The Ultimate Guide to Onsens in Japan

Experience a unique part of Japanese culture by bathing in the country's hot springs, known as onsen
Experience a unique part of Japanese culture by bathing in the country's hot springs, known as onsen | © Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Rebecca Hallett
Freelance Writer And Editor5 October 2021

From traditional mountainside ryokan to hidden, inner-city gems in Tokyo or Osaka, we’ve discovered the best hot springs in the Land of the Rising Sun.

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.

Onsen etiquette

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.

Tokyo

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.

HOSHINOYA Tokyo

Boutique Hotel, Ryokan
4.7/5 (409 Reviews)
HOSHINOYA Tokyo hot spring
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Located in central Tokyo, Hoshinoya is just minutes from Tokyo station and the Imperial Palace, proving you don’t have to venture to the rural reaches of Japan for a traditional ryokan experience. From a distance, it blends in with the other imposing buildings of Tokyo’s financial district – but inside, you’ll find the same peace and tranquillity of a countryside inn. Head to the top floor to reach the rooftop pools. Drift through the tunnel that connects the indoor and outdoor pools, and soak in the warm, saline waters high above the bright lights of the capital.
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Niwa no Yu

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Toshimaen Niwa no Yu was designed by architect Kenzo Kosugi
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Although it’s not one of the most famous corners of Tokyo as it’s mostly known for its anime, 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 feels worlds away from inner-city Tokyo living. The bath features indoor and outdoor tubs, as well as modern features like jacuzzis and a Finnish-style sauna. Some areas, like the sauna, are mixed-gender, and require you to wear a bathing suit.

Togoshi Ginza Onsen

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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.

Kyoto

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.

Kurama Onsen

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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.

Funaoka Onsen

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2B8JRJX Japanese Sento (traditional bathouse) in Kyoto
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Despite its name, Funaoka Onsen is actually a sento – and it’s possibly the city’s most interesting. It has an impressive number of baths, including a rotenburo (a relaxing outdoor pool), traditional cypress-wood tub and even one with a mild electric current pulsing through the water. But the most intriguing detail is in the changing areas, which are decorated with elaborate wood carvings. The sento is surprisingly liberal for such a traditional city, even welcoming visitors with large tattoos.

Tsuchiyu Onsen

Independent Hotel, Hostel, Spa Hotel
4.5/5 (10 Reviews)
2G8FDW7 The town of Tsuchiyu Onsen Machi is seen embedded among the mountains, Fukushima
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The area around Fukushima city is rich in hot springs, so over the centuries onsen towns have developed and flourished here. Today, you can visit Iizaka Onsen for traditional food and historic buildings, Takayu Onsen for a great range of baths or Tsuchiyu Onsen for nature and crafts. Tsuchiyu also has particularly rich alkaline spring waters, and its beautiful hiking routes and cute local kokeshi dolls – which you can try decorating yourself at the Matsuya Bussan shop for a small fee – make it an appealing overnight stop.
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Yumori Onsen Hostel

Independent Hotel, Hostel, Spa Hotel
4.5/5 (10 Reviews)
Yumori Onsen Hostel
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Yumori may be a bright, modern hostel, but you’ll still find plenty of traditional onsen culture amid the pristine dorms. The hot water has been flowing here since ancient times, and the alkaline minerals are still as effective at healing skin diseases. The large public bath is filled with water from natural sources, and also welcomes day visitors. For a post-swim snack, the cafe and bar serve a simple menu of coffee, craft beer and basic lunches of rice, soup and in-house pickles.
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Nishimuraya Honkan

Independent Hotel
4.9/5 (52 Reviews)
Nishimuraya Honkan
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When it comes to hot springs, Kinosaki – a three-hour drive north of Kyoto – is the town to be. If you’re staying at Nishimuraya Honkan, you’ll get free access to all seven of the town’s public onsen, although you’ll have to tear yourself away from the hot springs right under your nose at the ryokan first. Set in a lush grove of bamboo, choose between an indoor and outdoor Kichino-yu bath in the Japanese-style or the more unusual – but equally relaxing – Fukuno-yu, a Chinese-style hot spring decorated using round shapes, patterned tiles and natural rocks.
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Hida-Takayama

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.

Hidatei Hanaougi

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T810B7 Autumn foliage and traditonal thatched buildings around a lake at Hida Folk Village, Hida No Sato, Takayama, Honshu, Japan, Asia
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If you only have time to visit one onsen in Hida-Takayama, make it Hidatei Hanaougi: it’s the most luxurious ryokan in the area, and the waters are rich in sodium hydrogen carbonate, pumped up 1,200m (3,937ft) from an underground spring. For those who are a little shy, the facility has private baths available for both overnight and day guests.

