As Japan is a country of volcanic activity, natural hot springs (onsen) abound: there are said to be around 19,500 of them.
The custom of bathing in hot springs in Japan dates back over 2,000 years. Hotels and ryokan and other tourist accommodation have developed around most hot springs. Travelling to such resort areas is a favourite form of recreation among Japanese people. Although many large resort areas have developed around famous hot springs, there are still numerous springs along sea coasts and in the mountains that remain undeveloped, and in their natural state.
SOME OF THE MAIN HOT SPRING RESORTS/LOCATIONS:
Nikko (Tochigi Pref.)
In Nikko National Park there are several hot springs at the foot of Mount Nantai, a sacred, extinct volcano. There is Yumoto Onsen, and Chuzenji Onsen on the shore of Lake Chuzenji.
From Tokyo, take the Bullet train and JR Nikko line to Nikko (2hrs) then local bus services.
Hakone (Kanagawa Pref.)
One of Japan’s most popular hot spring resorts, easliy accessible within 1hr 30min from Tokyo, Hakone has a large number of onsen in beautiful settings in a forested valley and along the shore of Lake Ashi. JTB offers 2-day Sunrise tours to Hakone from Tokyo, travelling by Shinkansen (Bullet train) and including an overnight stay in a spa hotel in Hakone. Contact us for booking.
Kusatsu (Gumma Pref.)
The waters of Kusatsu Onsen are considered among Japan’s best, being recommended by Dr. von Baelz, a German doctor who served at Japan’s Imperial Court in the 1880s. The town is in the mountains of Gumma Prefecture, at an altitude of 1,200 metres, and offers hiking too, in the summer months. Getting there from Tokyo: train to the nearest station of Naganohara takes 2.5 hrs, then JR bus service 25mins to Kusatsu (as it’s a JR service, the Japan Rail Pass can be used).
Atami (Shizuoka Pref.)
A small town about 100km down the east coast from Tokyo. Atami literally means ‘hot sea’; the hills which encircle the coastal town are the side of an ancient volcano crater. With this geological history, there are hot springs all over the area: Izu-yama-onsen, Izu-Yugawara-onsen, Ajiro-onsen, and the Oyu Geyser that spouts up a huge quantity of hot water. Situated so close to Tokyo (just 50mins by bullet train), the town has a resort-style development and now looks a little tired, but its many museums add interest to a stay; at the top of the hill by Atami Station is the MOMA Museum, with around 3,500 mainly oriental paintings and applied arts.
With JTB Sunrise tours we offer a 2-day excursion from Tokyo which includes an overnight stay at a seaside hotel which has Japanese-style rooms, and a hot spring bath free for guests. Contact us for booking.
Hanamaki Onsen (Iwate Pref.)
This is a popular hot spring resort 40 kilometers south of Morioka.
From Tokyo, take the Bullet train and JR Tohoku line (2hrs40min – 3hrs).
Noboribetsu Onsen: (Hokkaido)
This typical Japanese spa is located on a mountain and surrounded by primeval forest. One reason that the place is so famous is because there are 11 different kinds of springs: bathers can select the spring which best suits their purpose. Five minutes on foot from the town is the spectacular Jigokudani (“Hell Valley”). In an explosive crater 450m across, steam and scalding water gush out from countless fumaroles of all sizes, creating a truly hellish scene.
From Sapporo, take the frequent “limited express” JR train services to Noboribetsu (1hr 20mins).
Kamuiwakka Falls (Hokkaido)
A very remote onsen: a warm mountain stream in Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido. Unfortunately now because of the danger of falling rocks, the climb up the stream to the natural basin beneath a hot waterfall is now closed to the public.
Nyuto Onsen (Akita Pref.)
Nyuto Onsen (lit.: nipple hot spring) is named after the nearby, suggestively-shaped Mount Nyuto in the remote mountains of Akita Prefecture above Lake Tazawako.
Despite is rather remote location, Tazawako is conveniently served by the Akita Shinkansen bullet train service via Morioka (journey time 2hr 50min from Tokyo).
Toyako Onsen (Hokkaido)
Located in Shikotsu-Toya National Park. A resort on the shores of the beautiful Lake Toya, at the foot of Mount Uzu, an active volcano which most recently erupted in 2000. There are several large luxury hotels right on the shore, offering rooms and hot spring baths with beautiful views of the lake. Some of the hotels’ hot spring baths are open to non-residents during the daytime, for an admission fee of around Yen 500 – 1000. In front of the hotels there is a pleasant promenade, with foot baths (ashiyu) and firework displays every evening from May through October. Sightseeing cruises of the lake also depart from here.
From Sapporo, take the “limited Express” Super Hokuto train service (2hrs).
Kinosaki Onsen (Hyogo Pref.)
is on Japan’s north coast, in northern Hyogo Prefecture, 1hr40mins by train from Osaka. This pleasant town, built along a willow-lined river valley, is one of the top onsen destinations of the Kansai Region. The hot spring town has a traditional atmosphere and architecture: the entire town feels like one large ryokan, with the station as the entrance, and the streets being the hallways. With its many public baths, it’s a great place to stroll around in a traditional yukata and gaze at the classic architecture along the willow- and cherry-blossom lined river. Being a coastal town, Kinosaki’s typical dish is seafood: kani soba (buckwheat noodles with crab).
