Japanese onsen can be found all over the country, and bathing in these natural hot springs is a beloved pastime in Japanese culture. You’ll find both public and private baths in onsen towns, the latter often attached to ryokan (traditional hotels) in more rural areas, which are closer to hot water sources formed by volcanic activity. Onsens have a no swimwear policy, so strip off before taking a dip alongside the locals to enjoy the relaxing, therapeutic waters.
In Japan, politeness is paramount. The rules around bathing are relatively simple – though there are a few extra-credit guidelines to follow if you’d like. Strip off in the changing rooms, bring a washcloth or small towel into the bathing area – plus any products you want to use – and shower thoroughly. You can use your small towel to cover up a little if you’d like, but you shouldn’t bring your bath towel into the bathing area.
Once you’re clean, you can enjoy the pools. It’s polite to put your hair up if it’s long enough to touch the water, and to rinse off before re-entering the pools after using a sauna or steam room. It’s also worth noting that not all onsen are tattoo-friendly – some will allow you in if you use skin-coloured seals (often provided at hotels) to cover your ink, but others will turn you away. If staying overnight somewhere, you may be able to avoid the problem by hiring a bath for private use or even booking a room with its own hot-spring bath – though, of course, this will cost more. An increasing number of onsen are relaxing these restrictions, however.
There are surprisingly few onsen in Tokyo. Instead, you’re more likely to come across sento – casual neighbourhood bathhouses which use heated water from the normal supply rather than mineral-rich natural spring water. Some of these are well worth a visit, but for the real thing you’ll usually have to head out of the city centre.
This modern Shinagawa onsen has two bathing areas, the Moon Room and the Sun Room, and a mix of natural spring water and sento-style pools such as a denki-buro (electric bath). The main attraction in the chic, dark Moon Room is the natural kuro-yu, or black water, while the light and airy Sun Room is focused on a lightly carbonated pool. Both are said to be excellent for skin beautification. They alternate between genders each day, so check in advance. Guests with tattoos are welcome.
As the ancient capital of Japan, you might expect Kyoto to be full of traditional onsen. However, there are actually very few natural hot springs in the area. Most of the public baths in the city are sento, which use heated water just like you would when bathing at home. Many of these sento are housed in stunning traditional buildings, but if you want to soak in mineral-rich spring waters, you’ll need to head into the mountains that surround Kyoto.
Escape the tourist-trodden streets of the city for the tranquil mountain town of Kurama, under an hour away. Kurama Onsen is a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) with a variety of indoor and outdoor hot-spring baths. It’s best enjoyed as part of an overnight stay, but day guests are welcome. Flanked by towering Japanese cedar trees, it’s stunning all year round – but especially so in winter when the area is dusted with snow.
Hida-Takayama, with its preserved wooden buildings and bustling morning markets, is perfect for travellers looking to step back into an older version of Japan. No stay would be complete without a visit to one of the historic wooden houses lining the streets of the old town, or the many excellent shrines, temples and museums dotted throughout the city. But it’s also worth spending some time in one of the many excellent baths in the area.
An easy trip from Kanazawa, Yamashiro Onsen is the most popular of the four hot spring towns clustered in the Kaga Onsen area, and a great base for visiting all of them. Awazu Onsen, which is home to Hoshi Ryokan, is often credited as being the world’s oldest hotel and longest-operating company. The hot springs of Kaga Onsen were originally developed over 1,000 years ago, after monks visiting the nearby sacred mountain of Hakusan stumbled upon them.
Fuji Five Lakes (Fujigoko) is home to dozens of hot springs, some of which even offer views of the famous peak from the baths. The area is very popular, with visitors coming not only to see Mount Fuji but also to enjoy spectacular hiking, kayaking and cycling, plus cultural attractions from shrines to museums. It’s hardly a hidden gem, but a stay at one of the onsen hotels near the lakes will give you a chance to explore in the evenings, when it’s a little quieter.
