Nine Places to Experience Traditional Onsen

by Luke - TripleLights travel specialist

Are you looking to experience Japanese traditional bathing customs on your trip to Japan? Onsen can be found in many places and easily enjoyed. Often in areas with stunning views of mountains or countryside, here are nine of the best hot springs in Japan, for you to enjoy on your trip:

Manza Onsen (Gunma)

Nine Places to Experience Traditional Onsen

(image by flickr.com)

Within Joshin'etsukogen National Park, Manza Onsen is Japan’s highest mountain hot spring village that is located at an altitude of 1800m. In summer, it is a resort area that doesn’t need air conditioning, in autumn it has the changing leaves, and it has skiing in winter so that the area is lively with tourists all year round. The source spring has a plentiful daily output of 5.4 million liters per day and is a sulfur spring which has a high temperature of around 80 degrees C. It is known as the spring which has the highest concentration of sulfur in Japan. The hydrogen sulfide that is included in the sulfur is beneficial for improved blood circulation, and at altitudes higher than 1000 meters, the heart rate goes up and the metabolism becomes energized.

The water quality and the mountain climate have a double benefit only found at Manza Onsen. The 8 accommodations found all over the area each have onsen with their own character. At Manza Hotel Juraku, there is an open-air bath where you can view the symbol of Manza Onsen, the “karabuki” jets. The “karabuki” is located at the entrance of the Manza Plateau where steam created from the rain water soaked into the ground and underground water erupts from the craters. The cloudy steam emanating from the barren rocky crags is just like the force from an active volcano. The many open-air baths with superb views is one of the attractions at Manza Onsen. The Gokurakuyu of the long-established ryokan, Nisshinkan; the famous rock garden open-air bath at the Manza Kogen Hotel; the Komakusa-no-Yu at the Manza Prince Hotel and other onsen with their surprising spaciousness and views of starry skies just feel like being above the clouds.

On your way to Kusatsu from Manza, there is Mt. Shirane. Near the peak at 2160m, you’ll find Lake Yugama which is a crater lake with beautiful cobalt-blue water which makes for the best sightseeing spot. It is said to be the world’s most acidic lake with a diameter of 300m and a depth of 30m. It’s worth it to make that extra trip to see it.

Admission: Various

Guidebook from Planetyze about Manza Onsen
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Manza Onsen
Tours of Manza Onsen

Kusatsu Onsen (Gunma)

Nine Places to Experience Traditional Onsen

(image by flickr.com)

Yubatake is the symbol of Kusatsu. Located in the center of the onsen town, the spring water comes out at 4000L/min. The central Yubatake packs quite an impact, and with the steam, the smell of sulfur and yukata-garbed people strolling while carrying hand towels, the entire town takes on that onsen atmosphere. At night, Yubatake is all lit up so the onsen town is alive with activity the whole day and night. And only at Kusatsu Onsen can you find 13 public baths. The small bathhouses that are free for both town residents and tourists are carefully managed by the townspeople themselves. The appearance of the waters range from cloudy to clear since the source springs that the baths rely upon are different. There are even bathhouses between ryokan and behind souvenir shops so it’s fun to take a stroll and search them out. When you come to Kusatsu, please drop by Netsunoyu where the famous Yumomi show is performed.

The waters of Kusatsu are extremely hot so it has been a long custom to stir them 4 times a day through the use of wooden planks. This Yumomi (stirring of the bathwater) at Netsunoyu is a recreation of an ancient custom which can be appreciated. And visitors can also try Yumomi on weekends and holidays so please give it a shot. Currently, the facility is under renovation although it was open temporarily on April 29th 2015. [AI1] Also, at Chiyonoyu, you can try a bathing method known as “jikan-yu”. After you get into the tub whose water has been cooled down via the Yumomi, you pour water over your head from 3 to 40 times [AI2] and soak in the tub in the 47-48 C degree water for 3 minutes. At this time, the bath leader will call out a set of orders to which guests will respond heartily.  This is a traditional way to take a bath that has been passed down to Kusatsu, a town which has become specialized in hot spring cures. 

