Kinugawa Onsen is a small town out in Tochigi with a penchant for outdoor paths, hot springs, and trips down the scenic Kinugawa, or Kinu River.
Kinugawa River Line Kudari
We arrived at Kinugawa station and noted the relative emptiness of the town: There’s not much in the way of entertainment near the station and offerings thin out even further as you venture into town. Most of the town hugs the eponymous Kinugawa river, with many ryokan, hotels, and onsen dotting it up and down the current.
One of the main activities you can do is to take a trip downriver, via the Kinugawa River Line Down (鬼怒川ライン下り). They are a short walk from the main station in town and offer boat rides down the relatively gentle river.
We arrived at the departure point and stored our bags in some coin lockers in the main building. From there, we purchased our tickets and made our way down a series of stairs to the shores of the river where the wooden boats awaited us. The wooden boats are famous in the area. If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty of Japanese boating history and technique, you can check out this article here.
The boats are long, with a flat bottom and tatami mats for riders to sit on. There are two pilots: one on the front of the boat, and one in the back. They work together to speed the boat along and navigate it through the straights. There are a few instances of rapidly flowing water, but these don’t reach any notable speeds and are over in a handful of seconds. A white-knuckle rafting experience this is not!
Experiencing Kinugawa River Up-Close
Before you ride, you get a safety vest and a tutorial on how to use it. You then board, sit back, and watch the beautiful nature of the valley flow by as your guides point out noteworthy nature– mostly rocks that resemble wild animals like bears– as you cruise down about 6km (3.7 miles) of watery roads.
Once you reach the docks at the end of your journey, you’re dropped off in a small outdoor shopping area, where you can get a nice snack, souvenir, or drink to unwind while you wait for the complementary transport shuttles to whisk you back to the main station and their initial loading point back in town.
You don’t need much Japanese to enjoy the river cruise, and some information is available in English. It’s a lovely little trip but very popular! I’d recommend getting there early and getting a ticket as soon as you can, as cruises fill up quickly. Also, if it is sunny, bring a hat: You won’t have much cover from above!
Between hot soaks in the naturally-heated waters, this boat ride provided us a nice perspective of the valley and city we couldn’t have gotten otherwise. I’m grateful we had the experience and hope we can take more river cruises in the future!