Sitting on top of multiple volcanoes, Japan overflows with hot springs.
Beppu's heated sand onsen are an unusual take on the hotspring experience
The Japanese have long thought bathing in mineral waters was good for the health and the spirit—some places in Japan have been famous for the quality of their hot springs for more than a thousand years. Today, onsen remain a place to focus on health, but they have also become an opportunity to relax, a way to spend time with family and friends, and an excuse for a short trip away from daily life.
Onsen come in many shapes and sizes, from natural rock pools to modern baths installed in skyscrapers. As a visitor to Japan, it’s a great opportunity to participate in a cultural activity that doesn’t require any language ability (other than grumbles of satisfaction as you lower yourself into the hot water). To become a true connoisseur of the onsen, you are going to want to try a variety to see what you like. Natural stone pool or wooden tub? Indoors or outdoors? A busy family-friendly onsen complex, or a simple wooden bath in the woods? We have a few suggestions for you to help you discover your perfect onsen.
Zao provides a more traditional hot spring experience
For a traditional onsen experience, going to a mountain village is a joy. Zao in Yamagata Prefecture or Nozawa in Nagano are beautiful towns at the base of the ski slopes. Scattered across these hot spring resorts are public onsen—most so small as to not even have an attendant. There is a fun, convivial air to this kind of onsen—people staying in the village walk around in their yukata (cotton robes, provided by your guesthouse) from bath to bath, trying all the options, which range from wooden tubs to outdoor stone pools. The baths themselves are quite rustic, giving the entire experience a nostalgic atmosphere.
SpaWorld is a fun way to explore a variety of onsen
While purists might disagree, onsen do not have to be a rural experience. More of an onsen theme park experience than a wooden tub in the forest, both SpaWorld in Osaka and Edo-Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo are great fun. SpaWorld has both Japanese style baths and Roman/European/Turkish-style soaks all contained in a huge complex. Edo-Onsen Monogatari attempts to recreate a traditional onsen town (in downtown Tokyo), complete with yukata, multiple types of bath, and a food court. Even wilder is the Kowakien Yunessun onsen in Hakone. Themed baths, such as green tea, coffee, and red wine onsen await the dedicated bather, as well as “Rodeo Mountain”, a water slide filled with hot spring water.
Beppu's entire tourism industry is built around its onsen
Some places in Japan are famous just because of their hot water, including Beppu in Motomachi prefecture. Beppu is a delightfully weird hot spring town. Onsen in the village offer a variety of colored baths (from different minerals dissolved), mud baths (great for the skin) as well as a heated sand onsen. Wrapped up in a special robe, customers are buried a few centimeters deep in clean sand heated with onsen water. The heat and pressure of the sand works wonders on a sore body.
Kawayu Onsen is a place where onsen and river water meet
On the more natural end of things, Kawayu Onsen in Wakayama is literally a flow of hot water that runs directly into the river -- the hot water mixes with river water in different stone pools, creating different temperatures right at the edge of the forest. In the mountains of Nagano at Jigokudani Onsen, hikers can sometimes see snow monkeys bathing in the middle of the woods (sadly humans are not allowed to bathe with monkeys). My favorite rotenburo (outdoor bath) is at Sakinoyu Onsen in Wakayama; hot water cascades from pool to pool built into the rocky shoreline overlooking the Pacific. As the tide comes in, the bottom-most pool gets flooded with sea water from the rising waves -- it’s a magical experience.
No matter your plans for Japan, make sure that you do as the Japanese, and regularly submerge yourself in the cultural heritage of Onsen!
A note to the tattooed: not all onsen accept people with tattoos as they are traditionally linked to organized crime in Japan. You might want to check with the onsen before hand.
About the author
Brock has lived in both the Kansai and Tokyo areas for more than six years, so he has his fair share of sweaty summers under his belt. He’s become an expert in finding some quiet nature to dip into on the weekends, knowing that you have to balance all-you-can-drink karaoke with fresh air.