Chosen as one of the top 10 hot springs in the world, the Takaragawa Onsen hot spring resort in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, attracts visitors from around the globe.
The Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku inn is located in the prefecture's Okutone region, along a mountain stream of the Takaragawa river, and boasts four spacious open-air baths where visitors can enjoy nature while soaking in the hot water. The baths range in size from the equivalent of a 50-tatami-mat room to the equivalent of a 200-tatami-mat room.
In about 2006, the inn began seeing an increasing number of overseas guests who wanted to experience the resort's traditional Japanese atmosphere.
"If a much larger resort outside Japan was like the major league baseball of hot springs, I'd say the Takaragawa hot spring was the little league," said Yoshio Ono, the fourth president of the inn.
"Many overseas hot spring resorts have bath facilities, but that's it. I think the Takaragawa hot spring gets high marks for an environment where people can naturally appreciate the scenery and experience the four seasons," Ono added.
Of about 30,000 overnight guests in 2010, about 3,000 came from abroad.
The annual number of overseas guests dropped as low as 1,000 after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. However, in 2014, more than 4,000 overseas guests stayed at the inn after Reuters named it one of the top 10 hot springs in the world in 2013.
The initial jump in overseas tourists was triggered by the resort's inclusion in the major travel guide book series Lonely Planet. Takaragawa Onsen's appeal spread via the Internet, drawing customers from European and Asian countries and even bringing about an interview with a TV crew from Thailand.
"Some days, about 90 per cent of our overnight guests are from overseas," Ono said.
To cater to the rapid increase in foreign customers, the inn hired employees who speak English and put information written in foreign languages in its lobby.
Replanting cherry trees
The history of the Osenkaku inn dates back to 1923, when Kiyozo Ono established the property in two small lodges with a nice riverside view by building stone walls around the river. He also transferred about 200 cherry blossom trees growing on a nearby mountain and replanted them around the inn.
General Manager Takeo Ono proudly said, "The founder's spirit of offering 'an inn where guests can experience great nature' is still alive."
After the war, numerous dam development projects began in the vicinity of the Takaragawa hot spring, including the Yagisawa and Fujiwara dams. Thanks to the dam construction, roads were built while electricity began flowing to the area, helping it develop as a hot spring resort area.
According to Takeo Ono, about 10,000 workers were brought out to build each of the dams. "Including their family members, about 20,000 people were living in the area back then," Ono said. Small communities still remain in the vicinity.
Trips to hot spring resorts become popular among Japanese people in the late Showa era (1926-89). At that time, about 100,000 people a year, including day trippers, would visit the Takaragawa hot spring.
Yoshio Ono recalled it as "the busiest time ever for the inn."
The number of guests started declining after the burst of the bubble economy. With the growth in overseas visitors in recent years, however, the resort is recovering its popularity.
Asked about the unexpected boost in the number of foreigners, Takeo Ono said: "We've tried to focus just on [presenting] authentic nature, not corny intentional scene-setting. Otherwise it won't captivate overseas visitors."
However, he also said, "With such a flood of people coming to the area, the image of the Takaragawa resort as a secluded hot spring has weakened."
"In addition to making the resort a place for many people to come to, we also have to think about [improving] the quality of service at our inn," Takeo said.
Key to future survival
Amid the nation's declining population, attracting more visitors from abroad is key to the survival of Japanese hot springs in the future.
Looking ahead to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Yoshio Ono said, "To maintain our current performance, we need to increase our foreign customers to roughly 80 per cent of all guests."
"To widely convey the appeal of the Takaragawa hot spring, I'll take steps so potential guests outside Japan can find our resort via online search sites and other methods," he said excitedly.
Takaragawa Onsen hot spring
There are four spring sources between 40C and 68C inside the Osenkaku inn, the only accommodations at the Takaragawa hot spring resort. The mildly alkaline hot water is believed to help people with nerve pain, rheumatism and poor circulation, as well as ease stress. Legend says Prince Yamato Takeru was cured of disease after he was brought here by a white hawk, leading it to be called "the bath of the white hawk." Osenaku can be reached at (0278) 75-2611.
Hard-to-reach location a plus, says travel site's Swiss owner
Swiss native Stefan Schauwecker described his visits to the Takaragawa hot spring as "just like taking a bath in the middle of the woods."
Schauwecker runs japan-guide.com, a website featuring sightseeing spots across Japan. He launched the website in 1996, and moved to Japan in 2003. He now lives in Fujioka, Gunma Prefecture.
He visited the Takaragawa hot spring for the first time in 2006. It became his favourite hot spring and he's been back three times since, although he's never stayed overnight in the area.
He sometimes recommends Takaragawa to overseas visitors who contact him via e-mail.
So why is the Takaragawa hot spring so popular among foreigners?
"Large open-air hot springs can also be found overseas," Schauwecker said. "The Takaragawa hot spring's attraction is that it also offers an atmosphere where visitors can soak in hot water while feeling at one with natural elements like trees and the river."
Its hard-to-reach location in the mountains also contributes to its popularity, he said.
"It has a provincial atmosphere in a good way, making it a great place for visitors to forget the hustle and bustle of urban life and relax," Schauwecker said.
The Takaragawa hot spring resort's official website offers information about buses and trains in English and Chinese.
"Thoughtful help like that will also make overseas guests feel safe and comfortable visiting the resort," Schauwecker said.