The Top 10 Onsens in Japan

Best Japanese Onsens

While often used to describe Japan’s bathing houses, an onsen is really a hot spring in Japanese, but it has become so commonplace that the words are used interchangeably.  Japan is literally built on hot water and its residents make the most of their natural water capabilities. Known for easing the joints, curing a variety of ailments and a form of relaxation, onsens are widely popular throughout Japan. There are over 3000 onsens in Japan, more than anywhere else in the world. A trip to Japan is incomplete without the full onsen experience- soaking your bones in a tub filled with a bunch of naked, random strangers. The variety of onsens is indescribable- there are onsens in downtown Tokyo perfect for a post club dip, onsens isolated in the mountains and onsens on the beach. Pretty much in any town, city or village you visit- an onsen is only a short trip away.

Best Japanese Onsens

1. Kamuiwakkayu Falls (Shiretoko National Park)

A visit to these treacherous, yet stunning falls proves to be the ultimate hot spring experience. In order to reach the hot spring, visitors need to climb up the waterfall for about 20- 30 minutes, wadding through the water and slipping through small waterfalls. Beware that the climb is relatively steep and slippery in some spots so make sure you bring appropriate footwear while making this climb.  Unlike most onsens, bathers wear bathing suits. Due to the natural splendor of this spot- during summer months it can be very busy, so come early.

Getting there: Take a shuttle bus from Shiretoko Shizen centre to the falls. The trip costs about ¥1180 and takes about 40 minutes.

2. Minakami (Gunma)

Several hot spring resorts scatter this large rural area at the foot of Mount Tanigawa. There are several types of onsens in the area consisting of both large hotels and lone ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) which are isolated in the mountains. If you want utter relaxation spend the night at an isolated ryokan. My favourite is the Takaragawa (¥ 1500)  which is famous in Japan for its rotenburo (outdoors baths). For a special ryokan treat head to Hoshi Onsen, which is deeply isolated in a forested region of Mount Minakami and boasts traditional rustic baths. It is famous for its indoor, mixed gender wooden baths where the water bubbles came up straight through the floor tiles.

Getting there: from Tokyo take JR Joetsu Shinkansen Line to the Jomo-kogen Station. Once you arrive grab a bus to Minakami (¥600). The Takaragawa onsen provides a direct shuttle service to their onsen leaving at 14:25 and 16:25 and takes about 30 minutes (¥1450).

3. Noboribetsu (Hokkaido)

Noboribetsu‘s name derives from the local Ainu language which means “a cloudy river tinged with white.” The name comes from the large amounts of sulfur deposits in the area which make it an ideal location for hot spring bathing. This little town, easily accessible from Sapporo, is essentially devoted to the hot spring industry and they take their job very seriously. The most popular resort is the Daiichi Takimotokan Hotel, (¥2000) established in 1858 and houses 20 different hot spring baths. The source of the village’s hot springs is the “Jigoku-dani” Hell valley. For a more affordable option head to the Grand Hotel, which is just as nice as the Daiichi without the view (¥1000).

Getting there: the Norbiribetsu is a 13 minute bus ride from Norbiribetsu JR station (¥ 330). Also, from the Norbiribetsu onsen there are direct buses to Sapparo (leaving from the Eki- mae terminal that take anywhere from 1.5 – 2.5 hrs and costs ¥1900). There are also buses to New Chitose Airport that depart 3 times daily (73 and cost ¥1330).

4. Kusatsu Onsen

This hot spring resort has an abundance of hot springs known for its healing properties. This resort town offers an ideal vacation destination in both the winter and summer months as it is situated 1200 meters above sea level in the mountains of  Gunma Prefecture, which offers skiing in the winter months and hiking during the summer season. The hot spring baths offer a multitude of bathing options including wooden, stone indoor and outdoor baths. While the larger bathhouses charge admission (¥ 500- 1000), the smaller 2-4 person bathhouses tend to be free. You can try out special hot water treatments (48 degree Celsius) which are believed to increase blood flow in your body and brain. The most popular onsen is Sainokawara Rotenburo which is an outdoor pool set in the lush setting of  Sainokawara Park.

