, if you jump into a pool with a spring that hasn’t been diluted, your body will probably be tingling within a few seconds. Without washing your body, the onsen will fully sterilize you! So we urge you not to spend more than 2 minutes in the undiluted pool.

In the Ryokans, there is also an onsen pool that has diluted onsen. With 50% pure onsen spring and 50% freshwater, the resulting onsen in the pool is around pH4, which is suitable for a 5 minutes bath.

Another thing to pay attention to is that if some pure onsen accidentally goes into your mouth, please gargle immediately. Otherwise, we worry your teeth might be damaged…

© Akita Tourism Federation

If you want to taste the onsen, there is a largely diluted onsen that is safe to drink (onsen 10% and freshwater 90%) available in the Ryokans. But even so, be ready for a really sour cup of drink!

Whether you are using the onsen pools or want to give the drinkable onsen a try, it is probably best to consult the ryokan staff/nurses about their recommendation on how long to stay in each onsen pool and how many onsens to drink (=゚ω゚)ノ.

Tamagawa Onsen’s Hot Spring Pools

  • Unlike many onsen ryokans in the region, Tamagawa Onsen doesn’t have a mixed-gendered pool. And their pools are indoors.
  • Please leave your shoes in the shoeboxes at the entrance.
  • If you aren’t staying overnight at Tamagawa Onsen, you will have to get a bathing ticket from the vending machine.
  • If you have valuables, such as any accessories, with you, you will want to utilize the locker in the corridor so they don’t get stolen or tarnished.
  • Remember not to rub your body while in the onsen pool, so your skin doesn’t get damaged.
  • There are also a sauna/steam room and indoor bedrock bath that you can enjoy.
  • Those who enjoy the natural breeze can head to their outdoor foot spa area, which will keep you warm even in chilly early spring and late fall.

Staying at Tamagawa Onsen

© Akita Tourism Federation
  • There are Japanese-style and Western-style rooms for you to choose from
    • Note you will be sleeping on the traditional Japanese futon beds if you book for a Japanese-style room. The futon beds are usually harder compared to mattresses. So if you can’t sleep well on harder surfaces, you would want to go for the Western-style rooms
  • There are no shower/bathing facilities attached to any of their guestrooms. If you aren’t comfortable showering/bathing with strangers, it probably won’t be a good idea to stay overnight at Tamagawa Onsen.
  • Dinners and breakfasts are buffet style, except for dinner, you will only get one place of the main dish. If that isn’t enough for you, talk to the ryokan staff for extra food (which will incur additional costs).
  • If you have special dietary requirements, booking plans without meals and cooking in their communal kitchen might be better for you.

Other Facilities at Tamagawa Onsen

  • Apart from the normal souvenir corner that you will find at every ryokan in Japan, Tamagawa Onsen also has this small food stalls selling Akita’s local special food, such as Kiritanpo (grilled rice stick) with sweet miso paste.
  • There is also a chiropractic room where you can be treated to get your spine in the right position (an additional fee applies).
  • There is also a coin-laundry room, but remember to bring your own detergent. Otherwise, you will have to buy some from the ryokan shop
© Lake Tazawa/Kakunodate Tourism Association

For more information, you can refer to their official English website HERE.