Head far, far north to the snow-capped island of Hokkaido, and you’ll find Noboribetsu Onsen. The area is home to a massive variety of hot springs, but most striking is Jigokudani, or Hell Valley – a rocky landscape covered in hot steam vents and barren sulphur-caked rock. Another amazing sight in the area is Oyunuma, home to the hot-water Oyunuma River. This spot is especially stunning in autumn when the foliage that flanks the river turns fiery shades of red, orange and gold.
Way up in the wilds of northeastern Hokkaido, Lake Kussharo is the largest lake in Akan Mashu National Park. In this volcanic country it’s no surprise that there are plenty of hot springs, but most of them haven’t been overly developed, giving you a chance to experience a more natural, raw version of onsen bathing. You can also head to Sunayu Beach, where digging just a short way into the black sand will create a pool of warm water in which to soak your feet – perfect after enjoying the national park’s stunning natural scenery on foot, by bike or even from the lake itself.
Located on the hot-spring populated island of Kyushu, Kurokawa Onsen is about 12mi (20km) north of the towering Mount Aso, an active volcano with an almost moon-like landscape. Given how close the town is to the barren volcanic landscape, its lush greenery is rather surprising. Like something straight from the pages of a historical novel, Kurokawa Onsen’s small network of roads and laneways are lined with bathhouses, shops and classic ryokan inns that have hardly changed over the course of their centuries-long existence.
In Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku island, you’ll find Dogo Onsen, a hot spring so magical that it inspired one of the best anime films in history, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Dogo has a pleasantly old-fashioned air, especially in the evening, as guests stroll through the historic streets in yukata from their ryokan. It’s also the birthplace of Masaoka Shiki, the celebrated poet who defined the modern haiku.
One of the only modern baths in historic Dogo, Asuka no Yu was built in a style reminiscent of the ancient Asuka period, and serves as an annex to the Honkan. It combines traditional architectural details with local crafts and modern technologies, creating a calm and luxurious space in which guests can relax at their leisure. The complex has both indoor baths and a rotenburo, unlike Dogo Onsen Honkan. It also offers the unusual experience of bathing in a yukatabira or yucho robe – a precursor to the modern yukata – in a replica of the Honkan bath reserved for the exclusive use of the Imperial Family.
One of the country’s most famous hot spring resorts, Beppu is also home to one of its strangest spa treatments. Located on the southern island of Kyushu, an area known for its dense population of volcanic hot springs, Beppu has some of the most diverse onsen in the country – including various waters, mud baths and steam baths – but the sand bath is its standout feature. Taking a Beppu sand bath requires you to be buried up to your neck in a giant pit of warm volcanic sand. The theory has it that, as you sweat, the toxins are released from your body; it leaves you a little flushed, but ultimately rejuvenated and feeling like you’ve just experienced a complete full body massage.
The modern complex at Onsen Hoyo Land is centred around a vast outdoor mud bath, where the creamy, pale-grey mud is said to have a beautifying effect on the skin. This section of the onsen is mixed-gender in places, while the other areas – where you’ll find everything from steam baths to indoor mud baths to mineral-rich hot springs – are gender segregated.
Nestled in the mountains of eastern Akita Prefecture, Nyuto Onsen, which translates into English as “nipple hot spring”– a cheeky nod to the suggestive silhouette of neighbouring Mount Nyuto – is a cluster of eight elegant ryokan inns, each with its own unique bathing facilities. It’s particularly magical in winter, when the snow is ploughed into high walls on either side of the road, and bathers can enjoy snowflakes dissolving into the steamy air before landing. Although each onsen technically belongs to the ryokan in which it resides, the baths are open to day guests for a fee.
Most well known for its impressive skiing facilities and towering snow monsters – juhyo, trees covered in snow and formed into outlandish shapes by the wind – Mt Zao is also a quaint onsen resort. Located in the volcanic mountains of Yamagata, about 880m (2,887ft) above sea level, Zao Onsen’s waters are some of the most acidic in the entire country, which make them the perfect remedy for tired, ski-worn muscles. Suitable for all tastes, Zao has both traditional-style and more modern bath facilities scattered across town, with the three small, simple public baths – Kawarayu, Shimoyu and Kamiyu – a good starting point.
