Japanese people have enjoyed bathing in the island’s natural hot springs for centuries. Here are the best and most beautiful places to enjoy an onsen bath like a local.
Before conventional medicine, it was believed that a visit to the local onsen bath could cure just about any injury or ailment. Nowadays, locals and travellers alike head to the hot springs to rest, recharge and socialise. If you want to try out authentic onsen bathing but don’t know where to begin, here are some of the nation’s best.
Situated on a hill overlooking the town centre of Arima Onsen in Hyogo, the Arima Grand Hotel really lives up to its name. A sprawling luxury style ryokan complex, the accommodation and bath facility is home to one of Japan’s three most famous hot springs, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy it. There are open-air baths looking over Arima Onsen town, secluded indoor baths and private baths. If you’re feeling a little shy about going nude, there’s also the Aqua Terrace & Spa, which is more like a western spa facility where bathing suits are compulsory. If you want the full experience, it’s recommended you stay for a night or two, but day visits are also possible.
Escape the tourist-trodden streets and head out of the city to experience Kyoto at its most tranquil. Catch a train 30 minutes out of town and take a hike up to Kurama-dera Mountain Temple. Once you’re done, reward yourself with a soak in one of the finest baths in the area, Kurama Onsen. Home to a variety of indoor and outdoor tubs, this large complex is part of a ryokan inn and while it’s recommended you spend a night there for the full experience, days guests are also welcome. Flanked by towering foliage, including the sporadic cherry blossom tree, it’s stunning all year round, but especially so in winter when the area is dusted with snow.
Located in a castle town, this is the perfect trip for travellers looking to escape the hustle and bustle of modern Japan. The streets and neighbourhoods of Hida-Takayama have maintained their “Old Japan” feel, but it’s still very accessible for foreign guests. While there are a number of bathing facilities in Hida-Takayama Onsen, if you have to visit one, make it Hidatei Hanaougi. It’s the most luxurious ryokan in the area and the waters are filled with sodium hydrogen carbonate spring water pumped from 1,200 metres underground. For those who are a little shy, the facility has private baths available and is open to staying and day guests.
Although it’s not one of the most famous corners of Tokyo, Nerima is worth visiting just for Niwa no Yu. Surrounded by a meticulously maintained Japanese garden crafted by legendary landscape architect Kenzo Kosugi, this onsen resort feels worlds away from inner-city Toyko living. The bath features classic gender separated indoor and outdoor tubs, as well as modern features like jacuzzis. There’s also a Finnish-style sauna where men and women can bathe together – bathing suits are required, though.
If you’re in Fukuoka, Mount Yufu is a must-see. And the best way to see it is from the hot spring resort of Yufuin, which has become especially popular among tourists seeking a more rural onsen experience. To experience the best of the best, pay a visit to the Yufuin Gettouan villa, which features public and private open-air baths surrounded by lush green foliage. Access is free for staying guests, while day visitors can also use the bath for a fee.
Conveniently located only an hour and a half from Tokyo by car or local train, the town of Hakone Onsen features a number of hot springs, day spas and resorts. Visitors can choose to stay in a traditional ryokan or opt for a Western-style hotel. There are about 20 hot spring resorts to choose from, so picking a bath can get difficult. If you’re after the best of both Japanese and Western worlds, consider a stay, or at least a visit, to Hoshino Resort Kai. Sitting along the Sukumo River, the tastefully minimalist baths in this facility offer incredible riverside views along with additional services, such as massages.
Located just two hours from Tokyo by bus, this onsen hub sits at the base of the legendary Mount Fuji. The hot baths, as well as the accommodations, are designed to give guests a clear view of the mountain at all times. The baths at the Yurari facility are unbeatable. It’s a complex that’s home to over 10 different hot spring baths, but the main drawcard is the large outdoor bath, which boasts a panoramic view of neighbouring Mount Fuji. There are also relaxation spaces and shops inside, too, so it’s easy to spend an entire day relaxing here.
The area of Beppu Onsen is the largest hot spring resort in the world. To make it a little easier to explore, the town is divided into eight separate hot spring areas, each with its unique characteristics and scenery. Not far from the public baths are the “Hells of Beppu”, a group of springs too hot for bathing, but still worth visiting for their scenic beauty. If you’re limited on time, head straight to Takegawara Onsen, located right by Beppu Station. Built in 1879, this specific bath – and its historic design – has become the unofficial symbol of the Beppu Onsen area. This facility has sand baths, too, which is a Beppu speciality.
This is Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring resort, located roughly an hour by car from Sapporo city. Guests are treated to a view of the snowy mountain landscape while keeping warm in the hot baths – a must-visit for anyone planning to make the trek up to the northern island. There’s nothing quite like soaking in the steaming waters of an open-air bath while watching delicate snowflakes fall from the sky and evaporate before they hit the water. Visit the two outdoor baths of Noboribetsu Sekisuitei to try the ultimate Hokkaido onsen experience for yourself.
It is said that the waters of Kurokawa Onsen can heal nerve pain, muscle aches and even hysteria. True or not, the quiet inns and open-air hot springs of the resort will certainly calm even the most tightly wound temperaments. The Yamamizuki bath is the number one recommendation in the area. This open-air bath is surrounded by the mountain foliage, which is stunning all year round, but especially so in November when the leaves transform from green into vibrant, fiery shades of red, orange and gold.
Dogo Onsen Honkan is officially the oldest hot spring in Japan – with a history that stretches back over 3,000 years. Throughout its lifetime, the history and stunning architecture of the bathhouse have inspired countless local works of art and it was featured in Studio Ghibli’s iconic film Spirited Away. The current incarnation of the bathhouse was built in 1894 and has been designated an important cultural asset of Japan.