Hot springs are everywhere in Japan and bathing in them is part of Japanese culture. One simply cannot visit Japan without experiencing onsen bathing.
Japan is situated in a volcanic zone, meaning that it is home to more than 25,000 naturally occurring mineral hot springs. With thousands of spa resort areas spread across Japan, each with numerous public baths and ryokan (traditional inns), hotels, bed and breakfasts, roten-buro (the more traditional outdoor baths), and indoor baths, it is understandable that onsen (hot springs) are part of the Japanese way of life. There are many bene ts to the hot springs, including relaxation and other physical health benefits—like a boost for the immune system and a decrease in in ammation-related conditions, skin conditions like dermatitis and various musculoskeletal conditions (balneotherapy, the use of bathing as a form of medical treatment, is widely practiced in Japan).
Onsen resorts use water that comes from geothermally heated hot springs, and that ranges in temperature from 20 degrees C (68 F) to almost 100 C (211 F), with typical temperatures being in the (hot!) range of 40 to 44 C. Onsen waters also come in a wide variety of colours such as clear, grey, green and black, and different waters boast different healing and therapeutic properties. Whether you prefer to soak in the relaxing waters while enjoying stunning views of Mt. Fuji, taking in the sight of a dramatic river gorge, lying on the beach in a hot sand bath, relaxing after a hard day on the slopes, enjoying a busy public bathing facility or just immersing yourself in a more private ryokan bath, there is an onsen experience for just about everybody to enjoy.
The symbol (at the top of this page) that looks like a steaming cauldron marks the presence of an onsen on both signs and on maps. Sometimes the simpler hiragana character ゆ (yu), understandable to younger children, is used.
Given the sheer volume of onsen in Japan, it is impossible in an article of this size to make mention of all of them. The criteria for the onsen mentioned in this article are that they are all Meitou, meaning that they are all famous onsen with long histories.
Kusatsu – Gunma
Photo ©Kusatsu Onsen Tourism Association / ©JNTO
The 2nd & 3rd Photo ©Gunma Prefecture/©JNTO
Kusatsu Onsen is one of the most famous hot spring resorts in all of Japan. Kusatsu is well-known for the health benefits of its waters—they are of exceptional quality with potent antibacterial and spiritual properties. The secret is the strong acidity of the spring water, which can be experienced with the agari-yu style of bathing. The scenic Yubatake (hot water field) is the resort’s main source of spring water. The hot water is cooled down using large wooden paddles accompanied with folk songs and dance in a water beating process known as Yumomi (pictured in the middle left photo). Kusatsu Onsen is also famous for its unique bathing method of jikan-yu (timed bathing—for three minutes) at very high temperatures (48 degrees C!).
Beppu – Oita
Photos ©Promotion Airport Environment Improvement Foundation / ©JNTO
Beppu Onsen is a group of hot springs in the city of Beppu, Oita Prefecture, on Japan’s Kyushu Island. There are eight distinct hot spring areas in Beppu Onsen, known as Beppu Hatto. What makes Beppu’s hot springs truly unique is the sheer volume of the spring water, second in the world only to Yellowstone National Park in the United States.
The eight hot spring areas are: Beppu Onsen, closest to the town centre; Horita Onsen, a rustic hot spring resort; Hamawaki Onsen, the birthplace of the Beppu Onsen, and home to a modern multi-purpose health facility; Kankaiji Onsen, the hot spring with the most beautiful natural scenery; Kannawa Onsen, with narrow winding streets and steaming hot springs; Myoban Onsen, a small, quiet mountain resort with mud and milk baths, all with a distinctive strong sulphuric odor; Shibaseki Onsen, designated as a national health resort with its steam bath along a mountain stream; and Kamegawa Onsen, known for its open-air sand bathing near the ocean as well as its rustic scenery. Sand bathing is one experience that you should not miss out on if you visit the Beppu Onsen. After you shower and don the traditional yukata (light bathhouse coat), proceed to the beach where you will be buried up to your neck in steaming-hot black sand. After 15 or so minutes, you emerge from the sand and shower off, reborn and reinvigorated.
Also famous at the Beppu Onsen: eggs that are boiled in the spring water for the most delicious salty flavour!
Hakone – Kanagawa
Photo © Odakyu electric Railway / ©JNTO
Photo ©Yasufumi Nishi / ©JNTO
Hakone is in Japan’s Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, in the southwestern part of Kanagawa. It is only a short (45 minutes by bullet train) and easily accessible trip away from bustling Tokyo, but the serene onsen resort and majestic views of Mt. Fuji that Hakone offers seem like a world apart from city life.
The town of Hakone is a popular holiday resort, in part because of its proximity to the big city, and it has been famous for its hot springs, nicknamed “Hakone Seventeen Spas,” for centuries.
Today, there are more than a dozen bubbling hot springs that provide water to the numerous bathhouses and ryokan in the Hakone region. Lake Ashinoko (Lake Ashi), where Mt. Fuji can be seen towering in the background, is the symbol of Hakone.