Getting there: To get to Kusatsu Onsen travel by local bus from Naganohara- Kusatsuguchi station (30 minutes; ¥ 670). From Ueno to Naganohara- Kusatsuguchi station, trains take about 2.5 hours (¥5130).

5. Nyuto Onsen (Tazawa- ko)

Located in the Tohoku region of Honshu, this region is beautiful to visit throughout the year.  Nyuto Onsen means “nipple hot spring” which is suggestive of the shape of the nearby Mount Nyuto. There are 7 hot springs scattered around the area’s namesake- Mt. Nyuto offering a variety of onsen experiences. The most famous and also the oldest is the Tsurunoyu Onsen (¥500) which offers bathers  milky white coloured waters that provide numerous health benefits set in a beautiful forested backdrop. There is both mixed gender pools as well as single gender indoor baths.

Getting there: buses run regularly from Tazawa Kohan to Nyuto (¥650, 40 minutes). Tazawa- ko is easily reached from Tokyo on the Shinkansen line (¥3280, 1 hour) or Morioka (¥1980, 33 minutes) or Akita (¥3280 1 hour).

6. Beppu

This picturesque town nestled between the mountains and the sea is not only one of the most popular onsen destinations in Japan but it also hosts the world’s second largest number of hot springs, after Yellowstone National Park.

In Beppu you can experience a variety of onsen treatments such as sand baths where friendly women bury you in black, heated sand where only your head peaks out (head to Shonin-ga- hama sand bath for this experience on the beach- admission ¥1000). You can also try out the Takagawara Onsen, (admission ¥100, sand bath ¥1000) the city’s most famous and oldest onsen dating back to the Meji era, where temperatures rise to 42- 45 Celsius. Both the sand and both bath treatments can be dangerous if you are immersed for too long- so make sure get out of there by the 10- 15 mark.

You can also visit  the ten hells or jigoku which are multicolored volcanic springs for viewing only as they are too hot to be transformed into onsens. Each jigoku boasts its own theme such as the Boiling Hell, Sea Hell or Blood Pond hell.   Admission to each “onsen jigoku” costs ¥400, but you can purchase a combination ticket from the Foreign Tourist Office for ¥2000 which offers entrance to all eight main hells.

Getting there: There are flights into Oita from Toyko, Osaka, Okinawa and cities around Kyushu. Upon arriving, catch the bus running into Beppu. The JR Nippo line connects Kakata to Beppu (¥5250, 2 hours on the Sonic toyyyu). It also connects Beppu with Kumamoto (¥5330, 3 hours). Another options is catching the overnight Ferry Sunflower Kansai Kisen from Osaka (¥8800, 11 hours) stopping en route to pick up passengers in Matsuyama (4.5 hours) and Kobe (10 hours).

7. Dogo Onsen (Matsuyama)

Located in central Ehime and in the northeastern part of Matsuyama, the Dogo-onsen hot spring is Japan’s oldest spa and its most famous- it is believed to have been opened about 3,000 years ago.  Tourists and locals alike flock to this area for its beautiful bathhouses and variety of ryokans. You won’t truly have experienced Dogo’s onsens if you haven’t visited Dogo Onsen Honkan. This wooden public bathhouse, built in 1894, eludes a regal charm owing to its elaborate design and its separate section for the exclusive use of the Imperial family. If you get there by 6 am, you will get to hear the drum which hangs in the Shinrokaku Tower beaten to announce that the bath has opened for the day.

Admission: Dogo’s pricing is a bit confusing as there are 4 different pricing options to choose from. The basic bath costs ¥300. The second category pricing includes a yukata (light kimono), bath followed by tea and rice crackers in a 2nd floor tatami room (¥620). Whereas a yukata and bath followed by tea and sweet dumplings in a 2nd floor tatami room will set you back ¥980. For the finest in onsen experiences, you can enjoy your post onsen snack in a private tatami room on the 3rd floor (¥1240).

