Japan has over a hundred active volcanoes, which grants the country an abundance of naturally-occurring hot springs. In fact, there are over 30,000 hot springs across some 3,000 hot spring resorts or onsen（温泉）.
Onsen go back over a thousand years, with mineral-rich waters that are believed to heal minor ailments. Relaxing at an onsen must definitely be in any traveler’s to-do list while they’re in Japan. How could anyone pass on the chance to luxuriate in a traditional spa experience?
Japan considers bathing in hot springs one of the best ways to ease and unwind. As such, the country has utilized its volcanic activity by establishing many resorts that almost anyone can access.
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Travel in Japan: The Best Onsen Destinations
If you’re looking to complete your trip to Japan with a relaxing onsen visit, then you must get the best experience possible. Among the thousands of hot spring resorts, we have highlighted 6 of the most popular destinations to ensure that your first time is one for the books.
The onsen experience involves bathing in public, which some foreigners might find awkward. Rest assured that some resorts offer private facilities, albeit on the pricier side. Other onsen even allow bathing suits!
Bathing naked in public is understandably flustering. But once you realize that the other onsen-goers also just want to relax, you’ll soon regain your confidence. After all, nothing beats an authentic onsen experience. Read on to find the best resort for you!
Atami Onsen (Shizuoka)
Want a break from the bustling Tokyo lifestyle? In just over an hour, you can escape the busy metropolis and find yourself in the scenic town of Atami. Located on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture, Atami offers a view of the Pacific Ocean and is the most famous onsen town of the region.
The healing waters of Atami have been attracting Japanese bathers since the Nara period (AD 710-784), thus affirming its cultural significance. Edo Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616) was apparently so captivated with the town’s hot springs rich in salt and sulfate that he tried to recreate their relaxing waters in Edo, or what is now known as Tokyo.
There are a couple of onsen that offer both public open-air and private indoor baths. If you book a hotel in this area, you’re guaranteed an unobstructed view of Sagami Bay. Some resorts in the area even have jacuzzis and saunas in addition to their regular public bathing facilities. And since Atami water is rich in minerals that relieve muscle and joint pains, you can expect a soaking experience unlike any other.
Atami is also a fishing town, so you can indulge in fresh seafood outside of your onsen activities. You may even want to consider scheduling your trip to coincide with the seasonal attractions of Atami! During winter, plum gardens in Atami will start blooming. You can also visit Atami Castle in the spring or summer for spectacular cherry blossom and firework displays.
Many buses go to Atami from Tokyo, if you’re up for a 3-hour bus ride. But if you’re itching to loosen up after sightseeing in Tokyo, just hop on a bullet train, and you can get to the relaxing hot springs of Atami in as fast as 50 minutes!
Beppu Onsen (Ōita)
If you’re looking for a unique onsen experience, consider Beppu for your first time. Beppu City is located in Ōita Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, Japan. The city has 2,909 hot spring vents, as Beppu sits right in-between Beppu Bay and volcanic mountains.
Beppu is one of the biggest onsen towns and reportedly produces 130,000 tons of hot spring water daily, the largest volume in all of Japan. The city utilizes every product of its naturally-occurring hot water, from mud to steam. You can try mud baths or even steam baths as alternatives to the regular hot water baths!
There are also some establishments in the area that offer sand bathing. The best places to enjoy a sand bath are the facilities along the coast of Beppu Bay, where your body is buried in the naturally-heated sand.
Beppu is a pretty scenic town with the natural steam rising from the ground, making it appear like a boiling pot. This feature is popular among tourists and was developed into its most unique attraction, aptly called the “Hells of Beppu.”
The “Hells” are ornamental hot springs, ideally for display instead of dips. However, they’re still functional as there are facilities that employ natural steam as a method for cooking. You could take a tour that visits all 7 Hell hot springs, and you would find services that offer freshly steamed food. From vegetables, seafood, thinly sliced meat, to sweet caramel desserts, Beppu truly is a boiling pot of food!
A Beppu onsen experience is undoubtedly unique. Loosen up your joints with the various baths available. You could then take a trip to Hell, and admire everything from ponds of boiling blue, red, and white waters, to a spring bred with live crocodiles. Who would’ve known that Hell is a place on earth, in the form of this steamy paradise?
Kusatsu Onsen (Gunma)
Kusatsu Onsen is another top destination to consider for your first onsen experience. This onsen town sits atop the mountains of Gunma Prefecture, at 1,200 meters above sea level. So in addition to hot baths, you can be sure to enjoy other high-altitude activities like skiing and snowboarding during winter!
The active Mount Shirane volcano above Kusatsu blesses the town with around 46,000 tons of hot spring water in a day. Kusatsu spring waters are rich in sulfur, aluminum sulfate, and chloride. These waters are highly medicinal that German Doctor Erwin Bälz (1849-1913) recognized and noted their healing properties in his diary.
Dr. Bälz’s findings were later published and translated to Japanese and English, thus making Kusatsu hot springs widely known across the world. Today, the onsen town credits the German doctor as their benefactor. They highlight the natural therapeutic benefits of Kusatsu hot spring water, claiming that they can cure any ailment other than a broken heart.