Situated just below Nara, Wakayama prefecture is home to untamed mountainscapes, rugged coastlines and the historic Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail. Once you’ve tired yourself out exploring the diverse landscape, be sure to stop by Yunomine Onsen – a picturesque onsen town which boasts some of the oldest hot springs in Japan. With steam billowing out through the clusters of ramshackle wooden bathhouses, winding pathways and a stream of hot-spring water running through the centre of the town, Yunomine Onsen is the quintessential, picture-perfect Japanese bathing town.
Tsuboyu is registered as a Unesco World Heritage site – the only onsen with this title. As you can imagine, it’s a popular spot, so visitors can only use the bath for 30 minutes at a time. You’ll get a ticket when you arrive, and will need to wait for your number to be called. Even a time limit can’t take the magic out of bathing here, though – relaxing in water which changes colour over the hours, surrounded by nature and ancient myths. Legend has it that the miraculous waters of Tsuboyu can bring you back from the brink of death – and they’re also said to dramatically increase fertility, so visiting couples be warned. The pool is very small, ideally fitting just two people at a time, and is shielded from view by a simple wooden cabin. Given that it’s effectively a private bath, tattoos are allowed.
Located in Gunma prefecture, Kusatsu Onsen – one of Japan’s Three Famous Hot Springs along with Gero and Arima – feels worlds away from the neon lights of Tokyo. But in reality, it’s a reasonable weekend escape – about three and a half hours away by train. At 1,200m (3,937ft) above sea level, the mountain town is beautiful all year round, but in winter it’s exceptional. There’s something magical about taking a long, peaceful soak as snow settles around the open-air hot spring baths – and as this town is said to have more hot spring water than anywhere else in Japan and plenty of beautiful, well-maintained bathhouses, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
The main outdoor bath at Kusatsu Onsen, Sainokawara has enough room for 100 people at a time without feeling at all crowded. There are no shower facilities – you should rinse with hot water before getting in – but the high acidity of the water means your skin will still feel squeaky clean afterwards. You can buy a hot spring-hopping ticket which covers admission to Sainokawara Rotemburo, Otakinoyu and Gozanoyu, all three of which are tattoo-friendly.
Hakone has a reputation as a high-class weekend getaway, a place where Tokyo’s elite soak in secluded private hot springs and dine on sumptuous kaiseki meals in centuries-old ryokan inns. As an added bonus, you get an unobstructed view of Mount Fuji across Lake Ashi. Given its long history, Hakone is easy to get to – you can take the Odakyu line’s Romance Car for a particularly scenic and comfortable train ride – and well developed, with innumerable ryokan, hotels and hostels, so even normal travellers will find somewhere in their budget.
This luxury onsen complex boasts tatami-floored relaxation rooms, elegant courtyards and gourmet food, all of which are available to day visitors. The baths themselves are superb – and tattoo-friendly – with indoor and outdoor pools and even a grotto-like cave. You can also use some of the provided salt scrub and head into the wood cabin-style sauna, before rinsing off and submerging yourself in the cold plunge pool to really feel refreshed.
At Shibu you can really enjoy the traditional, old-fashioned atmosphere of a hot spring resort, especially if you join the other yukata-clad guests strolling the lamp-lit streets in the evenings. An overnight stay is worthwhile for another reason, too: Shibu is just a short walk from Jigokudani Monkey Park. The park is crowded with tourists during the day, all hoping for the perfect picture of a monkey snoozing in a hot spring – but guests at Shibu can avoid this by visiting around opening or closing time. After the monkey park, the most popular activity at Shibu is the bathhouse tour, where you head from one onsen to the next and collect a stamp at each one. Good fortune – and certainly good hygiene – is said to come to anyone who manages to collect all nine.
