Dig your own open-air bath at Kawayu onsen, Wakayama
Dig your own open-air bath
Sen-nin buro: one of Japan's largest outdoor baths
>Saturday nights only: bathe by candlelight
>Massive playcard event in January
Where to stay in Kawayu: Three recommended traditional inns
Sansui Kan Kawayu Midoriya
Kawayu Onsen Kameya Ryokan
Kawayu Onsen Fujiya

Need a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life? Perhaps one of the best solutions is dipping into a soothing and rejuvenating "onsen" hot spring (of which Japan has many!)

What better way to elevate the experience than making your own onsen bath?
This article visits Kawayu onsen hot spring, which lies in the mountains of Wakayama, in western Japan. Kawayu onsen offers a mix of relaxation and fun activities by the river, such as digging your own open-air bath.

Dig your own open-air bath at Kawayu onsen, Wakayama

The Kii mountain range -- straddling the prefectures of Wakayama, Nara and Mie -- is home to holy sites and pilgrimage routes that were recognized as World Heritage sites in 2004. The network of ancient routes known as Kumano Kodo leads to a trio of grand shrines collectively known as "Kumano Sanzan.” Kawayu onsen hot spring is about a 20 minute bus ride from Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine — the spiritual center of the Kumano Kodo trail.

A slow-paced hot-spring town

Kawayu literally means "hot water river," which is no misnomer. Hot spring water constantly flows from the riverbed of the Ootou river, a tributary of the Kumano River. Water from the source is more than 70 degrees Celsius. The scorching onsen water mixed with cooler river water makes for the perfect temperature for bathing. Kawayu onsen is a simple alkaline thermal spring which is said to be effective for nerve pain and diabetes.

Ootou river's crystal clear waters

Kawayu onsen is home to many traditional ryokan hotels and bath houses. This onsen town is also one of t
he few places in Japan where one can dig their own hot spring bath. During March to September, visitors flock here to make personal baths in the river. I also went to try my hands at this unique experience enjoyed by adults and children alike.

Visit to the Ootou rIver

I visited the Ootou river in late November, just before it was partially blocked to create a massive open-air bath. Kawayu onsen town has many traditional ryokan inns that stand along the crystal clear Ootou river. At first glance, the river looked nothing like a hot spring source.

Thick steam rising from the river

I walked down to the riverbank to find steam rising from the river. I spotted a duck gently wading through the steam. It was a rather mystical sight.

Duck swimming in steamy river

I dipped my hand into the river only to find it surprisingly warm for late November. While the water was not exactly hot, it was warm enough to play in. Was there a hot spring source nearby? My heart skipped a beat.

Dig your own open-air bath

Imagine crowds of adults and children enthusiastically digging the riverbed. This is an annual scene at Kawayu onsen town. 

As I've mentioned earlier, Kawayu is one of the very few places in Japan where bathers can dig an exclusive hot spring bath. What makes the experience so special? I decided to find out for myself. 

Find a spot to dig  

Hand rake and stopwatch

I brought a small rake with me. This tool is used in Japan for digging clams in the summer.  It picks up gravel without scooping up water. Much more useful than a gardening hand shovel. I also had a stopwatch with me to keep track of time. 

Now, all I needed was a place to dig. I found a few holes around me. You can save a lot of time if you take advantage of these holes left behind by someone else. 

Many holes suggesting many people dug here

I wanted to create a small pool, big enough to soak my feet. If you want to build a full-sized bath, it will take at least five hours. Since it was late November and the sun sets early, I opted for a foot bath that I would be able to finish in about half an hour.  

I was determined to dig and build everything by myself, so I waded through the water in search of untouched areas. I dipped my hand into the water to check the water temperature. It was lukewarm everywhere.  However, once I dug into the sand, the water temperature slightly dropped. 

I needed to find a place where the water temperature stayed warm. 
Instead of moving downstream, I switched course. I went upstream and tested spots here and there. 

Hot spring source bubbling at the riverbed

Halfway up the river, I spotted bubbling areas, which were signs of a spring source. However, these spots were away from the riverbank. 

After exploring around 10 spots, I finally found a place where the water temperature seemed stable. 

My digging point

My spot was in a area where the river was wider. I thought I could easily make a little onsen pool if I surrounded the hole with rocks.  The size and location of the hole seemed good enough for a foot bath.

