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river that runs along the hostel in Nikko

The river that runs along the hostel; a perfect place to cool down in the summer.

Many of the experiences when traveling are shaped by the places we stay and the people we meet. And if there’s a single hostel that left a unique and personal impact on me through my journey in Japan, it’s SPACE Riverhouse Hostel in Nikko. Tucked away in the backwoods of the famous getaway region, winding through narrow paths by fields and old traditional villages, this old bathhouse-turned-hostel becomes a destination on its own away from the usual sightseeing spots and experiences that are regularly raved about for Nikko.

When I arrived at the Nikko train station in the early evening one Fall day, I didn’t know what to expect with this hostel – all I knew was that I needed to call ahead of time for a van pickup, and phone calls were strictly English-only (how odd, in Japan!). The van pickups from the station happen at 16:30 and 18:30 daily, with possible late pickup at 20:30 or 21:30 if needed to accommodate arrival times. I arrived a bit before 18:00 so I thought I’d grab a bite to eat while I waited, but many restaurants were already full or closed for the evening in this rural part of Nikko. Luckily, there’s a dinner delivery service at the hostel, which turned out to be a way yummier option.

As I sat around at the benches, other folks started waiting around the same area, all chatting and knowing we were headed to the same place. After all, SPACE is one of the very few hostels in the area, and one that has the best reviews on Hostel World. Rightfully so, as I started to figure out when I met Scout – the owner and sole runner of the hostel – who showed up in his van. It’s about a 30 minute drive between the hostel and Nikko train station, and amazingly, Scout does this hour long round trip about four times a day. These long drives gave us guests and Scout a chance to really get to know one another, which helped leave such a positive impact about the stay. I learned that Scout, an American, stumbled upon this old abandoned bathhouse about five years ago while he was trekking through rural Japan. Possessing an entrepreneurial mindset and passion for bringing people together, he made his dreams of opening up a hostel into reality.

An early morning drive from the hostel to Nikko station

An early morning drive from the hostel to the station.

Seeing some deer and raccoons along our drive, I wondered where in the world he was taking us…but as soon as we arrived, I was in awe of the beautiful hostel. Still intact with the architecture of a traditional Japanese ryokan, the hostel is placed right along a crystal blue river that’s both safe and fun to play in during the hot summers. Scout has even provided floaties and other water toys for his guests. The front covered part of the hostel is scattered with tables and benches made out of a tree that must have been hundreds of years old. This is the outdoor gathering place that Scout hopes to refurnish further to include a spot for musical guests to play at. It’s already equipped with a projector and screen for movie nights, and Bluetooth speakers for dance parties and hang outs when the weather is warmer.

But as I visited near the winter months, we spent the evenings curled up inside the kotatsu (heated and blanketed tables) in the large tatami living room. Located upstairs, the living room is full of books and maps to read and study about the Nikko region. Everyone helps everyone out in planning routes for the upcoming day here. There’s also a Mac in case one needs to use a computer. Though there’s wifi throughout the large two story hostel, I didn’t use it much since I spent most of my time engaging with the other guests from around the world. When I’m placed in a small welcoming community like this, why would I need to spend time on my phone, right?

Space hostel breakfast

Scout’s delicious homemade breakfast!

The hostel also has a small kitchen for guests with hot water, drinks, fridge… and a huge shower room downstairs separated by men and women, but not individually otherwise, making it a total Japanese bathhouse experience. At 7pm each night, guests who want to order dinner can do so from the nearby neighborhood restaurant (through one big order Scout places). It’s all delicious traditional Japanese dishes such as oyakodon, tempura, soba, udon, etc that arrived about an hour later. The evenings spent here felt like a homestay with Japanese hospitality, though Japanese guests rarely ever stay here (apparently only eight have stayed in the past five years). There are private rooms and dorms guests can choose from, and I was surprisingly very comfortable in my soft and clean top bunk of a six person mixed dorm room. In the mornings, I’d wake up energized and ready for my hikes, onsen, or sightseeing. Scout helps guests organize time of departure to Nikko train station in the morning. From the station, visitors can take buses or trains that lead to their destinations for the day. For those who want to experience more of the backwoods of Tochigi, SPACE has a few bicycles for rent, or hiking routes right around the area. Another perk every morning: Scout cooks breakfast for everyone and it’s included in the cost of the stay! I can’t imagine cooking for so many guests so early in the morning, and I don’t know how he does it, but it was always delicious.

For a one-man show like SPACE, the hostel is kept very neat and organized, yet full of chaotic fun to be had. Even though Scout runs everything in a very timely manner, he even let me tag along in the van one evening when he needed to pick up some guests at the station. I had a headache and needed some medicine along with some snacks I forgot to stock up on earlier. He was kind enough to stop at a drug store for me by the station. We listened to catchy chill music I’d never listened to before and I got to learn so much more about the aspirations he has for this growing hostel (he spends the four months that it’s closed to renovate and fix the place all by himself!). So if you’re a musician looking for a cool place to play a gig and stay, or a traveler looking for a unique hostel experience, be sure to check out SPACE Riverhouse Hostel. And give Scout a shout out for doing such an amazing job.


sigh spotted along a Nikko hike

A lovely fall hike in Nikko. The sign reads “Let’s protect the beauty of the nature forever”

Some useful tips:

  • Stock up on snacks or food while in town in case you tend to get hungry in the late evenings – there’re no convenience stores around!
  • If you snore, make sure to reserve a private room with your party because the hostel is very strict about snorers disturbing other guests’ beauty sleep
  • Check before you plan a trip for when SPACE is open – usually only April thru November
  • Cash only for the hostel (you can buy beer there, and of course, pay for your bed)
  • Be sure to check out their website for outdoor activity ideas and more PICTURES!
Name SPACE Riverhouse Hostel
Category Hostel
Address Minami Okorogawa 2254-7 Nikko, Japan 321-1353
Access [map]Minami Okorogawa 2254-7 Nikko, Japan 321-1353[/map]
Opening Hours -
Price Range 3000-4000yen per person
Payment options Cash
Nina Cataldo

Nina Cataldo

Nina is a professional and recreational writer currently exploring her motherland of Japan. When she's not busy working on her conversational English book series, she can be spotted biking around Tokyo to indulge in delicious food and attempting to snuggle with kitties at cat cafés. She's an odd collector of free brochures from travel counters, always looking for the next exciting destination. Nina often likes to escape the Tokyo city life to go discover new trails on the outbacks of Japan, where she enjoys connecting with locals and wanderers alike. Follow her adventures on Instagram @nextstop_nina

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