Housed in a traditional wooden building, Oyu is the last of Shibu’s nine public baths, and supposedly good for neuralgia and rheumatism. It’s also the only one open to day visitors – the others are only accessible if you’re staying in a local ryokan or hotel. Though Oyu is a simple affair with only a small number of pools, the hot baths are relaxing and restorative, and the whole onsen is evocative of ancient Japan.
This onsen town near Takayama and Nagoya is one of Japan’s Three Famous Hot Springs (Nihon Sanmeisen), along with Arima and Kusatsu. It may not be as picturesque as some, but the smooth, alkaline waters and several worthwhile tourist attractions – notably the Gassho Mura, an open-air museum of traditional steep-roofed thatched farmhouses – mean it remains popular hundreds of years after the discovery of springs in the area. As well as having three public bathhouses and various free footbaths dotted throughout town, visitors to Gero Onsen can make use of the Yumeguri Tegata spa pass. This gives you access to any three of the 30-odd baths around town, and the wooden tablet itself makes a nice souvenir.
Located just by the bridge over the Hida River, this large, free rotenburo is completely open and very atmospheric as the lights of the town turn on each evening. It’s mixed gender and very public – bathers are clearly visible from the bridge – so swimsuits are required.
Osaka is high on most travellers’ lists – the city’s incomparable food scene, lively nightlife and friendly atmosphere brings a steady flow of visitors. Osaka may not have an abundance of natural hot springs, but there are a few excellent onsen in the suburbs, and within the city itself there’s a thriving sento scene. Note that in the Kansai area – which includes Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe – the word onsen is sometimes used to describe sento and so-called “super sento” (large complexes which feel like a cross between a public bath and Western spa, or even a water park). So be sure to double-check if you want to bathe in natural spring water.
This incredible onsen, built around a natural radium-rich spring, is located only 40 minutes from Osaka city by train. Designed by the same architect responsible for the famous Tokyo Station, the traditional, lush-green environment allows guests to indulge in the experience of bathing in another time and place – while remaining close by to a major, modern city.
This onsen has the largest rotenburo in the Kansai region. The pure, mineral hot spring water that services this rustic bathhouse draws visitors from all around the region. The onsen is split into two areas, the Wood Bath and the Stone Bath, each with their own aesthetic and with many different baths and saunas to enjoy. It’s conveniently located near Universal Studios Japan, so it’s perfect for anyone in need of a rest after waiting in line all day.
There’s one big reason to come to Ibusuki Onsen: hot sand baths. Visitors can head to a stretch of beach where the sand is naturally warm, then lie back and relax in their yukata while attendants bury them up to the neck. On bright days your face will be sheltered by an umbrella, but sun or no sun you’ll be very warm – the idea is that you’ll sweat out any toxins, leaving you with clearer skin and more energy. There are also plenty of traditional baths in this cluster of hot springs near Kagoshima – on Kyushu island – which make use of Ibusuki’s sodium-rich spring water.
The under-the-radar onsen town of Ginzan Onsen may feel delightfully remote, but it actually makes an easy trip from Tokyo – about three and a half hours by train and bus. The area has some picturesque hikes and intriguing historical attractions such as an old silver mine – ginzan means “silver mountain”. But it’s the hot springs which really pull in the – mostly Japanese – visitors. Most of the several bathhouses line the single, pedestrianised main street of the town. It’s particularly charming in the evening, when you can wander by the canal in a yukata from your ryokan, bathed in the warm, flattering light of the gas lamps which illuminate the street.
Fans of Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece Spirited Away may get a thrill of familiarity as they walk across the red bridge to Notoya Ryokan, as this inn was one of the inspirations behind the bathhouse in the film. Although it was established in 1892, the current building was constructed in the 1920s. It’s an elaborate wooden building with plenty of curious details, like a garret tower and engraved columns on the facade. As well as the usual indoor and outdoor baths, Notoya has a separate pool near the picturesque Shirogane Falls, and a private cave bath.
Emma Vince contributed additional reporting to this article.