Tamagawa Onsen’s Opening Period and Access Information

  • Due to heavy snow in winter, Tamagawa Onsen is closed between late November and April each year. During this time, you can still come to this unique place but stay at their sister hotel – Shin-Tamagawa Onsen (新玉川温泉)
  • If you are coming to Akita Prefecture by bullet train, you will need to get off at JR Tazawako Station. You can refer to our article about Lake Tazawa for more ideas to put on your itinerary (^_-)-☆
  • From JR Tazawako Station, take Ugoku Kōtsū’s (羽後交通) Tamagawa Line (玉川線) from mid-April to November. From December to March, take their Shin-Tamagawa Line (新玉川線) instead.
    • You will need to get off at Tamagawa Onsen (玉川温泉).
    • The bus trip takes around 70 – 80 minutes.
    • HERE is the timetable for the Tamagawa Line that operates from the 16th of April to November 2023.
    • HERE is the timetable for the Shin-Tamagawa Line that operates from the 1st to the 15th of April 2023 and December 2023 to March 2024.
  • You can also catch a flight to Akita Airport, and from there, there are reservation-based shared taxi services that will bring you straight to Tamagawa Onsen. Albeit it is more expensive, it is a more convenient way. For more information about the price, and timetable and to make a booking, please refer to the Akita Airportliner’s English website HERE.
    • Note reservation through internet needs to be made by 5 pm 2 days in advance. If you are booking through a phone call, please do so by 5 pm the day before.

Tamagawa Onsen Shizen Kenkyu Road (玉川温泉自然研究路)

The Tamagawa Onsen Shizen Kenkyu Road isn’t hard to get to at all once you reach the Tamagawa Onsen. The entrance of the well-maintained promenade is just outside of the ryokan will lead you to Jigokudani (地獄谷), where the Ōbuki (can also be pronounced as Ōbuke) is. Ōbuki is the source of the Tamagawa hot spring.

The whole road is surrounded by beech and abies mariesiithis virgin forest. Closer to you is the rocky mountain slope that constantly has steam erupting out.

© Akita Tourism Federation

On your way to Jigokudani, you will see the power of the pH1.2 sulfur spring that has turned the bottom of the river that flows alongside the road yellow! This is pretty much the case wherever the steams are coming out.

Although places where this type of scenery might not be too hard to come across, you can hardly find many spots around the world where you can observe this kind of volcanic activity so closely!

From Tamagawa Onsen, it only takes around 30 minutes for a return trip to Jigokudani. But most people will spend more time along this road, not because they spend too much time on photography, but for the natural bedrock bath (=゚ω゚)ノ.

The Precious Hokutolite (北投石)

Not far away from Tamagawa Onsen is where the valuable Hokutolite is located. As the stones emit radioactive substances, including radium, which have only been found here at Tamagawa Onsen and the Beitou District (北投) in Taiwan, the stone has been designated a Special National Monument in Japan. This means if you happen to break one of these stones, there can be criminal penalties being handed down to you.

As there are rumors that the radioactive material released by Hokutolite “has the effect of curing terminal cancer”, some people still choose to ignore the law for money.

So nowadays, when you visit Tamagawa Onsen, most rare stones are buried deep under the ground (as those exposed above ground were all stolen…).

Towada-Hachimantai National Park Bedrock Bathing

Tamagawa Onsen is also known as the originator of bedrock bathing. And it is more than likely that they got the idea from the naturally heated bedrock close to the resort.

Close to the Hokutolite area, you will find many people lying on the ground. It isn’t because they are too tired. They are taking their natural bedrock bath!

Traces of radiation (15-20 millisieverts per year) and large amounts of negative ions are emitted from the rocks here. It is believed that as our body absorbs what the rocks release, our metabolism will be stimulated. At the same time, it is also said that taking a bedrock bath here has a pain-relieving effect.

© Lake Tazawa/Kakunodate Tourism Association

So what is required to enjoy a bedrock bath here? A bath towel or a Goza map (woven reed mat)! Unless you don’t have one of the two items, this fantastic outdoor bath is completely free (*´ω`). If you have come empty-handed, you can buy one of them from the ryokan for around 1,000 yen.

And if you ask why can’t people just lie on the ground without that extra layer, it is because your skin will be slightly burnt by the rock that has a temperature of 40 – 50 degrees, warmed up by the magma flowing deep down the surface!

The recommended amount of time to spend on top of the bedrock is around 40 minutes each time and one to two times per day!