Getting there: You can fly into Matsuyama’s airport and catch a bus into the city is (¥330; 20 minutes, hourly). The JR Yosan line connects Matsuyama with Takamatsu (¥3400 2.5 hours, hourly). You can also catch a JR Highway bus rimmomg from Osaka (¥7800. 7 hours) and Tokyo (¥12,200, 12 hours). There is also a hydrofoil Superjet between Matsuyama and Hiroshima (¥6300 1.25 hours) and a Hiroshima ferry (¥2500 to ¥2900,  3 hours).

8. Arima Onsen (Hyogo Prefecture)

Located just within the city limits of Kobe’s Mount Rokkosan, Arima Hot Springs are the oldest hot springs in Japan, referred to in the Nihon Shoki (the oldest official history book of Japan). Visitors to Arima can enjoy both public bath houses and ryokan bathing. The spring water contains salt and iron, which turns brown when exposed to air. There are also hot springs with clear, slightly salty water which contain radium. These waters are known for their healing benefits particularly, neuralgia, rheumatism and woman’s diseases.

Getting there: Located just outside Kobe, head to either the Sannomiya or Shin-Kobe Station to Tanigami Station (¥520, 10 minutes /¥ 350, 8 minutes). From there, take the Kobe Railways Arima Line to Onsen Station, transferring at Arimaguchi Station  (¥370 15 minutes) You can also get to Arima from Osaka by bus  (¥1330 60 minutes) and from Shin- Kobe Station (¥750, 50 minutes).

9. Wakura (Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture)

According to tradition, this hot spring located on the Nanao Bayon the Noto Peninsula, was discovered 1200 years ago when a white heron was seen bathing in seawater to heal an injury. Most ryokans in the area are self contained complexes (housing karaoke rooms, bars, theaters and game centres) so there isn’t much reason to venture outside. The most famous ryokan in the area is the exclusive Kagaya, which is known for its service and facilities. The best way to fully experience these hot springs is to stay overnight at one of the ryokans. While most travellers flock to this region for its hot springs this area is also known for its abundant fresh sea food 9so make sure you give it a try while visiting).

Getting there: The Wakua onsen may be reached directly from Toyko, Osaka and Nagoyo on the JR Noto Line. The train station is located 3 km outside of town so ryokans offer pick up / drop off services. All non direct services terminate in Nanao (one stop short of Wakura) where you can either wait for the connecting Noto railway train (¥180) to Wakura or grab a bus from Nanao.  From Nanao you can catch the bus to Wakua (¥350, 20 minutes).

10. Hakone

At the foothills of Mt. Fuji and easily accessible from Tokyo, this hot spring area is one of Japan’s most popular Onsen resorts. There are several onsen options nestled among a forested region and the shores of Lake Ashi. I particularly liked the Ten zan (¥1200) onsen as it was clean, peaceful and authentic.

Getting there: From Tokyo’s Shinjuku stations take the Odakyu line which takes you directly to Hakone- Yumoto. However, if you are travelling on the Jr pass, take the train to JR station to Odawara and change trains for Hakone- Yumoto there. Once there, grab the free shuttle to the Tenzan.

Onsen Etiquette:

  • Upon arriving, store all items in the locker provided
  • It is compulsory for onsen- goers to bath with soap before entering the pools.
  • Make sure you have washed all soap off so none leaks into the pool.
  • Get ready to get naked- practically all onsens are for bathers only and swimsuits are prohibited.
  • While towels may be provided or purchased for a nominal fee, most visitors bring along their own towels.
  • Enjoy! Take the time for reflection and relaxation in the water as that is the purpose of an onsen treatment.

There are tons of Japanese onsens, some better than others but you will leave almost every onsen more relaxed and squeaky clean.

Backpacking Bex