Admission: Various

Guidebook from Planetyze about Kusatsu Onsen
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Kusatsu Onsen
Tours of Kusatsu Onsen

Ikaho Onsen (Gunma)

Nine Places to Experience Traditional Onsen

(image by flickr.com)

The Ishidan stone stairway is symbolic of Ikaho Onsen which has a history of more than 400 years. There are 365 steps to signify “a street that is alive with activity throughout the year”. Right by the entrance to the stairway on the right is Ishidan-no-Yu, a warehouse-like public bath with reasonable prices. Ikaho Onsen has been called Kogane-no-Yu (The Golden Waters), but the waters used to be clear and colorless. However, due to the iron content, they turned dark brown when in contact with the air. They are also known as Kodakara-no-Yu (Child Waters) since they tend to be mild, warm the body from inside and are popular with women.

Gunma Prefecture is ranked No. 1 in the country for its production of konnyaku (yam cakes), and tama konnyaku (yam balls) steeped with the flavor of soy sauce is perfect. And then there is the irresistible onsen manju (bean paste-filled cakes at a hot spring) of Ikaho. The brown and lustrous manju became a household word around Japan when it was presented to the Imperial Family. The cakes whose skin was made brown after the color of Kogane-no-Yu are also called Yu-no-Hana (Blossom of the Waters) manju, and the area has become known as the birthplace for onsen manju. There have also long been a number of amusements of a Japanese hot spring town to be enjoyed at Ishidan. You can try target practice with a bow, ring toss and shuriken among other things so that adults can feel like kids again. There is also a free foot bath in the middle of the steps when you get tired from walking up Ishidan. The Tatsu-no-Yu (Dragon Waters) at Kishigon Ryokan can even be used by non-guests so it’s the ideal bath to pep up your feet. At the top of the stairs, there is Ikaho Shrine. Surrounded by trees, it stands quietly above all of the bustle of Ishidan below.

Admission: Various

Guidebook from Planetyze about Ikaho Onsen
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Ikaho Onsen
Tours of Ikaho Onsen

Nyuto Onsen Village (Akita)

Nine Places to Experience Traditional Onsen

(image by flickr.com)

This group of 7 onsen that is situated at the foot of Mt. Nyuto in Towada-Hachimantai National Park is known as the Nyuto Onsen Village and has a history that stretches from the Edo Era. Surrounded by a primeval Japanese beech forest, the area has the attraction of being able to enjoy an onsen while taking a peaceful walk in the summer and admiring the fall colors and winter snowscapes. Having an onsen holiday in the middle of an unexplored area all throughout the four seasons makes for an exceptional experience within a simplicity of Mother Nature that can only be found in the Tohoku region.

Each of the 7 springs at Nyuto Onsen Village has a source spring with its own qualities and effects. The popular tour of the springs celebrates the very distinctive character of the springs. You can also enjoy a day trip to the village, but when you purchase a Spring Tour ticket booklet for 1500 yen that is restricted to guests staying overnight, you can easily enjoy the tour of the 7 springs. Plenty of accommodations exist at each hot spring: Tsurunoyu is the oldest of the 7 onsen with an honorable history as the bath for the feudal lord of Akita Prefecture, Taenoyu which serenely stands along a mountain stream, the secluded spring of Kuroyu Onsen at the back of the village which has existed since the Edo Era, Ganiba Onsen which is located up to 50 meters away from the inn in the middle of a primeval beech forest, the unique and nostalgic Ogama Onsen which has been set up inside a wooden school building that was moved to the area, Magoroku Onsen which is an old and simple hot spring health resort that has been called “the medicinal waters of the mountain”, and Kyukamura Nyuto Onsen Village where you can comfortably spend time in a newly-renovated facility in the middle of a natural forest. You can search for that inn of your choice and forget about the everyday and relax body and soul as you enjoy the spring tour while dining on the regional cuisine of Akita.

