Japan's best onsens (hot springs)

Getting naked and sharing a bath with strangers might not sound appealing to everyone, but soaking in one of Japan’s numerous natural hot spring baths (onsen) really is one of the country’s true pleasures. Here are 5 of the best…
Dogo Onsen bath house, one of the oldest bath houses in Japan. Photo: Shutterstock
Dogo Onsen bath house, one of the oldest bath houses in Japan. Photo: Shutterstock

One of the best ways to experience an onsen is to find a rotemburo, or outdoor onsen, and soak surrounded by nature – many have stunning views. There are also a few points of etiquette to remember. First, throw any inhibitions out the window and strip off. You can’t use the baths unless you are fully naked. Then, before getting into the bath, wash and rinse well at one of the stalls in the separate wash area, making sure to be entirely soap-free before easing gently into the hot communal waters. Most onsen will give you a small towel or flannel for washing and a little modesty when walking about. When you get into the bath, leave this behind or rest it on your head – it shouldn’t come into contact with the communal water.

Dogo onsen

These hot springs in Shikoku are the oldest in Japan. So old, that they are mentioned in the Manyoshu, the ancient collection of Japanese poetry (c. 759). People in Matsuyama have been coming to Dogo for many years, taking off their shoes at the entrance to the rambling three-storey castle affair topped with a white heron and leaving their clothes and cares behind as they wallow in the glory of the alkaline hot spas. It is thought that they’ve been doing so for as long as 3,000 years.

You can get a basic soak in Kaminyu for a few hundred yen. However, that would be like going to a Michelin-starred restaurant and nibbling a few breadsticks. Pay the full price and head up Dogo’s precipitous stairways to Tamano-yu. Language is not a problem as smiling ladies point the way to a private tatami room where you can leave clothes in a locker, don a yukata and head for the bath itself.

Males and females go their separate ways at this point. Then, as in all onsen, you soap and thoroughly rinse off, sitting on a little wooden stool and dousing your body from a wooden bucket. Then it’s time to lower yourself inch by inch into the waters (hot but not scalding) and let the body gradually adjust. It’s a tingling cleanliness that washes over you, penetrates beneath the skin and drowsily wafts over the mind. After 10 or 20 minutes, heave yourself out, dry off, dress and climb back up to the tatami room. The maid will pull out your sitting pillows and serve tea and marzipan balls. The balcony looks out over tiled roofs and trees, and laughter and the contented buzz of conversation drifts over the adjoining rooms. 

 Beppu onsen. Photo: Shutterstock

Beppu onsen

Beppu is a very busy spa town in Kyushu with eight different hot spring areas, each with different properties. The resort town is famous – and thus highly commercialised – for its jigoku, or variously coloured ponds of water and mud that steam and boil, as well as its hot springs. A popular destination for Japanese tourists, Beppu is gaudy and rather tacky and a far cry from the serene elegance of Japanese travel posters, but that’s all part of the experience. Besides the hype, there are other hells, more than can be experienced in a lifetime, including: Blood Pond Hell, a vermillion-coloured boiling pond; Sea Hell, a boiling mud pond 400ft (120 metres) deep; and Mountain Hell, a mud pond in the hills, complete with statues of gorillas. All these are far too hot for bathing, but in the many onsen inns, comfortable hot-sand and hot-mud baths are available.

A more serene and sophisticated hot-spring resort, Yufuin, less than an hour inland from Beppu, is known for its galleries, elegant country inns, fashionable guesthouses and the beautiful morning mists that rise from the warm, thermal waters of Lake Kinrin.  

Noboribetsu onsen

There are 11 kinds of hot spring water at this spa resort in Hokkaido, including salt (for soothing pain), iron (for relieving rheumatism) and sodium bicarbonate (to attain smoother skin). The activity here centres around the Dai-Ichi Taki-moto-kan Hotel, where 30 indoor, sex-segregated hot-spring baths, once of wood but now of marble, can hold 1,000 bathers simultaneously. There is nothing else like it.

Noboribetsu's natural foot bath.Noboribetsu's natural foot bath. Photo: Shutterstock

Naruko onsen 

This once-sacred site in Tohoku is over 1,000 years old. Originally a place to honour the gods of the hot springs, Naruko is known for its fine medicinal waters (the treatment of nervous tension is a speciality here) and the production of wooden kokeshi dolls, with ball-shaped heads and limbless cylindrical bodies. Now produced in many regions, kokeshi originated in Tohoku as a winter industry. There are five hot-spring areas here: Naruko Hot Spring, Higashi-Naruko Hot Spring, Kawatabi Hot Spring, Nakayamadaira Hot Spring and Onikobe Hot Spring.

Hakone onsen

Only a couple of hours from central Tokyo, yet rich with bubbling volcanic valleys and mountain scenery, Hakone is a very popular weekend retreat for Tokyoites. Hakone is set against the backdrop of Fuji-san and has long been a treasured place for rest and recreation. Hakone’s 16 hot springs, including Tenzan, Hakone Kamon, Hakone Yuryo, Yunosato Okada, Kappa Tengoku and Rakuyujurin Shizenjan are nestled in a shallow ravine where the Hayakawa and Sukumo rivers flow together. The inns here have a natural mineral baths, but bathing is just part of Hakone’s appeal.

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