If you’re going on a trip to Japan, you’re going to want to take some time to relax. Few, if any, cultures know how to relax in style like the Japanese. Japan’s spas and skincare are famous around the world for their great results. At the heart of that reputation is the Japanese onsen.
An onsen is an inn that allows you to bathe in the hot springs that dot the geography of Japan. Going to a hot spring town means that you get to soak in naturally curative thermal waters. It’s said to improve circulation, skin, and promote relaxation.
Are Onsens Just Natural Hot Springs?
To a point, one might assume so, but you’d be wrong. The term “onsen” is actually carefully guarded by Japanese law. It’s defined as a very specific type of water, which tend to have resorts called ryokan built around them. There are hot springs out there that are not onsen, but there are no onsens that are not hot springs.
For water to be onsen water, the Japanese Hot Springs Act states that it must be “hot water, mineral water, and water vapor or other gas (excluding natural gas of which the principal component is hydrocarbon) gushing from underground”.
The law states that mineralized hot spring water that feeds an onsen must be at least 24 °C (75 °F) originating at a depth of at least 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi), and contain specified amounts of minerals such as sulphur, sodium, iron, or magnesium.”
Onsens aren’t just the water, either. It’s a term for resorts that are built around the hot springs. So, saying that you’re visiting onsens can also mean you’re visiting a hot spring resort or hot spring towns in Japan.
Japanese culture has a lot of specific bathing styles, expectations, and experiences tied to them. Hot spring baths can be anywhere, but only on a Japan trip can you find an onsen.
Why Visit The Onsens In Japan?
A better question would be, why wouldn’t you want to? Onsens are a very uniquely Japanese treat. For centuries, Japanese people would bathe in the natural hot springs fueled by the island nation’s volcanic activity.
The minerals and heat of the natural springs keeps the water pristine. Over the years, they’ve also been said to offer curative properties. Better skin, less joint pain, and lower stress? It’s all just a hot spring bath away. The natural views and amazing memories are just a bonus.
The Best Onsens In Japan
Ready to soak in some knowledge about the best onsen resorts in Japan? Let’s dive right in!
If there was ever an onsen town that truly shown above the rest, it’s Kusatsu. There are 13 free Kutatsu onsen baths within town—and almost all of the are free. For centuries, people came to the Kusatsu onsen resorts to cure lovesickness, a broken heart, and more physical ailments.
Once you dip into the milky white waters, you’ll understand why. It’s a bit of a hike from Tokyo, but you’ll be taken aback by the incredible views and luxury surrounding the area. It’s also home to two different traditional bathing styles exclusively local to the area: jikan-yu and yumomi.
This is the onsen that put Gunma prefecture on the map. Once you visit, you’ll understand why.
Are you looking for a less traditional onsen that offers beautiful views of forests, streams, and more? The town of Hakone has onsen resorts that will whet your appetite. These resorts are generally gender-segregated, offering a level of privacy that many onsen towns can’t afford.
Here, you don’t have to book a hotel to access the baths. You do, however, have to pay a day trip fee between 500 and 2000 yen.
If we had to pick one of the best hidden gems of the Japanese hot spring world, it’d be Beppu. Beppu onsen baths might be a little run-down at first glance, but the sheer amount of luxury activities you can find in this small town make it worth a visit.
Mud bathing, saunas, sand baths, and beautiful bathing sights make Beppu a place you’ll want to visit year-round. This resort is home to not one, not two, but eight different hot springs. Each of the springs has its own temperature and location. Better still, most houses are a quick ride from Beppu station. Nice!
You can get to Beppu via the Sonic limited express train, which tends to be a tourist attraction in and of itself.
Dogo Onsen is one of the more unique venues that you can check out. Nestled in the heart of Ehime prefecture, this resort is one of Japan’s oldest onsen bathhouses still operating today. At the heart of this town is the Dogo Onsen Honkan, the most prestigious resort in ryokan history.
