Dreamy Hot Springs of Japan
Five minutes, well, honestly not even that long. More often just a quick dip and running out of the bath in a matter of seconds to get dressed and leave the facilities as if a mob is after me. This was how I was doing “onsen” (hot springs) in Japan when I first moved here, long before I, without even realizing it, found myself hooked on the experience and started to appreciate the onsen mania and eventually became an onsen addict.
What got me hooked – more than the healing effect of the onsen water on the body and mind – was the remarkably pleasing visual experience that most Japanese onsen offer. Take your pick: the delightful scenery sometimes comes in the form of rustic facilities tucked away in a forest, or a bare-bone onsen positioned right inside the ocean. There are even some tucked away deep in the mountains requiring a hike of 3-4 hours. Even the more luxurious ones located in high-end onsen resorts come with a satisfying level of local touch.
What is onsen?
The word onsen (温泉) means hot springs in Japanese. The country`s Hot Springs Act of 1948 defines onsen as “hot water, mineral water, water vapor, and other gas (excluding natural gas whose major component is hydrocarbons) gushing out from the ground”. The term is often used both to refer to the hot springs and the relevant facilities and the Japanese inns that offer onsen facilities. So if you hear the word onsen, it can either be just the bath with water fitting the description of the Hot Springs Act or a full-fledged accommodation facility that comes with its own onsen baths.
There are then also “onsen towns”, villages that are blessed with rich and healing waters where multiple inns and day facilities serve the visitors. Some of the most famous ones include Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture in Tohoku and Yufuin on Kyushu Island.
It is impossible to overstate the cultural importance of onsen in Japan. Visiting onsen towns is still one of the biggest drivers of the domestic tourism industry. The experience also often finds a room in some of the most exquisite pieces of Japanese literature where atmospheric onsen towns serve as the perfect backdrop for delightfully dark romance stories, social commentaries, and many other themes.
How to book an onsen stay in Japan?
Granted, booking a room in an onsen facility in Japan from abroad may be a little difficult. First of all, the facilities in popular onsen towns get booked well in advance by the locals who often reserve their rooms as soon as the bookings open. There is then the dreadful lack of easy-to-navigate (and in English) web-booking. Some facilities only accept bookings by phone whereas some others only have Japanese sites. But, fortunately, over the last few years, I noticed a remarkable increase in the number of onsen facilities that are listed on global accommodation booking platforms such as booking.com. So, things seem to be getting better.
This is a summary of some of my observations about onsen booking with the hope that it may help you in the planning process:
#1 If you are eyeing a winter visit to popular onsen villages such as Ginzan or Nyuto in the Tohoku region, trying to book months in advance is a good idea as these are very popular spots for the locals in a country where onsen visits are among the most favored tourism activities.
#2 If you cannot find a room at booking.com for your desired onsen, checking the Rakuten Travel website – not the global but Japanese version – should come in handy as more properties are listed with Rakuten and they seem to allocate more rooms to the Japan-based site. I wrote more about some practical Japan travel tips here including alternative booking options: Japan on a Budget.
#3 I have not used any of these websites but a quick Google search will bring you several sites that will act as intermediaries for booking onsen hotels in Japan with a small fee. They do all the phone calls on your behalf.
#4 Keep in mind that due to the high demand, most onsen facilities charge you not per room but per person and will require a minimum of two people booking per room. There are, however, some facilities like Aoni Onsen listed below that allow single-person booking for a minimal extra fee.
#5 Most of the onsen towns offer an onsen pass that allows you to visit multiple baths with a single pass. It comes cheaper than paying for each bath individually. And I guarantee you that, even if located in the same onsen village, each facility and each bath offers a unique experience. Nyuto Onsen located in Akita is one of those villages where you can do onsen hopping by riding the onsen shuttle. This allows you to experience the atmosphere of all the baths in town and not be limited to the ones offered by the inn where you stay.
