The island nation of Japan has a deep history dating back thousands of years, and one distinct element of Japanese culture is the importance of hot springs. From soaking and bathing to cooking and healing, these onsens, which translates to hot springs, have been around for centuries.
Japan is home to extensive volcanic activity, which, over time, formed multiple geothermally heated springs packed full of minerals. While some have appeared naturally, others have been found through digging expeditions as locals began to realize their economic impact.
And with over 3000 springs located across the country, one simply cannot visit Japan without soaking in one of its thousands of naturally occurring pools.
Throughout the “Land of the Rising Sun”, visitors and locals can choose from multiple hot spring resort towns, depending on their preference. Whether it is a high-end luxurious resort or a historical small ryokan, each resort town has its own distinct features.
Here are among the best Japanese onsen (hot spring) towns, in no specific order:
Kusatsu Onsen – Gunma Prefecture
As far as Japanese hot spring resort towns go, Kusatsu, located in the Gunma prefecture of the Kantō region, has it all. Here, visitors will find the highest flowing volume of exceptional quality, hot springs water in Japan.
For those of you who feel fatigued and need to rejuvenate your body, Kusatsu Onsen proudly boasts that its onsens can heal everything, except for a broken heart. This town is famous for its two distinct styles of traditional bathing: jikan-yu and yumomi. Jikan-yu is a process in which visitors pay respect to the gods and shrines while yumomi is a traditional process of cooling the water to a suitable temperature.
There is no shortage of tourist activities while in Kusatsu as guests can participate in skiing, year-round hiking, and plentiful shopping. Make sure you visit Netsu-no-yu Bathhouse while you are there to experience the traditional yumomi performance which includes the cooling of the waters, songs, dance, and storytelling. There are three public onsen and numerous private ones in the area.
Hakone Onsen – Kanagawa Prefecture
If you’re willing to travel two hours to escape from the noise and hustle of Tokyo, Hakone, found in the Kanagawa Prefecture, is your spot. Waters from any of its seventeen hot springs will certainly help you unwind, especially since each has its own unique healing properties!
After you relax, it is time for some fun! Whether you come solo or with others, the Hakone Kowaki-en Yunessun, a hot springs waterpark, is just the place for you. Take a ride down some of the waterslides, then slip off for a tranquil soak in a traditional hot spring.
Of course, you can’t miss their specialty baths that allow guests to soak in sake, coffee, tea, or wine! And for those with tattoos, don’t worry, you can soak or swim with a rash guard.
Besides the hot springs, Hakone also has a plethora of activities ranging from the Hakone Geo Museum to Lake Ashi to traditional woodworking. Don’t forget that you can meet a geisha and see her perform traditional dances through the Meet Geisha company at the Hakone Yumoto Station.
With all there is to do in Hakone Onsen, you have your choice of escaping in solace or keeping busy with endless events, all while enjoying views of Mount Fuji.
Beppu Onsen – Oita Prefecture
The eight hot springs areas of Beppu, known as Beppu Hatto, provide tourists with a variety of bathing styles and mineral concentrations. Each of the eight onsens has its own personality and charm, so make sure you visit each one.
After a short 45-minute bus ride from Oita airport, it is time to decide whether you want to take your first bath in mud, sand, steam, or water, as each can provide different healing effects. While Onsen Hoyo Land and Takegawara onsen are great locations for a soak, if you want a bit of luxury, Tanayu will pamper you like royalty.
One of the most popular sites in Beppu is the Hells of Beppu. These hot springs are far too hot for soaking and have a reddish tint from iron. People once believed it was blood, thus matching their belief that Hell tortured people in lakes of boiling blood.
Don’t forget to see all the other attractions in Beppu including the amusement park Kijima Kogen Park which has rides for kids of all ages. For nature lovers, the Aso Kuju National Park is an amazing option to hike and see volcanoes. And after a busy day, Jigokumushi Kobo Steam Cooking Center is a wonderful place to steam your own meal from the hot spring vapors!
Yufuin Onsen – Oita Prefecture
Yufuin, the town of the morning mist, is easily one of the most tranquil spots to clear your mind and heal your soul. It is surrounded by the Kyushu Mountains and Mount Yufu, providing the town with a stunning scenic backdrop.
This small town is not very touristy and has plenty of ryokan, or hotels, for visitors to choose from. It takes a little more effort to travel to Yufuin, as it is 45 minutes from Beppu, but the journey is well worth it. One example is that while most of its hot springs are clear water, there are some pools known for their skincare properties in Yufuin that are blue.
Besides its proximity to Beppu, being in nature is one of the main attractions of Yufuin. A hike up Mount Yufu-dake, a volcano, will give you an amazing view of these two towns as well as breath-taking views of mountains, valleys, landscapes, and barren wastelands.
Take a Kanko Tsuji Basha, or horse-drawn carriage, to visit one of the many museums in Yufuin. And don’t forget to eat at some of Yufuin’s best dishes afterward including Bungo beef mabushi, p-rolls, and cheese!
Arima Onsen – Hyogo Prefecture
For those of you who love history and hot springs, here is where your two loves collide.
Arima Onsen is considered to be one of the oldest hot springs in Japan, dating over 1,300 years old. The mythological story of three hurt crows bathing in the hot springs and being healed led to future visits by nobles, samurais, and Emperors. Buddhist monks who settled in this area only helped to deepen its religious and historical importance, creating meditative and peaceful retreats for their guests.