If you’ve ever watched the smash hit movie Spirited Away, you’ll be happy to hear tthat Dogo Honkan was rumored to be the inspiration for many of its scenes. This bath house is also a location occasionally visited by the Imperial Family. So, expect to be treated like royalty here!
As far as resort towns go, it’s very hard to ignore Kurokawa. This town is filled with traditional inns, ryokan, and public baths designed with natural beauty in mind. While many other resort towns are lined with neon signs and the hustle of the city, Kurokawa’s onsens are done in traditional Japanese style.
Expect lots of wooden buildings, steaming water with healing properties, and views that make you feel like you are right in the heart of Edo Japan. Since this is one of the most traditional onsen towns in Japan, you will probably see Japanese people dressed in yukata here. It’s just that kind of place.
If you are vacationing in Yamagata prefecture, then you might as well go to a place where water quality is king. Ginzan onsen is a town that is rich with wooden bathhouses and classic views not unlike Kurokawa’s.
Ginzan’s claim to fame is their gas lamps, which give the city a uniquely aesthetic, warming glow at night. Many anime fans believe that this place also may have had something to do with Spirited Away. If you’re a fan of art, this onsen will also thrill you. It’s a hotspot for Kote-e pictures!
Are you ready to travel right to the heart of Hokkaido? This laid back prefecture is a perfect getaway for people who want to soak in Japan’s culture in a slightly less traditional atmosphere. Noboribetsu onsen is known for being the most popular and well-known resort town in Hokkaido—and for good reason.
You can choose from the classic milky-white sulfur baths, or try a different pool. There are plenty to choose from here. Because of the variety of baths and the amenities, Noboribetsu ranks as one of the top 10 onsens in Japan year after year.
This onsen is pretty easy to get to. All you need to do is hop on the Hokuto Limited Express train to Noboribetsu station, and you’re right there.
While every onsen offers some serious access to hot water, Hakone is unique in its reputation as a “theme park onsen.” This town is famous for having hundreds of different baths to choose from, not to mention a wide range of bathing styles and amenities.
Whether you’re opting for public baths or something a little more private doesn’t matter. You’ll find the perfect style of bathing for your trip. Oh, and if you’re traveling with your partner? Couples baths are a thing here.
Kinugawa Onsen in Tochigi prefecture, and if you are looking for a place that’s super secluded, this is it. Because it’s not easy for locals to get there from Tokyo, many of the onsens in this area have been somewhat abandoned. Urbex fans will love this aspect of it.
With that said, it’s not all abandoned and it truly has some beautiful sights. Kinugawa was always somewhat out of reach. Originally, these baths were meant to be exclusive for monks thanks to their health benefits. Today, spending time here is a divine way to soothe muscle pain and worries of the world.
Gero onsen is found in Gifu prefecture, and it’s been one of the most highly documented onsens in history. During the Edo period of Japanese history, Confucian scholars often described it as one of the best onsens in Japan. Its rich history remains a major draw today.
You actually can buy a traditional onsen spa pass here. It’s still made of real wood, and yes, it’ll get you into the baths of your choice throughout the town. Since it’s close to Nagoya and Takayama, you can usually
If you are in Hyogo prefecture, you simply can’t miss a trip to Kinosaki onsen. This town is consistently ranked as number one or number two in terms of onsen quality. You get Michelin-rated views, various baths that allegedly can help nerve pain, and your choice of seven tattoo friendly baths to go to.
Fans of traditional Japanese culture and sights will enjoy Kinosaki. This is a resort town that loves to keep it real with its natural hot springs.
There are modern onsen regions, and then there are regions like Shibu. Shibu doesn’t just date back to the Edo period. These hot spring baths are over 1,300 years old and they are still in use. The hot spring town is famous for its snowy regions, hot spring water, and being a habitat to real snow monkeys.
It’s only about two and a half hours from Tokyo to Shibu, so if you’re looking for the best onsen for a day trip close to Tokyo, this might be it.