My favorite onsen experiences in Japan
Winter is my favorite time to visit onsen towns in Japan. The warm (and more often than not almost burning) onsen water delightfully contradicts the cold and (hopefully) snowy weather outside.
Experiencing an outdoor onsen bath – referred to as rotenburo in Japanese – in the middle of a snowy forest often makes me eat my own words and think maybe Japan is picture-perfectly beautiful after all.
These are some of my favorite Japanese onsen experiences.
Nyuto Onsen in Akita Prefecture: winter dreamland
Nyuto Onsen in Akita Prefecture is a place that delivers the scenery out of the winter fairytales of our childhoods. Home to seven different onsen facilities each drawing its water from a different source, Nyuto is one of my favorite onsen villages in Japan.
The village stands out from some other famous ones such as Ginzan where facilities are lined next to each other in terms of the independent location of each inn. Each facility enjoys its secluded location in a heavily forested area while being close enough to each other allowing for a fun onsen hopping experience. There is a cute shuttle featuring a small rotenburo on its top that travels between the seven facilities for those wishing to try as many onsen as they would like.
While the old Tsurunoyu with its creamy blue waters is the most famous one, my favorite bath in the village is the Karakonoyu bath located in Ganiba Onsen. Ganiba, as an accommodation facility, feels a little too simple lacking the rustic aura of other facilities in the village but I highly recommend that you pay a visit to Karakonoyu as a day visit, you will not be disappointed.
Oceanside onsen of Yakushima: dreamy sunsets and stargazing
Hirauchi Onsen is on the southern part of Yakushima Island, which is located off the coast of Kagoshima. It is a public bath and there is no accommodation attached. You will often find yourself surrounded by locals relaxing after a day of work with their families. Due to its position right in the ocean, the small onsen baths are only accessible during low tide. Along with Karakonoyu, Hirauchi offers one of the most memorable onsen sceneries that one experience in Japan.
Dipping in Hirauchi Onsen is one of my favorite activities after a day of hiking in Yakushima. In the summer, you will often encounter locals who visit the onsen at night and spend hours in the baths chit-chatting and watching the night sky.
Aoni Onsen in Aomori Prefecture: an onsen out of a novel
I mentioned Aoni Onsen in this blog and my Substack so often that I find it difficult to find new words to describe the experience.
Just imagine a wooden rustic facility where there is no electricity but only oil lamps, four different baths each overlooking the surrounding forests of Aomori, and where almost all guests trade modern clothes with the traditional Japanese yukata – sounds like a scene from a movie taking place in Edo Era Japan – yes, that is Aoni Onsen for you. As I mentioned before, if I had to pick only one onsen in Japan that I could visit for the rest of my days, that would be Aoni Onsen in Aomori.
KAI Kirishima: subtle luxury facing an active volcano
KAI Kirishima located in Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu Island is the most luxurious experience listed in this post. A relatively new addition to the KAI sub-brand (focused on onsen experiences) of the Japanese luxury accommodation group Hoshino, KAI Kirishima directly faces the mighty and very active Sakurajima Volcano.
I was fortunate to stay at the exquisite KAI Kirishima for a writing and photography project for the Kyushu Tourism Office. Some of the upper floor rooms come with their onsen bath with floor-to-ceiling windows. For the common baths, you will need to hop on a short monorail ride (that is Japan for you!) that connects the main building to the baths.
Hokkein Onsen in Kuju Mountains: a hikers dream
Last but not least, Hokkein Onsen located in the Kuju Mountain range in Kuju-Aso National Park in Kyushu is a hiker’s dream. The onsen facility where you can also stay overnight is only accessible to those willing to hike for at least three hours in the mountains of Northern Kyushu.
Booking is only possible by phone but they will do their best to help you even in English. While the food is nothing to be excited about, the facility offers full breakfast, lunch, and dinner sets that will help you reduce your hiking load.
In a country where there are more than 3.000 onsen resorts, these are some of my favorite onsen. If you have a chance, I think visiting a local onsen is one of the best experiences one can have in Japan that is not replicable in another country.