Kusatsu also has a unique onsen bathing style that keeps their tradition alive. This method is called jikan-yu, which is a timed bathing routine. This bathing style involves praying in an indoor shrine, a water-stirring ceremony to cool the scalding spring water, and even has a bath leader to guide bathers along the process.
You might never have thought that you would need orders while you bathe. But jikan-yu ensures that your body accepts the full benefits of Kusatsu hot spring waters. If you want to experience this unique and organized bathing style, take the next train to Kusatsu!
Kinugawa Onsen (Tochigi)
If you want your trip to Japan to be chock-full of experiences outside of bathing in hot springs, Kinugawa Onsen is your best bet. You can find this hot spring town along the Kinugawa River, after which it is named. The spring waters originate from the eastern and western ends of the riverbank. These waters are believed to heal burn injuries.
Many hotels and inns complete with basic bathing facilities line the riverbank. You might even spot open-air baths and foot spas along where old business complexes used to stand. Kinugawa Onsen definitely has the essential hot spring facilities of any onsen town, plus major tourist attractions to boot!
Kinugawa Onsen is located in Nikkō City in Tochigi Prefecture. Nikkō is widely known for the lavishly decorated Toshogu Shrine, where Ieyasu Tokugawa is laid to rest. This is a perfect place to immerse in the deep cultural history of Japan, where magnificent structures meet well-preserved nature.
Toshogu Shrine, along with other temples of Nikkō, is listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. Japan currently has a total of 23 world heritage sites around the country. While you’re in Kinugawa Onsen, you could visit Tobu World Square, which features most of these cultural sites in 1/25th replicas.
Another attraction in the area is the Edo Wonderland Nikkō Edomura. This historical theme park recreates what town life in the Edo Period of Japan might have been like. After indulging in the local hot springs, you can visit this park, rent period costumes, and enjoy live action theatre performances.
This onsen town truly is ideal for first-time onsen-goers who want to maximize their time in Japan. With attractions that go beyond regular onsen bathing, Kinugawa Onsen brings you an extraordinary overall experience.
Arima Onsen (Hyōgo)
Imagine an onsen town that you can conveniently explore like a mall. If that thought is appealing, consider visiting Arima Onsen. This small hot spring resort is located in Kobe City, the capital of Hyōgo Prefecture. This is the best and closest option if you’re coming from places in the same region like Osaka or Kyoto.
Arima Onsen is one of the oldest onsen towns in Japan, having been founded over a thousand years ago. The town’s compact size makes it suitable to travel on foot. While strolling, you’ll likely come across well-maintained temples and shrines, aside from the several hot spring sources.
There are two types of hot springs in the area: the golden spring kinsen and silver spring ginsen. Kinsen water appears reddish-brown from its high levels of iron deposits and salt concentration. The water is believed to increase tolerance to cold by helping retain body heat.
Ginsen water is clear and has two spring varieties: carbonated and radon. On the one hand, carbonated ginsen springs are rich in carbonated acid, which improve blood circulation and lower hypertension upon bathing. On the other hand, radon ginsen springs contain radium, bathing in which will boost immunity.
Arima Onsen is perfectly sized for a weekend getaway. You could quickly cover more ground for a more substantial Japanese experience.
Dōgo Onsen (Ehime)
If you’re a fan of Japanese animated films, you must be familiar with Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar Award-winning film, Spirited Away. The film’s primary setting is said to have been inspired by one of the oldest bathhouses in Japan, the Dōgo Onsen Honkan. This wooden establishment has seen many a visitor since 1894, including the Imperial Family.
Dōgo Onsen is located in Matsuyama City, the capital of Ehime Prefecture. This onsen town is one of the main Matsuyama tourist attractions, with 3 public bathhouse facilities: Honkan, Annex Asuka-no-Yu, and Tsubaki-no-Yu. These options are the best if you want royal treatment for your first onsen experience.
The 3-story Honkan bathhouse has ongoing restorations since January 2019, but the 1st floor is open to visitors. You might be glad to know that this establishment allows tattooed patrons, unlike most onsen.
Annex Asuka-no-Yu is the newest bathhouse that opened in 2017. You can expect a modern architectural approach to the construction of this bathhouse’s facilities.
The indoor baths of Tsubaki-no-Yu use the same hot spring water as the Honkan. Rooms are separated by traditional gender and have been reopened in 2017 after completing renovation and refurbishment since 1984.
Now that we’ve presented some of the best onsen destinations in Japan, would you say that your prospective experience outweighs any inhibitions? If you look at the luxurious weekend you could potentially have in an onsen town, nudity would be the least of your worries!
These onsen towns brim with culture as much as hot spring water. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to immerse in a long-standing tradition, so we have included little bits of history on each destination. Just imagine your entire body soaking up spring water that has been healing locals for over a thousand years!
We also considered locational factors in helping you decide on your first onsen experience. If you mean for your first onsen experience to be a side-trip, it would be best to choose a place closest to your main vacation spot. Or you could plan your entire holiday around one of these top destinations!
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