There are lots of really relaxing and pleasant onsen, or hot springs, in Japan, but there aren’t many that you could describe as ‘exciting’. Kamiyu Onsen, located in the floodplain of the Kamiyu River that flows through Totsukawa Village, is definitely one such rare and exciting outdoor bath. You’ll be surprised from the moment you enter the changing room.
The location of the onsen is pretty unique on its own. There is nothing obstructing the view of the clear waters of the Kamiyu River from the outdoor bath, so you can see the rush of the water just three meters away, and listen to its burble while soaking in the hot waters. It’s like a front row seat to the river.
What’s more, the men’s bathtub is huge! At four meters across and fifteen meters long, it’s almost like a small pool. It doesn’t have a roof, either, so bathing in it is especially liberating.
But that’s not all. There’s a stairwell leading down from the bath to the riverside, too, so if you get too hot in the onsen, you can soak in the cold water of the river to cool off. Just imagine moving between the natural hot spring water and the cool, clear river water. It’s like paradise!
Sadly, the women’s bath does not have a path to the river, for privacy reasons. But it has its own charm. It feels like it’s inside a cave, but it’s also one level higher than the men’s bath, providing a beautiful view of the river outside the window. The water from the springs here is very thick, and it’s great for making your skin smooth and silky. Many women say they don’t need to use any skincare products after they get out of this bath.
This outdoor onsen, which you can enjoy for just 500 yen, was built by a man named Satoshi Inui, who used his own money to fund it. Why did he want to make an outdoor bath at Kamiyu Onsen? Why is it designed the way it is? Mr. Inui had to reflect back on his life to answer our questions.
Mr. Inui was born and raised in the mountains around Totsukawa Village. When he was in elementary school, he would wake up at 6 a.m. every morning and commute two hours to school. But we didn’t have to ask Mr. Inui that, because the details of the first half of his life are all written in a manga.
That’s right, a manga. Apparently it appeared in the fishing magazine “Ayu Masters 13 Extra Issue Fisherman Vol. 130”, and on the cover is a photo of Mr. Inui in his thirties. He’s loved fishing since he was young, and as an adult has won the All Japan Ayu Sweetfish Fishing Competition three times. He was once interviewed at the competition, and his life up until then was turned into a manga.
“You usually start fishing by tagging along with your dad, right? When you’re in first or second grade, you can’t catch ayu sweetfish by yourself, so you have to have help. Then little by little you learn the ropes, and then you start bringing your own fishing pole. After that I started fishing in this river for ayu, amago trout, and minnows. When I was a kid, I would spend all my summer days at the river. That’s how much I loved it.”
To Mr. Inui and his friends, who used to play in the Kamiyu River as children, the onsen was a familiar place. The Kamiyu River is unique because, just by digging a small hole in the riverbed with your hands, hot spring water will bubble up. If you got cold while playing in the water, you could make your own private onsen and warm up. There also used to be a popular municipal bath on the riverbed.
Later, it was taken over by a local inn, and when Mr. Inui’s family moved to a place near the river, the bath became a special place for him. For the champion fisherman, who was still head over heels for fishing even as he worked with building and electrical equipment, Kamiyu River is his “home river”.
That’s why when the 2011 flood in the Kii Peninsula washed away the outdoor bath, everyone in the neighborhood asked Mr. Inui when it would be back. Baffled, he would always say, “Why are you asking me?” But internally, he was thinking, “We have to do something to bring it back.”
Six years after the flood, he finally asked the inn that managed the bath if they planned to rebuild it, and they said they had decided not to run the bath anymore. Mr. Inui thought, “What a shame!” and, after receiving permission from the inn, began working towards reopening the bath.
“A pile of driftwood had just been left there from the flood in 2011. We had to start by building a path to the river to get the heavy equipment down to shore. After that it took about two months to build the bath. We used the same design for the women’s bath, but I had a specific idea in mind for how I wanted the men’s bath to be, so I built it my own way. I paid for it all myself.”
Once the bath was finished in July of 2017, it became Mr. Inui’s daily routine to arrive at the onsen at 7 a.m. to prepare for the day, stay until closing in the evening, clean up, take a bath for himself, and go home. He even works the reception desk on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
With the hot spring still on the riverbed, flooding continues to be a significant risk. Two years ago the water in the river rose five times, and each time the bath became filled with silt, which they had to dig out with machinery. Last year it only happened once, but it’s certainly an ordeal every time.
Considering all the work Mr. Inui has to put in to keep the bath running, it should cost far more than just 500 yen to go in, but it’s a volunteer job for him. He’s not concerned at all about profits or cost performance.
“We can’t help it if the river rises and the sand fills up the bath. We’re prepared for that kind of thing; four or five of my workers can dig it out in about a day. We do have to close the onsen on those days though (laughs). I get to meet a lot of people who come to the baths, so it’s pretty fun. There are even people who come from Iwate and Oita. A lot of times they bring sake to share, too!”
So Mr. Inui paid for the bath to be built without any help, and charges an entry fee that doesn’t yield a profit. Why would he do that? After some thought, it clicked for us. He’s like a book lover that neatly arranged their personal collection in a library so that other people can learn how great literature is. Mr. Inui loves the river like that, and wants to share its charms with the local people and the travelers.
We contemplated Mr. Inui’s dedication while soaking in the hot bath, but we started to get dizzy from the heat and all the thinking, so we decided to try a dip in the river to cool off. It was a rainy January day and the water in the river was so cold we wanted to scream, but it felt so good when we ran back into the hot water afterwards.
Somebody had the idea to dig a hole in the shore of the river to create a shallow onsen. The water that comes out is actually really hot, so mixing it with a little river water makes it the perfect temperature, and you can watch the river flow by just a few centimeters away. We couldn’t help but think that the children who grew up visiting this onsen every day must have lived a very rich childhood. Luckily, now even city people can get a glimpse of that life at Kamiyu Onsen.