Oyado Koto No Yume

Hotel
4.7/5 (379 Reviews)
Oyado Koto No Yume
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Just a few minutes’ walk from the old town, this ryokan has an old-fashioned yet relaxed feel. You can enjoy traditional Japanese hospitality, from kaiseki meals to cypress-wood baths, and are encouraged to go for a moonlit stroll through the historic streets in your yukata robe. The private bath on the fifth floor is the ideal place to relax while you take in a view over the city and towards the mountains beyond.
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Yamashiro Onsen

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.

Hoshino Resorts KAI Kaga

Resort, Spa Hotel, Ryokan, Luxury
4.4/5 (18 Reviews)
Hoshino Resorts KAI Kaga
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The KAI brand owns several boutique ryokans across Japan, but don’t think you’re sacrificing local flavour for generic luxury. On Yamashiro Onsen’s main square, the 400-year-old ryokan building is filled with traditional Kaga artworks and regional craft, from tea sets to wall hangings. There are three baths filled with water from the low-alkaline waters of Yamashiro Hot Springs. Depending on which you visit, you’ll be able to soak with a view of beautiful tile artwork, colourful stained-glass windows or views over the ornamental pine gardens. Tattoos are allowed at KAI Kaga, but only if they’re small enough to be covered by four skin-coloured seals.
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Yufuin Onsen

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KEDTJN Autumn Kinrin-ko lake in Yufuin, Oita, Japan
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If you’re in Fukuoka, Mount Yufu is a must-see, and the best way to view it is from the rural hot spring town of Yufuin. Just 6mi (10km) from the famous resort of Beppu, Yufuin distinguishes itself with its laid-back atmosphere and surprising cultural scene – the small town has multiple art galleries and independent shops.

Yufuin Gettouan

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Yufuin Gettouan
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Yufuin Gettouan is the gold standard, with well-maintained open-air baths surrounded by lush green foliage. The main building is a 300-year-old traditional Japanese home, and luxurious guest villas – all with private baths – are dotted around the extensive grounds. Access to the main baths is free for staying guests, while day visitors can use them for a fee.

Shitan-yu

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A much-loved symbol of the area, Shitan-yu is a simple public bath by Lake Kinriko, with a beautiful thatched roof. The facilities are very basic and there are only two pools – one inside, and one outside – but it makes for a relaxing, pared-back experience, and is the only public bath in town open to non-residents. It’s also mixed-gender, which is relatively rare, so is a popular option for families.

Fujigoko Onsen

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.

Fuji Onsenji Yumedono

Ryokan
Fuji Onsenji Yumedono
Courtesy of Fuji Onsenji Yumedono / Expedia
Privacy is paramount at this luxurious ryokan, where each spacious room comes with its own open-air hot spring bath. Unlike many of the other ryokans, there’s no communal lounge or bath, so even when the hotel’s nine rooms are fully booked, you’ll still feel like the only guests staying there. While there’s no direct view of Mount Fuji from the hotel, you’ll be spoiled for mountain views as you explore the local area, including nearby Lake Kawaguchi, which is just a short stroll away.
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Yurari

Natural Feature, Spa
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Located just two hours from Tokyo by bus, this onsen hub sits at the base of Mount Fuji. The complex is home to over 10 baths, all designed to give guests a clear view of the mountain, but the main drawcard is the panoramic view of Fuji-san from the large rotenburo. There are also relaxation spaces and shops inside, so it’s easy to spend a whole day here.

Kobe

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Arima Onsen
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Within the city limits of Kobe, on the other side of Mount Rokko, is Arima Onsen. This resort – named one of Japan’s Three Famous Hot Springs along with Gero and Kusatsu – has been attracting visitors for over 1,000 years with its two unusual waters: kinsen (golden spring), which is a reddish brown due to its high iron content, and ginsen (silver spring), which is clear and rich in radium and carbonate. You can try them out at the public baths Kin no Yu and Gin no Yu, both of which are tattoo-friendly.

Arima Grand Hotel

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Arima Grand Hotel
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On a hill overlooking the town centre, Arima Grand Hotel is a sprawling, luxurious ryokan complex. It boasts open-air baths looking over the town, secluded indoor baths and private baths. If you’re feeling a little shy about going nude, make a beeline for the Aqua Terrace and Spa, which is more like a Western spa facility – and where bathing suits are compulsory. Stay for a night or two if you want the full experience, or just visit for the day.