Admission: Various

Guidebook from Planetyze about Nyuto Onsen Village
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Nyuto Onsen Village
Tours of Nyuto Onsen Village

Tamagawa Onsen (Akita)

Nine Places to Experience Traditional Onsen

(image by upload.wikimedia.org)

The term, “touji” or hot-spring cure refers to entering an onsen to cure any illness. At Tamagawa Onsen, people have come from all over Japan to find those benefits. It has the highest flow rate of water of any onsen at one place in the country, and soaking in its baths has the famous effect of a stinging sensation due to the high acidity of 1.2ph. Within the onsen, along with the bath fed by a source spring that has the highest stinging sensation of 100%, there is also a bath which has water diluted to a mild 50%, the Utase-yu Bath that has a massaging effect, the Ne-yu Bath where you can lie down in shallow waters and many other variations. There is no concrete basis for the baths being a cure-all, but it is believed that the effect of the elements in the onsen improves immunity and healing power.

At Tamagawa Onsen which is in the middle of nature in Towada-Hachimantai National Park, one highlight is the dynamic landscape nearby of bubbling hot springs. On the Tamagawa OnsenNature Trail, you can view the appearance of the source springs bubbling away on the sides of the trail. Also, in the rocky areas, you can enjoy a stone sauna from the thermal heat given off by volcanic activity. Freely choose the heated area, lay down a blanket and then lie down with a towel acting as a pillow. Relax as the energy of the earth fills your whole body. However, don’t forget to bring the blanket and towel for the sauna since no rentals are available.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 600 / Child: ¥ 300

Guidebook from Planetyze about Tamagawa Onsen
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Tamagawa Onsen
Tours of Tamagawa Onsen

Ureshino Onsen (Saga)

Nine Places to Experience Traditional Onsen

(image by upload.wikimedia.org)

Ureshino has flourished for its onsen accommodations since the 1800s. The silky waters ofUreshino Onsen come from a sodium bicarbonate spring rich in sodium. Sebum and skin secretions are emulsified and washed away leaving shiny and smooth skin which has made the town one of Japan’s top 3 places for beauty-enhancing water. But there are many other enjoyable places aside from the hot springs. At the Ninja Village Hizen Yume Kaido which recreates the Nagasaki Kaido road from the early Edo Era, the ninja houses and performances are popular. There is the Namazu Shrine within Toyotama-hime Shrine where a white catfish is enshrined as the divine messenger for Princess Toyotama. It is popular among women since the catfish is known to be lucky for beautiful skin. Zuiko-ji Temple is a place that was built 620 years ago and has a venerable history where a wooden statue of the Amida Nyorai created by the sculptor Unkei is enshrined. At Todoroki-no-Taki Park, there is a lovely 3-tiered waterfall which is 11 meters in height. If you are tired, take a break at Siebolds Foot Bath. The promenade which spans 2 km in total along the Ureshino River has beautiful cherry trees in spring, and in the fall, the area is painted in the colors of the season which makes it the ideal walking path. And at Hizen Yoshida Ware Pottery, there are many workshops where you can obtain a rich selection of pottery.

Also known as a tea-growing region that boasts one of the nation’s largest amounts of production, there are tea shops and places that use tea in their food menus and sell souvenirs everywhere in the area. You will want to taste the refined hand-picked gyokuro tea and the pan-roasted tamaryoku tea, one of the original Japanese teas whose leaves are directly roasted at a temperature of 400 degrees C. As well, the Ureshino specialty of onsen-yu dofu (hot spring water tofu) which has been gently stewed in the waters of the Ureshino hot springs is food that is also easy on the body. This can be tasted at any restaurant and Japanese inn.

Admission: Various

Guidebook from Planetyze about Ureshino Onsen
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Ureshino Onsen
Tours of Ureshino Onsen

Hakone Hot Springs (Hakone)

Nine Places to Experience Traditional Onsen

(image by flickr.com)

Hakone is a town of hot springs with a long history where you can enjoy looking at Mount Fuji while bathing in hot springs surrounded by nature. Because Hakone offers hot springs for resting, skin beauty, curing and much more, baths can also be selected by your bathing purpose. Whether you make it a day trip or decide to stay at an inn, there are numerous ways of enjoying Hakone.

There are numerous ways to enjoy Hakone where the 25,000 tons of warm water that flows daily from hot springs tabs are supplied to spas, resort facilities and hot springs inns. Hakone features many tourist attractions in addition to the hot springs: You can take a ride on the mountain railway train, a gondola lift or a cable car for a magnificent view of Mount Fuji and the national park, or you could visit tourist facilities such as museums and gardens, or you could participate in various seasonal events. Hakone is a diverse region; since the atmosphere and tourist attractions largely differ among the various areas of Hakone.