Arima has two types of springs: golden and silver. The Golden springs (kinsen) run brownish-red and help to relax muscles and heal skin ailments. The Silver springs (ginsen) are carbonated and help to soothe hypertension and blood circulation. Both are deserving of your time and attention.
An additional few onsens to visit include Kin no Yu ( the most popular of the onsen), Kanpo no Yado Arima (the highest quality water), and Goshoboh (the oldest onsen in the area).
Arima is a wonderful place to visit Buddhist temples such as Onsen-ji Temple and Nenbutsu-ji. Then, after your busy day make sure to refresh your energy with some bubble water and Arima Teppo Water Cider made from the local springs.
Noboribetsu Onsen – Hokkaido Prefecture
Found on one of the most northern islands of Hokkaido, situated southwest of Sapporo, Noboribetsu Onsen is easily one of the top hot spring locations in Japan. Every visitor can find what they love here whether that is luxury, nature, hot springs, or attractions.
The nine onsens of Noboribetsu have different types of water containing several minerals to provide optimal healing including sulfur, salt, and aluminum. Norboribetsu means “white, muddy river” which is exactly what these springs look like.
Guests can even hike Jigokudani (Hell Valley) and visit the steaming hot river, a great place to soak tired feet. Dai-ichi Takimotokan is another huge hot spring complex you can also visit that allows guests to sip on your beer while soaking in a bath.
While hot springs may be the main focus of your visit, the Bear Park is worth checking out to see not only bear cubs but full-grown bears. Furthermore, part of the viewing room includes standing in a protected area inside the bear enclosure! These brown bears are magnificent and are revered and worshiped by the native Hokkaido people, known as the Ainu, as a god.
Kinosaki Onsen – Hyogo Prefecture
When visiting Kinosaki, imagine yourself on a beer crawl, but for hot springs! Walking onsen to onsen in a traditional yukata, or casual kimono, visitors can enjoy each of the seven unique public bathhouses Kinosaki has to offer. These public onsens are also welcoming to those with tattoos, something many hot springs do not accept due to cultural reasons.
Two notable bathhouses worth mentioning are Yangai-yu and Goshono-yu. If you choose to visit Yangai-yu bathhouse, the waters at this site are said to help with fertility and childbearing. For those looking for love, the Goshono-yu waters are rumored to boost your natural beauty and help you find your soulmate.
After enjoying these amazing hot springs, there are a variety of ways for guests to spend the rest of their time. You can easily spend the day at the beaches nearby or visit the Onsenji Temple on Mt. Daishi. Make sure you see the handmade straw crafts made by locals, a perfect souvenir to give to friends.
And being that Kinosaki is only a 2.5-hour train ride from both Kyoto or Osaka, this hot spring town makes for a quick and easy weekend retreat.
Fujikawaguchiko Onsen – Yamanashi Prefecture
Located at the base of Mount Fuji, you cannot beat these amazing views found at Fuji Kawaguchiko Onsen, especially during the spring cherry blossom season. Lake Kawaguchiko, specifically, is where the hot springs, museums, tours, and amusement parks can be found. It is also a great base for climbing Mount Fuji!
There is a plethora of ryokan and bathhouses that have indoor and outdoor bathing. The hot springs of Fuji Kawaguchiko are laden with calcium and sodium, which are excellent for soothing nerve and muscle pain as well as fatigue and sensitivity to cold.
For those looking for high0end accommodations, Hotel Konansou, although pricey, offers luxury, tradition, hot springs (private if requested), and incredible views of Mount Fuji.
Nyuto Onsen Village – Akita Prefecture
The eight ryokans of Nyuto gives visitors a traditional and rustic experience during their retreat into the mountains. The name, Nyuto Onsen, means “nipple hot spring” due to the provocative shape of Mount Nyuto nearby.
Every one of these milky blue hot springs is located in a ryokan, and therefore, you must stay as a guest in order to bathe. Most have mixed bathing areas as well as areas where the pools are separated by gender. Most ryokans also offer outdoor bathing, which allows visitors to soak in nature, even when it’s snowing!
If you can, stay at Tsurunoyu Onsen, which is the oldest ryokan of Nyuto. The absolute beauty of this onsen is certainly noteworthy and being part of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park, the natural serenity is preserved and protected.
Additionally, visitors can also take a short bus ride to Lake Tazawako, Japan’s deepest lake. There are plenty of hiking trails in the Nyuto area for you to fully immerse yourself in the tranquility of the forests.
Shibu – Nagano Prefecture
While Shibu is a small, cozy town comprised of old ryokans, what makes this location unique is the bathing snow monkeys. The Japanese Macaques roam freely around Shibu and are not known to bother humans. Jigokudani Monkey Park is an excellent way to view these creatures bathing in their natural habitat, which is particularly beautiful in winter when there is an abundance of snow.
A local myth says that if you soak in all nine of Shibu’s hot springs, good luck will come to you. There are even special clothes you can use to collect stamps as you visit each of the onsens.
The hot springs in Shibu have a rich history dating back over 400 years and including visits from poets, samurai, and priests. Taking a walk in traditional yukata and geta (wooden sandals) is encouraged as you stroll around the town visiting the public bathhouses, which are accessible to overnight guests and locals only.
Whether you are looking for a luxurious soak, a traditional performance, or wish to simply take in Japan’s unique culture, visiting any one of these hot spring towns is sure to help you relax and unwind!