The Kinugawa River weaves its way south from Japan’s highest marshland, more than 2,000 meters above sea level, in a remote hinterland where Tochigi and Gunma prefectures meet.
As it meanders south, the river skirts some of Japan’s best-known sites, such as the eponymous Kinugawa Onsen hot springs, Kawachi Onsen and Nikko before spilling into the larger Tone River 177 kilometers from its source.
Kinugawa is better known for its tendency to flood — as it did most recently in 2015 when its waters overflowed into the city of Joso in Ibaraki prefecture — than for its leisure activities.
But we recently found ourselves gliding down the river on a canoe-like boat admiring the mountain scenery and the crystal clear turquoise waters swirling around us.
We were on the curiously named “Kinugawa Rhine Kudari” river cruise, a popular activity for visitors to the area.
While the Kinugawa River is clearly not Europe’s great Rhine, the name “Rhine Kudari,” which means “cruising down the Rhine,” was apparently intended to invoke a downstream river ride. Indeed, Kinugawa is not the only river in Japan to offer a ride “down the Rhine.”
The river was calm during our boat trip, but its current was fast enough to propel the vessel downstream at a steady pace. It was a rare sunny morning in the midst of Japan’s rainy season, making the ride all the more enjoyable for the 20 or so passengers on board.
The young Japanese man seated behind us was visibly exhilarated, repeatedly exclaiming at the “super beautiful” views with childlike amazement, at times sitting back to admire the passing landscape or reaching down from the boat to touch the cool water.
While passengers audibly marvelled at the beauty of the river and its surrounding greenery, our guide entertained us with stories of past rides (one ride took just 15 minutes compared with the normal 45 minutes, due to unusually fast currents), pointed out rock formations that resembled various animals, and explained that while he stood at the front of the boat looking important, the skipper was actually the quiet fellow at the back.
At the end of the ride we were in for a surprise: as the river was too still for the boats to make their way to the jetty, we had to be towed there by a motorboat, along with another passenger vessel tied to our boat.
As we approached land, the motorboat’s skipper pulled the ropes at a precisely calculated angle and with expert timing that managed to deliver both boats to shore at once. It was Japanese perfection in action.
After such a pleasant river cruise, we were in the mood for more action and decided to explore a nearby hiking trail along the Ryuokyo Gorge.
Ryuokyo, which means “Valley of the Dragon King,” takes its name from the craggy cliffs flanking both sides of the river, which some locals felt made the site look like a dragon had dragged itself through the valley.
The hiking trail mainly weaves its way through the valley, far above the river, which was at times turquoise and other times tea-green in color.
There are several spots where it is possible to cross one of the bridges that offer spectacular views along the valley or walk down to the riverbank for a closer look at the pristine water.
After an energizing two-hour hike, we headed back to the hotel to soothe our muscles in the large, communal hot spring bath. There are open air rotenburo that are reserved for men and women at different times of the day, as well as separate inside baths.
The Kinugawa Kanaya was established in 1931 by Masanari Kanaya, son of Zenichiro Kanaya, who also founded the better-known Kanaya Hotel in Nikko, the first Western-style hotel in Japan catering exclusively to foreigners.
The Kinugawa Kanaya branched off from the Nikko Kanaya after Senji Kanaya, Masanari’s son, took over in 1953.
Known as John Kanaya, Senji, who was famous for going everywhere in his white Lincoln Continental and is said to have bought a Picasso without asking its price, is credited with transforming the Kinugawa Kanaya Hotel into one of the most progressive hotels of its time.
One of Japan’s best-known hot spring resorts, Kinugawa Onsen in its heyday attracted masses of salarymen on company bonding trips.
But, like many other hot spring resorts, the town has seen a brutal decline in its fortunes since Japan’s economy began its long downward slide after the bursting of the asset bubble in the late 1980s.
Some of the concrete mass-market hotels that mar the natural landscape of the rugged valley look dated and poorly maintained while others are clearly no longer in use.
The Kanaya is an outstanding exception, with immaculate accommodations, excellent cuisine and solicitous staff all within a short walking distance of the train station.
Kinugawa may not offer the diversity of activities and sophistication of Hakone or the cultural splendors of Nikko, but with its natural beauty, celebrated hot spring baths and proximity to Tokyo – reachable in a two-hour train ride – it is well worth considering when planning a quick weekend escape.