Ryujin Onsen, the mountain retreat of the daimyo

After several active days exploring Hidden Beauties along the coast, it was time for a change of pace. Ryujin Onsen is a long-established hot spring resort in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture. Although it is situated midway between the World Heritage sites of Koyasan to the north and the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route to the south, it remains a tranquil village.

Staff of Kamigoten ryokan wait for guests to arrive

The thermal waters are said to have been discovered by the eighth-century Buddhist monk Kukai, who also founded Koyasan - a vision of the dragon god (“ryujin”) showed him where to find them. Whatever the truth of the matter, the onsen has been a favourite of both pilgrims and nobility alike for centuries. The ryokan where I am staying, Kamigoten, was once the mountain retreat of the daimyo or lords of the feudal domain of Kishu (modern-day Wakayama).

The crest of the Kishu lords, who were a branch of the Tokugawa clan, is still visible on the roof tiles

I am staying in the daimyo’s room!

Since becoming an inn in the Meiji Period, it has welcomed famous guests such as novelist Ariyoshi Sawako, who stayed here while working on her novel “Hidakagawa” and, more recently, celebrities and politicians. They are attracted to the ryokan because it is truly a Hidden Beauty where guests can unwind and escape from the world for a while.

Hidakagawa is the river which runs directly below the onsen. The water is crystal clear.

You can tell how many guests have walked across these floorboards over the years

I love the colours and shapes of the ryokan interior - simple, yet with minute attention to detail.

Wooden geta sandals are lined up perfectly, ready for guests to take a stroll

The flowers in the entrance hall are fresh each day

Even the handle of this small sliding screen is embossed with auspicious motifs

And the same goes for the food.

Autumn leaves decorated tonight’s dinner

It takes artistry to make a simple dessert so beautiful

Visitors also seek out Ryujin Onsen for the mineral waters themselves, which are famed as one of the top three beautifying spas of Japan. I wish I could prove that bathing in them has made me more beautiful, but I can confirm that they are very soft and moisturizing. The views of autumn leaves from the tub are an added bonus!

You can choose between a fragrant wooden bath inside...

... or a rock bath outside, both overlooking the river

It would be easy to spend the whole day relaxing in the hot water, enjoying the food, or strolling around the small village. However, I decided to explore a little further afield with my local hosts, Brad and Oe-san. We drove up into the mountains in the direction of Koyasan, gaining height rapidly. And I was excited to discover my first autumn foliage of the trip!

A perfect autumn day

You can just see the route of the Koya-Ryujin Skyline

We decided to walk right up to the summit of Gomadanzan, the highest peak in Wakayama. It was a little further than we had bargained for, but the path was charming, and we were rewarded with panoramas of fold upon fold of mountains.

We couldn’t resist following this path

Mountain ranges stretch into the distance

But just in case you get the impression that Ryujin Onsen exists in some kind of untouched timewarp, let me confess where my hosts took me for lunch...

This funky local cafe

After days of exquisite Japanese food, I have to say that I found guilty pleasure in eating pizza! However, we did try tofu pizza, so that counts as Japanese... just. And I was introduced to another aspect of local tradition: chainsaw art.

The area once had a thriving forestry industry, and is now home to the world champion chainsaw artist

After that strenuous day, it was time to return to Kamigoten and go for another soak.

Traditional Japanese buildings like Kamigoten have a particularly welcoming glow at night

The tones of this jacket to wear over a yukata after your bath are perfect for autumn

I’ll see you later...