Guides & Stories

Guide to Hot Springs in Japan’s National Parks

Explore Japan’s National Parks and find yourself in hot water

Japan’s love affair with hot springs, or onsen, stretches back thousands of years. Legends abound of people discovering hot springs after seeing animals healing their injuries in the mineral-rich waters, and hot spring-bathing became popular with battle-weary samurai and travelers alike.

There are more than 3,000 registered hot spring resorts across the Japanese archipelago, and many are the result of volcanic activity within the national parks. Spend a day hiking volcanoes like Mount Fuji near Tokyo and Mount Meakan in Hokkaido, then enjoy the benefits of that volcanic activity with a well-earned soak to soothe your muscles.

Some outdoor hot springs, called rotenburo, come with wonderful views, from secluded seaside baths to private mountainside springs. There’s nothing more relaxing than gazing out at the scenery from a hot bath with just the sounds of the wind in the trees and the gently bubbling water.

Hot springs are a great way to warm up in winter after a snowshoe trek or a day skiing the slopes—the heat seems to soak right into the bones. Many of the campsites and inns within Japan's national parks have indoor or outdoor hot springs.

Enjoy the benefits of hot-spring bathing

Bathing in Japan’s National Parks

There are many hot spring resorts and towns within Japan’s national parks, offering accommodation and relaxation after a day of exploring the great outdoors. There are simply too many to mention, with thousands spanning from Hokkaido to southern islands in Kyushu. 

In Hokkaido, Akan-Mashu National Park has several hot spring resorts, including Kawayu Onsen and Akanko Onsen, which serve as excellent bases for exploring nearby lakes and peaks. Shikotsu-Toya National Park, conveniently located an hour's drive from Sapporo, has several active volcanoes that heat the area's springs. Shikotsu Onsen on Lake Shikotsu and Noboribetsu Onsen near Jigokudani (Hell Valley) attract many visitors.

Tohoku's Towada-Hachimanta National Park spreads across Aomori, Akita and Iwate prefectures in northern Honshu. The Hachimantai region is one of Japan's most famous volcanic areas, with numerous hot springs. One of the area’s highest altitude hot springs is Toshichi Onsen in Iwate 1,400 meters above sea level, near the top of Mount Hachimantai. 

In Japan's Kanto region, Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma, within Joshin'etsukogen National Park, is one of the most famous hot spring resorts in Japan, at the base of Mount Kusatsu-Shirane. Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park covers the famous hot spring areas of the Izu Peninsula and Hakone, to the Fuji Five Lakes. If your dream is to soak while gazing at Mount Fuji, this is your chance.

Unusual hot spring experiences

Not all hot springs are wet or involve soaking your whole body. Sand baths are a popular way to relax tired muscles without getting naked. Steam from underground hot springs heats the sand above, creating a warm, sandy experience by the seaside. After a day exploring Mount Kaimondake—a Mount Fuji lookalike—head to Ibusuki in Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park to be gently buried in hot sand.

Footbaths, or ashiyu, are a relief for weary hikers and are usually free. It’s a good idea to carry a small hand towel or handkerchief to dry off after soaking your feet. You can try foot baths in many hot spring resorts including Kawayu Onsen in Akan-Mashu National Park, Akakura Onsen in Myoko-Togakushi renzan National Park, and along the Oyunuma River in Shikotsu-Toya National Park.

Did you know you can cook in a hot spring? The thermal waters are the ideal temperature for steaming vegetables and boiling eggs. Soft boiled eggs, called onsen tamago, are a popular feature at many hot spring resorts. Try them at Yunomine Onsen in Wakayama, in Yoshino-Kumano National Park, where the eggs are cooked in a small spring called Yuzutsu.

Tsuronoyu Onsen in Towada-Hachimantai National Park

Spiritual beginnings

Bathing can be a relaxing ritual, but onsen bathing also has spiritual origins in Japan, with deep connections to Shinto and Buddhism. Both beliefs strongly emphasize purification, from the Shinto concept of misogi, a purification practice of washing the body, to the Buddhist bathing rituals of monks and pilgrims before praying. 

Yunomine Onsen on the sacred Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route in Wakayama, located in Yoshino-Kumano National Park, is believed to be one of Japan’s oldest hot springs and has been a center for spiritual bathing rituals for over 1,000 years. Pilgrims would rest and bathe here before they worshipped at Kumano Hongu Taisha Shrine. There is a public bath in the town that you can reserve for up to 30 minutes. This small stone hot spring bath, called Tsuboyu, is the first public bath registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Enjoy hot springs in all seasons

Bathing Benefits

There are said to be many health benefits from bathing in natural hot springs. The most obvious is relaxation. Nothing relaxes the mind and soothes weary muscles like a hot bath—just look at the serene faces of the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Yaen-Koen in Nagano. Taking a bath a few hours before bed promotes deep sleep, and bathing in hot water helps improve blood circulation. Symptoms of rheumatic diseases may be eased, as the hot water blocks pain, and the experience of buoyancy takes the stress off joints.
 
Almost every hot spring you visit will tout its healing properties, depending on the minerals contained in the waters. Common minerals include sulfur, which is said to be good for skin conditions thanks to its antifungal and antibacterial properties, and silica, which is said to smooth and soften the skin. Other minerals you might find include calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium. While the purported benefits of some of these minerals may be hard to prove, there is a lot to be said for a quiet soak away from digital devices and the endless news cycle.

Note that although anecdotal evidence has shown that onsen bathing can alleviate some symptoms of diseases and ease pain, soaking in hot springs should not replace conventional medical care. Consult your doctor before bathing in a hot spring if you have a serious medical condition.

Hot spring basics

It’s natural to feel a little awkward the first time you bathe in a hot spring, but a little prior knowledge will ease those concerns. Firstly, men and women bathe separately (except at specific outdoor hot springs, where bathing suits or towels are permitted). Yes, you will be naked. There is usually a changing room where you can put your clothes in a basket before moving to the bath area.
 
Before entering the bath, you should wash thoroughly, using the hand showers and soap. Be careful to rinse off well and not let any soap pollute the bathwater. You can take the small towel with you into the bath, but do not let it touch the water–some people balance it on their head. The water will probably be hotter than you expected, so ease in slowly and relax, without splashing or swimming. Generally, visible tattoos are not permitted in public hot springs, but some private facilities that are more flexible.

Written by Kirsty Munro

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