My visit to Utanoyu was one heck of an adventure and perhaps in the end, a not so golden experience. It all began when I decided to venture off to the country side in Tochigi prefecture for a day trip as a part of the Golden Week Holiday period in Japan.
I have been in Japan long enough to know the golden rule of “Don’t travel during this time”……however I thought I would give it a go. Surely as it was in the middle of the holiday period, that I would be avoiding the mass exodus from Tokyo and the huge influx of everyone returning….I got up early at 5:30am with the aim of leaving at 6:30 to be at Ikebukuro by 7:15 to purchase an express train ticket only to find out that every ticket was sold out….Keeping optimistic I thought, OK, I will go via the local train – taking me 3.5 hours rather than 2 hours. It was a nice day, and the journey is all part of the fun right?….Well………I got to my second train transfer and just managed to squeeze onto the train. In fact, people had been running from carriage to carriage as they could not get in the door. I was “lucky”!
The train set off as passengers jostled to try and avoid elbows in faces as we held onto hand rails wherever we could. Well, I am used to tolerating this for 20-30 minutes for a local commute, but I was not impressed by the thought of putting up with this for the next 3 hours and then all the way home again….! I managed with one hand to google “closest onsen” and up popped Utanoyu. Right, time for plan B, so with great relief I got off the train and headed back in the opposite direction to Tobudobutsukoen, a station in Saitama prefecture.
There was an option to take a shuttle bus but they we’re infrequent so I grabbed a taxi as I was keen to get to the onsen and soak away all of my frustrations of the morning. As the taxi arrived at Utanoyu, 5 minutes after the opening time of 10am, the car park was full and there was a huge long line of at least 100 people waiting right down the length of the car park! I was very tempted to tell the taxi driver to just take me back to the station, but I had come this far…..Whist wanting in line, I was quite anxious that even after waiting about 30 minutes, I may be told to sit and wait for another hour as the onesen was already full, however thankfully I was one of the last people they let in.
I can testify that Utanoyu really does have beautiful facilities including a wide range of indoor and outdoor baths, ganban yoku (“hot stone spa”) massage and beauty treatments, beautiful gardens and courtyards and a large organic food restaurant. The entrance fee for adults is 1050 yen on weekdays or 1150 on weekends and public holidays. This includes towel rental and “room wear” to relax in while you are at the facility. Opening hours are from 10:00 through to midnight, and in an ideal world, it would be great to spend a number of hours there but the crowds were beyond ridiculous and not that conducive to relaxation.
Looking at their website, Utanoyu has been voted number 1 by @nifty onsen, and has also been on TBS TV shows a number of times. It appears it is not just during Golden Week that it is busy, but most days as I had seen some reviews where even Japanese were complaining about the crowds.
Azaleas and “meat markets”
After finally getting to the end of the line up to check in, getting in another line to get my towel and room wear, I made it to the change room. Surely, the baths were almost within my reach….Luckily I found a locker and quickly undressed to head to the wash area. There was one seat left with my name on it, but basically people were everywhere! I made my way straight out into the fresh air to the rotenburo, and was confronted with naked bodies everywhere …..this is not unusual in a bathhouse in Japan, but being so crowded that I could barely get into a bath without my feet touching another body as I stepped in, is gettting a bit much….couldn’t help thinking it was one big meat market!
There was some salvation in that there were some beautiful azelaeas in whites, pinks and magentas, and I was lucky enough to spot a single ceramic barrel bath that I jumped into straight away. I put my arms out the side and my feet up on the edge of the barrel, back to the crowds and meditated on the flowers for the next 10 minutes. I didn’t care if anyone was waiting, this was my space and I had earned it!!!
Upon exiting the outdoor bath area, I had a quick soak in each of the indoor baths to experience their texture. From a milky bath with a big bundle of floating green herbs, to the gentle spa bubbles…all very nice but again, far too many people.
The final challenge, just as I wanted to relax, was feeling like an octopus as I ducked and weaved through hands and legs of people in the change rooms….it is not an easy task changing in a locker room when they are stacked 3 shelves high and everyone is trying to change at once….almost there…
After handing back my unused room wear (I couldn’t stand another minute), I headed to the door, and checked out. On the way out I noticed that the line had disappeared although there was a wait list to write your name on. It was at least a 45 minute wait for women and about 30 minutes for the gents!
Kodomo no hi
On the way back to the station I took the free shuttle bus. Just in front of the station there was a river, with large koinobori draped across the width of the river. Koinobori are carp “flags” which are flown as a symbol for “Kodomo no hi”, or Children’s day which is one of the major holidays in Golden Week. The holiday is to celebrate children’s personalities and their happiness. The black carp represents the father, the red carp the mother, and thereafter one smaller carp for each child with colour and position symbolising their relative age.
The blue skies, gently waving carp and the reflections over the water provided some much needed serenity to end my Golden Week onsen experience. As I gazed over the water however, I did vow to myself “never again”!
From Kitasenjyu, take the Tobu Skytree line and get off at Tobu-Dobutsukoen. It takes 24 minutes by limited express train. Upon arrival take a free shuttle bus which takes another 5-10 minutes. There are only 2 shuttle buses per our so make sure you check the times.