Digging my own foot bath

The river water turned cloudy

Once I decided where to work, I started digging with my hand rake. I dug into the gravel and made a deep hole. But soon the river water flowed in, along with the gravel I had piled up nearby. My hole quickly filled up with sand and pebbles. I should have piled up the gravel towards the river center -- not on the side closer to the riverbed. Once I figured this out, it was easier to work.   

The hole was soon 14 centimeter deep

Soon after a few minutes, my hole was 14-centimeters deep. I continued to dig deeper and remove gravel from the hole. 

Completely focused on digging

Damming with stones

I blocked the river water from flowing into the hole, using big rocks. This was meant to trap the warm spring water inside the hole. I planned to remove the rocks when my foot bath was ready.  

35 minutes later

I continued scooping gravel for a while. Despite the laborious work, I noticed my hole was not getting  any deeper. The water temperature remained the same. The hole was supposed to be ready after 30 minutes of digging. What went wrong?

Areas around the hole turned dry. Where was the hot water?

I looked around and found an excavator in full action downstream. I was so focused on digging that I failed to notice it. Work was underway to expand the river before the opening of a gigantic outdoor bath during December to February. The expanded river changed the river flow, which resulted in draining  water from the area surrounding my little hole. 

An excavator was in full action downstream

First the water disappeared, then the hole was gone

Start over again

The sight of the excavator was disheartening. However, I was not ready give up. I searched for a new spot that was deep enough to make a foot bath. Luckily, I found a spot about three meters away. 

I had been shoveling gravel for more than half an hour and I felt exhausted. To speed up the work, I decided to borrow a large shovel from someone nearby.

Mission accomplished

After about 10 minutes of digging, my hole was just about the right depth. It seemed like the perfect sized open-air bath, but on a much smaller scale. My little bath did have water from the source, but not enough. Sadly, the water was very cold. I just created the perfect looking mini onsen -- only without warm water! By this point, my energy had run low and I gave up on making my own foot bath from scratch.  

Exclusive open air bath (sadly, not mine)  

Blissful open air bath (sadly, not mine)

I wanted a chance to soak just my feet, so I borrowed one of the onsen pools made by someone nearby. I mixed the piping hot spring water with river water, and the little pool transformed into a soothing foot bath.

The steamy Ootou river. I will be back.

I finally enjoyed a blissful moment of relaxation.  I promised myself to come back someday to 
dig my own exclusive foot bath. 

I need to remember one thing next time.... to bring spare clothes. The bottom of my trousers were very dirty after squatting and digging. 

Dirty clothes -- a proud sign of hard work!

Sen-nin buro: one of Japan's largest outdoor baths

The massive outdoor "Sen-nin buro" bath is 15m wide and 40m long(photo courtesy: Kumamoto Hongu Tourism Association)

The excavator I spotted at the river was preparing for a gigantic outdoor bath called "Sen-nin buro," which opens every year around November 20th. It welcomes bathers for free from December to late February. Sen-in buro is is one of Japan's largest "roten-buro" outdoor baths.

According to locals, the bath name is a double entendre. Sen-nin is the Japanese word for mountain hermit, who locals say discovered this open-air bath.
Sen-nin also means "a thousand people" in Japanese, suggesting the bath is large enough to accommodate hundreds of bathers.

Sen-nin buro opens from 6:30 in the morning to 10 at night. It sometimes closes due to heavy rain or other weather conditions. Heavy downpours wash away the massive bath once or twice a year and it takes about 10 days to repair.

Spacious bath in natural setting (photo courtesy: Kumamoto Hongu Tourism Association

Soaking in an outdoor bath on a crisp winter day is an exceptional experience. This spacious outdoor bath never gets too crowded and offers a wonderful feeling of being close to nature.

Another bonus of the Sen-nin bath is that its bathing etiquettes are uncomplicated, unlike other Japanese onsen baths. Too shy to strip down in front of strangers? Just wrap yourself in a towel. (Soaking one's towel in the tub is widely discouraged elsewhere in Japan.) Or wear a swimsuit. Some bathers even wear T-shirts! Or if you opt for an true Japanese bathing experience, undress inside the free changing rooms nearby.