Admission: ¥ 800 - ¥ 1950 

Guidebook from Planetyze about Hakone Hot Springs
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Hakone Hot Springs
Tours of Hakone Hot Springs

Yamato-no-yu (Narita)

Nine Places to Experience Traditional Onsen

(image by Yamato-no-yu)

Yamato-no-yu is located near Narita Airport and Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple. You can get a full view of a rural landscape in front of your eyes, and beyond there, you can see Inba Marsh and Mt. Fuji. The facility is 3 storeys tall to realize the best scenery. The A and B areas switch between men and women on a daily basis so you are able to enter either area. Starting with the open-air baths where you can get a full view of Inba Marsh, you can enjoy relaxation through amenities such as the cypress bath, a jacuzzi, the large sauna and the radiant bath which features tiled beds to warm the body. The 100% natural hot spring contains Kuroyu water which has the color of coffee, a special characteristic to this area. Originating from what is called a moor spring, the plant-based mild water is very easy on the skin. Because of the water’s high permeability through the skin, blood circulation is sped up resulting in faster warming of the body. It’s a superior bath which is effective for skin diseases and joint pain.

There is a sushi bar and a counter providing Japanese cuisine available while you enjoy viewing the scenery. There are plenty of options for semi-private dining and all sorts of private rooms. There is an outdoor bath with 3 exclusive rooms where you can leisurely enjoy a meal and take a bath while viewing the rural landscape. It is exactly like a private adult hideaway. There is also a gymnasium and an indoor pool, and spa treatment after getting refreshed. You can also relax while listening to music in individual rooms which place an emphasis on privacy. There are no tatami rooms as in regular Japanese onsen or rooms where you can lie down and watch TV, children under 6 years of age are not allowed to enter the facility and there is no smoking allowed anywhere so it is like coming to a resort area while being in Japan. 

Admission: ¥ 700

Guidebook from Planetyze about Yamato-no-yu
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Yamato-no-yu
Tours of Yamato-no-yu

Yumoto Onsen (Nikko)

Nine Places to Experience Traditional Onsen

(image by upload.wikimedia.org)

This is a precious place where you can witness hot springs in the bubbling source spring area. It takes 70 min. by bus from Nikko Station. Once you enter Oku-Nikko and leave the lake and forest, there is a calm and relaxing onsen town. With 23 types of accommodation, there are riverside hotels, Japanese-style inns, pensions, B&Bs and other various types of lodgings. A lot of facilities are also available where you can do a day trip and take a bath. A special feature of the onsen is the richness of the sulfur. The rich sulfur that is 4th in Japan gets into your pores and blood vessels so that circulation improves and is effective for 20 conditions including skin diseases and sensitivity to cold. First, try out the Yumoto Onsen area. From the Onsen Temple deep within the onsen town, it takes 3 minutes on foot on the wooden path at Yu-no-Daira Marsh. All around you, the steam rises along with the smell of sulfur and you begin to see several small shacks. In the shacks, the source spring is bubbling away and because of the danger, you cannot see inside. Around you are white hazy puddles. They are warm to the touch. Not only Yumoto Onsen, but Kotoku Onsen and Chuzenji Onsen are supplied with hot water from the source spring. There is also a free foot bath that has opened nearby the source spring area. It’s a long building and 40 people can use it at the same time. Since it has a roof, you can use it even on rainy days. Giving the foot bath a try is great. After a walk, it’s ideal to take away the fatigue. Don’t forget a towel. The facility is closed during winter (December-March).

There is a branch temple to the World Heritage Site Mt. Nikko Rinno-ji Temple with an onsen called Mt. Nikko Onsen-ji. It was once called Yakushi-do and has the Buddha of Healing placed there with the benefit of “health promotion and life extension”. You cannot stay the night there, but you can take a bath. There are baths for both men and women which are big enough for up to 4 people.

Admission: ¥ 500

Guidebook from Planetyze about Nikko Yumoto Onsen
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Nikko Yumoto Onsen
Tours of Nikko Yumoto Onsen

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