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  • Arima Onsen Taketoritei Maruyama

    Ryokan
    Arima Onsen Taketoritei Maruyama
    Courtesy of Arima Onsen Taketoritei Maruyama / Expedia
    The Arima Onsen is one of the oldest in Japan and has two different types of springs: silver and gold. There’s no difference in quality with these labels – rather the type of elements infused in the water and their nourishing properties. Set back in a peaceful location on the Mount Rokko mountainside, Taketoritei Maruyama offers both varieties across its eight private onsen rooms for guests only. These relaxed private rooms are ideal for small families, couples and solo travellers.
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    Noboribetsu Onsen

    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.

    Noboribetsu Sekisuitei

    Natural Feature, Spa
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    Noboribetsu Sekisuitei
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    Noboribetsu Sekisuitei is at its most beautiful in winter, when guests are treated to a view of the snowy mountain landscape while keeping warm in the baths. There’s nothing quite like soaking in the steaming waters of one of the two open-air baths while watching delicate snowflakes fall from the sky and evaporate before they hit the water.

    Daiichi Takimotokan

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    Daiichi Takimotokan
    © Daiichi Takimotokan
    Noboribetsu Onsen is famous for its profusion of springs – and of the 10 different types of water found here, five feed the baths at Daiichi Takimotokan. As such, you can enjoy everything from the red-toned waters of a sodium spring to a warming soak in a salt-rich bath at Takimotokan’s 35 different baths. It’s the largest hot-spring complex in Hokkaido, so although popular, guests have plenty of room to spread out. An overnight stay is recommended, but the baths are also open to day guests for a fee.

    Kuramure

    Hotel, Spa Hotel
    Kuramure
    Courtesy of Kuramure / Expedia
    You’ll find Kuramure in north Hokkaido, two hours’ drive up from Noboribetsu Onsen. Choose the outdoor bath to soak to the soundtrack of the Asari River flowing nearby – or if you’d rather bathe in private without worrying about opening times or remembering onsen etiquette, the baths in each room are also connected to the hot springs. After a peaceful soak, browse the art gallery featuring local artists or head to the library and lose yourself in Kuramure’s collection of books and records.
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    Lake Kussharo

    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.

    Kotan Onsen Rotenburo

    Natural Feature, Spa, Health Spa
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    2E29B23 Kotan rotenburo by lake Kussharo in Hokkaido, Japan
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    For that back-to-nature feel, you can’t beat Kotan Onsen Rotenburo, one of the best-maintained springs in the area. In an Ainu village, this small open-air bath is right on the edge of Lake Kussharo, offering spectacular views over the water. Though it’s glorious in all seasons, winter is the time to come: the hot spring creates an area on the otherwise-frozen lake where ice doesn’t form, and whooper swans congregate to enjoy the warm water alongside human bathers. As it’s very public, swimsuits are acceptable at this hot spring, and visitors with tattoos are welcome.

    Kurokawa Onsen

    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.

    Yamamizuki

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    M6WAKA The riverside Yamamizuki Rotenburo ( outdoor hot spring bath ) in Kurokawa onsen in Kyushu, Japan
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    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 you, with Yamamizuki being 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, shades of gold, orange and red.

    Matsuyama

    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.

    Dogo Onsen Honkan

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    HJ35P4 Japan, Matsuyama. Meiji period tourist attraction, the wooden Dogo Onsen bathhouse
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    Dogo Onsen Honkan is officially the oldest hot spring in Japan, with a history that stretches back over 3,000 years – though it welcomes guests with tattoos. Throughout its lifetime, the history and stunning architecture of the bathhouse have inspired countless works of art, and it was one of the inspirations behind Studio Ghibli’s well-known film Spirited Away. The current incarnation of the bathhouse was built in 1894 and has been designated an important cultural asset of Japan. It’s partially closed for restoration at the moment, with all sections set to be open again around 2026.

    Asuka no Yu

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    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.

    Beppu

    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.

    Takegawara

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    © Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo
    One of Beppu’s longest-established onsen, Takegawara is the best place to try out a sand bath. It’s an old building, dating back to 1879, so the main non-sand bath is pretty worn out – but Takegawara is atmospheric and well-loved by locals and visitors. As an added bonus, it’s tattoo-friendly.

    Onsen Hoyo Land

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    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.

    Nyuto Onsen

    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.

    Ganiba Onsen

    Ryokan
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    ADRTGD Ganiba Hotspring in winter Akita Prefecture Japan
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    Mountaintop Ganiba Onsen is a pleasantly old-fashioned ryokan with large and small indoor and outdoor tubs. Follow the winding path down to a secluded wooded area and you’ll find the main rotenburo, a beautiful stone-lined pool with a simple changing area. Bathing suits are not allowed, so expect a very chilly dash from the changing room to warm water in winter. It’s also the only mixed-gender pool at Ganiba. Guests at the ryokan can enjoy all the baths for free, while day visitors can access them for a fee.