There are a number of hot spring facilities lining the shores of mostly undeveloped Lake Ashi, where bathers can relax while enjoying stunning views. Yumoto, at the entrance to the Hakone area, near Odawara, is perhaps Hakone’s most famous hot spring, with particularly high-quality waters and numerous baths and accommodations. Many of the ryokan in the Hakone area open their baths to daytime visitors as well as paying guests. Outside of the Yumoto area, other popular hot spring resorts include Kowakudani, which offers both a water park area and more traditional hot spring bath area, and Sengokuhara, with views of Mt. Fuji from the upscale Hakone Green Plaza hotel’s outdoor baths. Kai Hakone, a high-design Hoshino hotel resort and thermal spa on the banks of the Sukomo River, is a modern take on the more traditional country-like baths that can be found in Hakone.
Dogo – Ehime
Dogo Onsen is located to the east of central Matsuyama, and, with over 3,000 years of history, is one of Japan’s oldest and most famous hot spring resorts. Beautiful bath-houses and ryokan abound in Dogo, one of the preferred hot spring destinations for prestigious Japanese families. Dogo Onsen Honkan, a bathhouse standing in the middle of the Dogo Onsen district, is a designated National Important Cultural Property and has been awarded three stars in the Michelin Green Guide.
Echigo-Yuzawa-Onsen in Niigata is a winter sport destination that boasts a number of hot springs to help soothe tired muscles after a day of skiing, hiking or fishing. The Iwa-no-yu hot spring is located close to the Yuzawa Fishing Park, the Shukuba-no-yu hot spring is near the Tashiro Ski Resort, and the Kaido-no-yu hot spring boasts a spectacular heated outdoor bath. Kannakkuri is the name of the foot-spa on Yuzawa Street and is free for everybody to use.
Naruko – Miyagi
Naruko Onsen is located approximately 70 kilometres from Sendai and is two kilometres away from one of the most scenic gorges in the Tohoku region of Japan. Autumn leaf viewing is one of the more popular activities in this area, as are hiking, skiing and camping. There are five hot spring areas in Naruko, each of them featuring baths with different properties and touted health benefits.
Noboribetsu – Hokkaido
Photo: Noboribetsu Tourist Association / ©JNTO
Noboribetsu, in the Shikotsu-Toya National Park, is Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring resort. Most of the nine different kinds of thermal waters in Noboribetsu originate from the spectacular Jigokudani, or “Hell Valley,” that lies just above the town of Noboribetsu Onsen and is famous for its natural beauty paired with hot steam vents, sulphurous streams and other volcanic activity.
1. Take it all off
Guests must remove their clothes in the appropriate change room before entering the hot spring area. No swim- suits allowed! While some baths have become more welcoming of inked-up tourists, beware that many still frown upon tattoos, with their symbolic link to organized crime in Japan, and you should be prepared to cover up with a bandage or towel in the event that you are allowed entrance.
2. Rince off before going in
Before entering the baths, guests must clean their bodies, preferably with soap and warm water. Oftentimes, stools and detachable showerheads are provided for the comfort of bathers. It is taboo to enter the waters dirty and all soap must be rinsed o too. Bring your own soap, shampoo and towel just in case!
3. Do not soak your towel
At many of the hot springs, guests must take special care to not let their towels touch the waters inside of the baths (some onsen do allow guests to bring towels in with them but, if not stated, assume that this is not allowed). Many bathers will leave their towels on the side or else will fold them and rest them on top of their heads.
4. Never swim or jump
While most frequent visitors have probably tried swimming in the pools when they think that nobody is watching, this is also an onsen etiquette no-no. No swimming allowed!
5. Wipe off excess water
Before entering the change rooms, guests should use their towels to wipe off excess water from their bodies. This helps keep the floors cleaner and less slippery.
1. Onsen Tamago
Onsen tamago, meaning “hot spring egg,” is a traditional Japanese low-temperature egg that is boiled in hot spring water to create creamy, silky egg whites and custard-like firm yolks. These eggs are perfectly poached inside of their shells.
A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn. More than simply a place to sleep, ryokan offer a glimpse into a traditional Japanese lifestyle and hospitality. Many have their own Japanese-style baths as well as tatami floors, futons and top-notch cuisine.
A yukata is a comfortable, lightweight cotton robe—a casual version of the kimono—that is often the dress code at ryokan and at many onsen. A yukata also absorbs remaining moisture after exiting the waters to keep bathers dry.
An ashiyu is basically a bath for your feet and lower legs. “Half immersion bathing” is said to be good for your health as it does not put as much stress on your heart and lungs as full-body onsen bathing.
Once more the norm than the exception, konyoku, or mixed-gender bathing, is now only found in remote locations. Tokyo and other urban centres have outlawed konyoku, though there still are some konyoku in public locations that require bathers to don bathing suits.