Saturday nights only: bathe by candlelight

Bath surrounded by soft glowing candles (photo courtesy: Kumano Hongu Tourism Association)

Be sure to visit the Sen-nin buro bath on Saturday nights, when the dynamic open-air bath changes into a dreamy setting. The "Yukemuri Lantern event" features handmade candle lanterns, that gently reflect on the water. With the exception of rainy days, the lantern are displayed every Saturday evening from eight to ten, even during the New Year holiday.

Massive playcard event in January

Playcards floating in the river(photo credit: Kumano Hongu Tourism Association)

In January, Kawayu Onsen town holds an event featuring traditional "karuta" playcards. Participants scramble around the river in search of playcards made from cedarwood.

Fierce competition even between adults and children (photo credit: Kumano Hongu Tourism Association)

The playcards are locally known as "Kumano-ji karuta," and they display drawings of folktales. Participants in groups of four race to collect the cards floated on the river. Registration opens one month in advance, and each team needs to pay 1000 yen. Many groups join from in and outside Wakayama prefecture. It is a fun event for both adult and children alike.

Where to stay in Kawayu: three recommended traditional inns

Apart from digging your own open-air bath and bathing in the massive winter-only outdoor bath, Kawayu onsen hot spring is a wonderful destination in itself. There are plenty of traditional ryokan inns to explore the surrounding areas, including the ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail.
Here are our top three hotel choices to make the most of your Kawayu onsen stay.

Sansui Kan Kawayu Midoriya

Sansui Kan Kawayu Midoriya stands in front of the Kawayu onsen area

Sansui Kan Kawayu Midoriya has 90 rooms and has free parking space for up to 60 cars.

Open-air bath

The hotel's biggest draw is its open-air bath that brings bathers close to nature. The hotel draws its bath water directly from a spring source in the river. The open-air bath is mixed gender, but men are allowed to wrap towels around them and women can wear special kimonos for bathing.

Hot spring for drinking

Soaking in an onsen hot spring is often said to have many health benefits, but what about drinking it? Kawayu Midoriya has a small onsen bath just for that purpose. You will find it in front of the hotel. It is an opportunity worth trying as most Japanese onsen hotels will not let you drink their hot spring water.

Kawayu Onsen Kameya Ryokan

Kawayu Onsen Kameya Ryokan: a tangible cultural property

Kawayu Onsen Kameya Ryokan has an lovely Japanese look. The two-story main building was built about 80 years ago and is now a registered tangible cultural property.
The wooden building uses material that is not widely used today, such as the maple used for the staircase.

All of the 10 Japanese style rooms face the river. Guests can admire the river and lush greenery from the comfort of their rooms.

Elegant, yet nostalgic

The hotel has the feel of a good old rustic Japanese home. I love how the sunshine gently pours into the entrance, and the wooden porch offers a lovely view of the garden.

The best way to spend time at the hotel is to slow down and appreciate its ambience.Kameya Ryokan is the type of place that reminds us that doing nothing is one of life's greatest luxuries.

Welcoming hotel entrance

Kawayu Onsen Fujiya

Kawayu Onsen Fujiya. All rooms face the Ootou river

Kawayu Onsen Fujiya hotel runs a free shuttle service to and from the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail.

Borrow a bathing suit or fishing gear and enjoy the river

Kawayu Onsen Fujiya hotel rents out a variety of items so guests can enjoy the Ootou river. The hotel has large shovels, and swimsuits for bathing in the Sen-nin buro bath. Or grab a rod and some bait and try fishing. The Ootou river is home to Japanese native species such as ugui (Japanese dace) or haya (minnow). The hotel kitchen will even cook your catch for you. Kawayu Onsen Fujiya is a wonderful place to enjoy this onsen town to the fullest.

Fujiya hotel's free-flowing indoor hot spring bath (photo credit: Kawayu Onsen Fujiya hotel)

After a busy day out, relax in the hotel's lovely semi-open-air bath filled with hot spring water that constantly flows from the source.

The river is a playground at Kawayu onsen

After visiting Kawayu Onsen, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the hot spring town had much more to offer than making baths in the river.

That said, I truly enjoyed my time in the river scooping up seemingly endless amounts of gravel. I felt like a child playing in the sand. It was a feeling that I had long forgotten.The river is a playground at Kawayu Onsen. Play hard, grownups! And get lost in the moment just the way kids do.