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Rural Retreats, Glamping Getaways: Rurikei Onsen

2021.09.24

If you’re planning a vacation in Kyoto City, chances are you’re thinking about trips to surrounding areas. Destinations like Nara and Ohara are popular for a reason––they’re beautiful and easily accessed. But what if you want to see more nature in Kyoto? What if you want to get away from the crowds and immerse yourself in nature, without forgoing all the comforts that come with hot spring baths and actual beds?

What you might be looking for is a retreat, and there’s no better place to experience this than Rurikei Onsen.

Where is Rurikei Onsen, and why should I make the trip?

Deep in the mountains outside Nantan City, an hour’s drive westwards of Kyoto, is a 4km-long canyon. This is Ruri Gorge (‘Ruri-kei’), deriving its name from lapis lazuli for the colour and clarity of the river flowing through. The scenery here lives up to its evocative name: think lush forests, crystal-clear waters, and dramatic starry skies on clear nights. As in much of Japan, the area is blessed with mineral-rich hot spring waters. There are some fantastic hiking trails, too.

But what really sets Rurikei Onsen apart from the competition in Kyoto are the glamping (lit. ‘glamorous camping’) facilities––it’s a great upmarket option for those who want to enjoy the outdoors without the hassle of bringing all kinds of camping equipment, or worse, dealing with all the logistics planning.

Like many places worth the effort of visiting, there’s no direct train––no noise or railways to spoil the forests and mountains in the area. But it’s still pretty easy to get to. Those who don’t drive can hop on a train from Kyoto Station to JR Sonobe Station for a mere ¥590, and catch a free shuttle bus to Rurikei Onsen. At present, the bus runs seven times a day.

Rurikei Valley

Rurikei Valley

Rurikei Valley, a nationally designated place of scenic and historical beauty, is a long ravine (500 meters tall and approximately 4 km long) with a spring deep in the mountains. Heading upstream towards Lake Tsuten-ko, you’ll find the “12 Scenic Spots of Rurikei,” including “Meibaku” (lit. “crying waterfall”), “Soryuen” (lit. “dragon pair chasm”) and “Gyokusoban” (lit. “basin of running jewels”)—waterfalls and cliffs with names designed to reflect their nature. So enchanting is the beautiful highland scenery to visitors as it changes throughout the seasons that Rurikei Valley has even been called “the Karuizawa of Kansai” (Karuizawa is a mountain resort in Nagano Prefecture).

Tell me about the glamping

GRAX Rurikei has a wide variety of glamping accommodation. This includes more deluxe options for special occasions, and large tents for families or groups of friends. There are even wooden cabins with shower facilities––perfect if you have young children or senior citizens travelling with you. Unsurprisingly, weekends and domestic holidays often see the sites fully booked. Fortunately, you can plan for weekdays or off-peak visits when you’re travelling from overseas!

Hammock? Check. Sofa? Check. Beds? Of course! Some of the tents are kitted out with refrigerators and kettles––yes, you can use electrical appliances––so you don’t lose out on any of the modern comforts of a hotel room. Some of the tents even have kotatsu (a low heated table covered with a blanket) in winter. Plus, the rustling of trees will lull you to sleep at night, and you’ll wake up with sunlight slowly illuminating your tent. If you really want that camping experience, you can always rent a sleeping bag.

(The ryokan is a perfectly lovely place to stay, of course. But wouldn’t it be cool to fall asleep under the stars?)

But what do we eat?

They’ve thought of that, too. You’ll be able to book a meal plan (link in Japanese) along with your stay, and yes, it includes all the ingredients and cutlery needed. Though the meal plans change with the seasons––don’t you love seasonal eating? ––you can expect BBQ plans to be a mainstay in summer, while winter glamping has them serving luxe hotpots with all the trimmings and then some. For example, you could have a Kyoto duck hotpot with fresh sashimi, pickles, and other fried morsels on the side. Throw in extras like sausages (a ‘guru-guru’ spiraled wiener sausage), a whole abalone, wagyu beef, and beer. You can even add on marshmallows for grilling over the fire––how’s that for a true camping experience?

You’ll receive the dinner menu and instruction manual at check-in, and there’s a Vegetable Marche where you can help yourself a medley of gorgeous local vegetables for cooking. There are also buckets of charcoal for the barbecue grills!

The best part is not having to wash up after cooking and eating: just bring it all back to the counter.

What about hiking?

If lazing all afternoon in a hammock on the GRAX campground isn’t your thing and you’d like to get out for a spot of activity, there’s a lovely hiking trail in Rurikei.

The Rurikei Gorge Walk is a moderate 4 – 5km walk suitable for most walkers, running between the Rurikei-guchi bus stop and Pote Pote Park. The trailhead near the bus stop takes you along a winding mossy path through the forest; you’re essentially following a murmuring stream all the way to Tsuten Lake. You’ll see a few small waterfalls and plenty of gorgeous moss-covered rocks––don’t forget to soak your feet in the stream from time to time. Don’t forget to wear proper walking shoes; there’s enough in the way of tree roots and rocks to make the path uneven.

You can stop there, but if you fancy a bit of a climb, continue for another kilometre towards the Miyama trailhead. From here, it’s a short but stiff 3km climb up the mountain that rewards you with a tiny shrine and stunning panoramic views of the surrounds. A round trip to and from the bus stop is a total of 14km, which just about justifies everything you’ll eat over dinner and then some.

Consider treating yourself afterwards to cake and coffee at Café Gardens. The Highland Cheesecake with its cloud-like souffle texture pairs beautifully with tea from nearby Wazuka town.

Can we use the onsen?

Of course! Anyone staying at GRAX has unlimited access (for the duration of the stay) to the hot spring baths (link in Japanese) at the inn nearby. You’ll want a soak or two after a hike, that’s for sure. Try the large communal bath, open-air bath and jacuzzi baths; there’s even an onsen pool for swimming, and a mixed- gender bath where you can pop on a swimsuit and jump right in.

(Figuratively speaking, of course––don’t jump in!)

What else is there to do?

For starters, you can chill out at the Lantern Terrace located near the Rurikei Onsen main building. This is great if you’re the kind to bring books (or e-book readers) on holiday with you––there are plenty of sofas and semi-private nooks for some evening downtime. Alternatively, take your pick from more than 20,000 manga. Perhaps set yourself a reading challenge for your stay?

Don’t miss Kyoto Illumination Synesthesia Hills, either, which is fairly self-explanatory: a colourful, mildly surreal interactive light installation designed by Takuma Nakata. It’s a fun, trippy walk, and good for an Instagram story or two. Kids will also love the stone statues of animals, located just beyond Café Gardens.

Great. How do I book this?

Head right on over to their website (link in Japanese) to book your glamping getaway in rural Kyoto––it’s sure to rejuvenate and reenergize you for even more sightseeing in the prefecture.