Arima Onsen (Hyogo Pref.)
This hot spring town in Hyogo prefecture lies in the outskirts of Kobe, behind Mt.Rokko. It’s not a long journey by train, but involves several changes, so getting there by highway bus (30 mins from Kobe) is a good alternative. Arima is one of Japan’s oldest hot springs, and rated one of the top three in the country. The town has two kinds of hot spring water: the Kinsen (“gold water”) is coloured brown from its iron content, and is said to be good for skin ailments and muscle pain; the clear Ginsen (“silver water”) contains radium and carbonate and is said to cure various muscle and joint ailments. There are only two public baths: the Kin no Yu for “gold” water, and the Gin no Yu featuring the “silver” water. But many ryokan in the town cater for day-visitors too.
Osaka Spa World
Actually an onsen theme park, handily located in Osaka city. The amazing collection of Asian and European-style baths has to be seen to be believed. Baths are single-sex (Asian and European-style baths open to male or female on alternate months). But the 8th floor pool and “Bade zone” are mixed bathing, with swimsuits.
Just outside Dobutsuen-mae station on the Osaka subway.
More information at spaworld.co.jp
Dogo Onsen (Matsuyama, Ehime Pref.)
Dogo Onsen is in Matsuyama city, the capital of Ehime prefecture, on the island of Shikoku. The onsen itself, not far from Matsuyama Castle, has a history going back more than 1,000 years, but the current building is a large traditional-looking complex built in 1894. The main building in the movie Spirited Away was modelled on this “Dōgo Onsen Honkan” public bathhouse. The interior of this atmospheric three-storey building is a maze of stairways and rooms which is bustling with staff and guests at busy times. The retro woody architecture makes a visit a very special and memorable experience.
Beppu (Oita Pref.)
Bepu could be said to be Japan’s onsen capital. The town is so well-endowed with hot springs that steam can be seen rising from many buildings, vents and pipes throughout the town. In addition to the hot spring baths and thermal resort hotels, there are waters too hot for bathing, known as jigoku (“hells”) – tourist attractions in themselves, which can be rather tackily presented. The best of them are Oniishibozu Jigoku, Shiraike Jigoku and Umi Jigoku, all in the Kannawa district of Beppu.
Yufuin (Oita Pref)
This town is only 1 hour by local train from Beppu, but offers a great contrast with that sprawling resort town. Yufuin is small and picturesque, surrounded by beautiful mountains and with tranquil lake Kinrin. The onsen was designated a national hot spring in 1959, and since then a visitor-friendly town has developed, with a long shopping street to explore at a leisurely pace, full of small traditional craft shops, cafes and restaurants. There is one public bath house (the “Shitanyu”, by the Kinrin Lake) and many charming ryokans with hot spring baths.
Kurokawa Onsen (Kumamoto Pref.)
This pretty hot spring town is located in the middle of Kyushu, not far from Mt.Aso. It has maintained a traditional atmosphere and architecture, which makes it very pleasant to stroll around. Visitors can enjoy not only the attractive town but also the surrounding nature at the many open air baths – “rotenburo”. There is a unique system of multi-entrance pass called nyuto-tegata: visitors can buy the pass – made of a slice of local Oguni cedar-wood, with a string to wear it round the neck – and enjoy the baths of three different ryokans in the town, of which there are more than 30. The wooden ticket is a nice souvenir.
Unzen (Nagasaki Pref.)
In the hills in the area of Nagasaki, Unzen can be reached by bus from Nagasaki (1hr40mins) or from Kumamoto by ferry to Shimabara and a 40min bus ride. Its springs are said to beautify the skin because of the excellent antiseptic qualities of the acidic, sulphurous water. The surrounding area with its steaming hot spring fields and nature walks is good for trekking, as far as the impressive Mount Unzen. This countryside was the first in Japan to be designated a national park.
Ibusuki (Kagoshima Pref.)
Have you tried taking onsen without even getting your feet wet? Ibusuki onsen is located in Kagoshima Prefecture in the very south of Japan’s major southern island of Kyushu. The special feature of Ibusuki is its unique style of “Sunamushi” or sand baths. Clad in a traditional yukata robe, you lie down on the beach and attendants cover you with the grey sand which is naturally heated by hot springs that flow underneath the beaches. The benefits of “Sunamushi” bathing in stimulating the blood circulation is said to be double or triple that of normal hot springs.
From Kyushu’s rail gateway of Hakata (Fukuoka), Ibusuki is just 3 hours away using JR Kyushu’s bullet train service and local train via Kagoshima.
INFORMATION ABOUT VISITING HOT SPRINGS IN JAPAN:
Public bathing at onsen is usually naked, and single-sex: there are separate baths (or bathing times) for men and women.
In Japan, tattoos are perceived as a sign of the Yakuza, or organised crime syndicates. In general it is not allowed for those with tattoos to use public bath facilities. However, it is common practice for foreign visitors with small tattoos to cover them with an adhesive dressing when bathing. This is perfectly acceptable and shows respect for the culture and attitudes prevailing in Japan.