☛ To enhance the positive health effect of the bedrock bath, you can cover yourself with another bath towel to prevent the heat from escaping!
☛ You can leave your Goza mat on the shelf outside of shops/onsen with the label “ゴザ置場”. Remember to put your name on it so others won’t mistakenly take your mat.

Important: This road is closed from late November to late April in winter.

Shin-Tamagawa Onsen (新玉川温泉)

© Lake Tazawa/Kakunodate Tourism Association

Shin-Tamagawa Onsen, which is around 2 km from Tamagawa Onsen, was opened in 1998. Since it was revamped in 2018, it is a more comfortable hot spring option in the area than the old Tamagawa Onsen.

This ryokan was built for travelers who come to Tamagawa Onsen for a short-term stay. Apart from its luxurious exterior and interior, there is an outdoor onsen pool for you to enjoy the beauty of nature. The onsen will also boost your immunity!

So if you have time, we would highly recommend you to drop by the Shin-Tamagawa Onsen when you visit the area (=゚ω゚)ノ.

Shin-Tamagawa Onsen is open throughout the year. So if you want to utilize this onsen that is said to have great health benefits in winter, it is possible!

Onsen at Shin-Tamagawa Onsen

The spring source at Shin-Tamagawa Onsen is also coming from the Ōbuki. Competing against the Tamagawa Onsen, it has 14 different onsen pools.

At night, this part of the ryokan will be illuminated, creating a very different atmosphere from the daytime (^_-)-☆.

There are also nurses stationed at Shin-Tamagawa Onsen for you to seek personal advice on how to best utilize their onsen!

© Lake Tazawa/Kakunodate Tourism Association

Tip: For those who have special dietary requirements like us, as both their dinner and breakfast are buffet styles, please check with the staff for the dishes that you can eat. They, unfortunately, wouldn’t be able to prepare special meals for individual guests.

How to Get to Shin-Tamagawa Onsen

If you are coming to Akita prefecture by bullet train, you will need to get off at JR Tazawako Station. You can refer to our article about Lake Tazawa for more ideas to put on your itinerary (^_-)-☆.

  • From JR Tazawako Station, take Ugoku Kōtsū’s (羽後交通) Tamagawa Line (玉川線) from mid-April to November. From December to March, take the Shin-Tamagawa Line (新玉川線) instead.
  • You will need to get off at Shin-Tamagawa Onsen (新玉川温泉).
  • The bus trip takes around 70 – 80 minutes.
  • HERE is the timetable for the Tamagawa Line that operates from the 16th of April to November 2023.
  • HERE is the timetable for the Shin-Tamagawa Line that operates from the 1st to the 15th of April 2023 and December 2023 to March 2024.

Extend Your Visit to Hachimantai

With plenty of alpine plants, mountain sightseeing spots with superb views, and hot spring resorts, Hachimantai is one of the best tourist destinations in Akita and Iwate prefecture.

Apart from the spectacular view from the summit at 1,600 meters above sea level, the most fascinating natural wonder at Hachimantai is the scenery called Dragon Eye (ドラゴンアイ) which can only be seen from late May to early June each year (*’▽’).

For more information, please refer to our article on Hachimantai National Park (=゚ω゚)ノ.

Find out more about the attractions at Hachimantai with our article by clicking the photo!

Love Nature and Hiking? Head to Mt. Akita-Komagatake Close by!

Find out more about Mt. Akita-Komagatake with our article by clicking the photo!

For anyone out there who wants to be at the summit of a mountain the lazy way but doesn’t want to splurge on some fancy transportation mode (i.e., a gondola lift), check out Mt. Akita-Komagatake (秋田駒ヶ岳) in Akita prefecture! Although you have to hike a bit longer than Mt. Iwaki in Aomori prefecture, it only takes a bus trip from JR Tazawako Station to the 8th station of Mt. Akita Komagatake; before a 60 – 90 minutes easy hike to the summit!

For more information, please refer to our article on Mt. Akita-Komagatake (=゚ω゚)ノ.

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