    Zao Onsen

    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.

    Zao Dai-Rotenburo

    Spa
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    BM1M8B Western man bathing in Zao hot spring resort in winter, Yamagata prefecture, Japan, Asia
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    The dai-rotenburo (great outdoor bath) at Zao Onsen is one of the most picturesque in the country, the pale blue pools situated in a wooded valley. Unusually, it is recommended that you do not use soap here – the acidity of the water itself will remove any impurities from your skin. Unfortunately the bath is closed over winter, but in the warmer months it’s extremely popular. Guests with tattoos are welcome.

    Yunomine Onsen

    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

    Spa, Health Spa
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    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.

    Kusatsu Onsen

    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.

    Sainokawara Rotenburo

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    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.

    Ryotei Kaichoro

    Ryokan
    Ryotei Kaichoro
    Courtesy of Ryotei Kaichoro / Expedia
    Described as a hideaway for adults, this small but stylish hotel an hour from Kusatsu Onsen has only eight rooms, each with its own open-air bath fed by the Shiragin no Yu hot springs. Reserve one of the three private, indoor baths – there are two negative ion baths, one for couples and one for groups of up to 15, and a golden hot water spring to choose from. For a less private but more traditional experience, head next door to the large communal baths at the adjoining Ikaho Onsen Fukuichi hotel, which are free to Kaichoro guests.
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    Hakone

    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.

    Tenzan

    Spa
    Map View

    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.

    Green Plaza Hotel

    Eco Hotel
    Hotel Green Plaza Hakone
    Courtesy of Hotel Green Plaza Hakone / Expedia
    The indoor baths at Green Plaza Hotel are perfectly nice and well maintained, but visitors really come for one thing: the startlingly close view of Mount Fuji from the rotenburo, which you’ll get at surprisingly few onsen in Hakone. Overnight guests can use the baths for free, but day visitors can also access them for a fee – choose your day carefully, though, as clouds can completely obscure the peak at times. Small tattoos are allowed if they can be covered with a skin-coloured seal, available from the hotel.
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    Shibu Onsen

    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.

    Shibu Oyu

    Spa, Health Spa
    Map View

    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.

    Jigokudani Onsen Korakukan

    Spa, Health Spa
    Map View
    T6JKAJ Baby snow monkey at the hot spring
    © nowacowski / Alamy Stock Photo
    Technically part of Jigokudani rather than Shibu, this is the closest onsen – for humans – to the monkey park. It’s slightly worn around the edges, but the water is excellent – and you might find yourself sharing your rotenburo with the occasional simian bather. Guests with tattoos are welcome – unusual in this area – and the mixed outdoor bath (where you can wear a towel) is great for families.

    Gero Onsen

    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.

    Sasara

    Hotel
    Sasara Gero Hot Springs
    Courtesy of Sasara Gero Hot Springs / Expedia
    With interiors reminiscent of the early 20th-century Taisho era and several different baths, Sasara is a luxurious place to stay. As well as the standard indoor and outdoor pools, some of which can be hired for private use, Sasara has a stone-lined sauna and an unusual private bath made from a hollowed-out, 700-year-old log.
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    Osaka

    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.

    Amami Onsen Nantenen

    Spa
    Map View

    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.

    Kamigata Onsen Ikkyu

    Spa
    Map View

    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.

    Ibusuki Onsen

    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.

    Kyukamura Ibusuki

    Spa
    Map View
    Kyukamura Ibusuki
    Courtesy of Kyukamura Ibusuki / Expedia
    With sand baths, sea-view rotenburo, indoor pools and baths available for private hire, Kyukamura is the ideal place to see Ibusuki’s charms. It’s also one of the few places in Ibusuki which allows guests with tattoos to use the communal baths – though the tattoos must be small enough to be covered with a skin-coloured seal, which you must provide. Overnight guests can enjoy elaborate meals made from fresh local ingredients, but the bath facilities are also open to day visitors.

    Ginzan Onsen

    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.

    Notoya Ryokan

    Inn, Ryokan

    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.

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    Fujiya

    Inn, Hotel
    Map View
    Ginzan Hot Spring Fujiya inn
    Courtesy of Ginzan Hot Spring Fujiya inn / Expedia
    A modern addition to Ginzan Onsen, the main building at Fujiya was designed by architectural superstar Kengo Kuma, combining the warm wood and soft light of traditional Japanese aesthetics with light, modern touches. The clean lines and bamboo screens of the cavernous lobby make for a dramatic entry into the inn. There are five excellent baths in Fujiya, plus a few rooms with private baths, all as chic and soothing as the rest of the hotel.

    Emma Vince contributed additional reporting to this article.

    These recommendations were updated on October 5, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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