What Are The Best Onsens in Japan?
Visiting Japan, going to a hot spring, or an onsen, is something you can’t miss out on. But two things can be pretty daunting. How do you visit onsens in Japan? And, how do you chose an onsen?
In this post, I’ll take you through how to visit an onset – what not to do, and what to do, as well as have a look at some of the best onsens in Japan.
In fact, I love onsens myself and planned a whole trip in Japan around visiting the best onsens in Japan.
So, firstly, what is an onsen?
What is an Onsen in Japan?
An onsen is a natural hot spring and can be found pretty much everywhere in Japan. It’s kind of like visiting a spa or going for a spa day… But also very different. You can visit an onsen for just an hour or two, and indeed most hotels actually have an onsen on site – even if you have your own bathroom in your room.
They’re basically big communal pools usually of varying heats that everyone shares.
Onsens in Japan are same-sex only, and you shower (thoroughly) before getting in them. So it’s very clean! Onsens vary from location to location. You could go to one that has so many pools they’re impossible to visit in one day. Or you could go to one that is simply one pool indoors and you’re out again in an hour after a quick relax and refresh. Some have outdoor pools, some have indoor pools, some have both.
Others just offer hot pools, some offer really hot pools, and some also offer cold ones.
Some also offer services such as massages and scraping.
They are found in the most random locations sometimes. In the middle of a city or in the middle of nowhere. They’re all easily recognisable by this symbol…
How to Visit an Onsen
Going to an onsen in Japan is like no other experience. Even in Korea, the practices are a bit different. You’ll likely already feel pretty self-conscious being the only foreigner in the room (unless you’re going to a big, popular one), so it’s best not to stand out too much and make sure to follow the rules.
- Take your shoes off before entering.
- Hydrate beforehand.
- Put all your belongings into the locker – including ALL of your clothing. Usually, you will be given a small white towel. It’s not custom to take this… But I know some do as souvenirs as they often have the onsen name on them. I wouldn’t recommend it, since you’re not supposed to. It’s pretty much stealing. You can take your naked body and your small towel into the main onsen area with you after locking all your stuff away. No phones please! Women often wrap the small towel around their heads. (I’m not sure about men, sorry!)
- Some women bring their own washing items, including shampoo and body wash. You can bring this in with you in a small basket. Otherwise, there is usually some in supply (just make sure it’s one that belongs to the onsen and not someone else!)
- Wash beforehand. Very important. You’re about to share a big bath with everyone, you’d have hoped they all shower before you go in, so don’t contaminate it. Give yourself a good wash over. Try not to be self-conscious, and equally, try not to stare! (Although, don’t be surprised if your body is commented on by Japanese. Sometimes they can be a bit straight forward.)
- Once you’re all washed at the washing stations, then you can go into a bath. Sometimes there are multiple, and they will have different temperatures. This is usually written on the side. Go for the coolest at first to get your body used to it – and don’t stay in too long if you’re feeling too hot! You can exit and go to the cloakroom for a drink at any time.
- Be careful not to run, or shout.
- Sit calmly in the bath, talk to your fellow bathers, or just relax. Don’t play around, don’t swim.
- Don’t get your hair in the bath.
- Remember to dry yourself before you enter the cloak room. This area is dry!
- No eating or drinking in the onsen.
- Drink plenty of water afterwards to avoid de-hydration!
- If you have a tattoo, you should cover it up before entering, otherwise, you may be refused entry.
Best Onsens in Japan
This is really difficult since there are literally thousands – and sometimes the best ones are random ones you find in the middle of nowhere and you’re really not expecting. But often these are just by chance after spending a long time in Japan. But for the onsen novice, let’s take a look at some of the best that you can never go wrong with and that really isn’t to miss when you’re going to these areas in Japan.
Also, remember – Japan is massive. The best onsens in Japan can vary from place to place – and the best onsens in Japan probably won’t be in Tokyo. So it’s definitely best to take a trip out of Tokyo if you really want to visit the best onsens in Japan.
For those that can’t venture too much outside Tokyo or are on a time limit, you might want to pack your bags and go for a short trip to Kanagawa, where you’ll find one of the most famous and best onsens in Japan around Tokyo.
You can stay here overnight, and it’s only a one hour trip on the train from Tokyo. Despite its proximity with the big Japanese capital, you’ll be surrounded in peace and serenity as you look onto the mountains around you. Mt. Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain, is also in the region!
Fuji Kawaguchiko Onsen (Fuji Region)
Hanging round Fuji San (Mt. Fuji, you might want to take a visit to an onsen around Kawaguchiko. This is the lake right at the bottom of Mt. Fuji, and there are lots of bathhouses around; some giving amazing views of Mt. Fuji, others just offering a great bath-house experience when your legs are tired after the climb up and walk down Japan’s highest mountain.
Noboribetsu Onsen (Hokkaido)
Moving a bit further up north onto the island Hokkaido. One of Japan’s most famous onsens, and certainly one of the best onsens in Japan, this onsen is situated in a mountain area known as “Hell Valley”. It gets its name from the minerals in the water that paint the surrounding landscape; and it’s these minerals that offer such a health beneficial experience. There are 9 different kinds of onsens in total; sulfur, salt, aluminium etc.
Kusatsu Onsen (Gunma)
An onsen resort town and without a doubt makes it into this list of the best onsens in Japan. It’s convenient to reach as it isn’t far from Tokyo, and there are many different baths to choose from. In fact, don’t believe me. It’s frequently rated the best onsen area in Japan by Japan travel companies.
At its high altitude, combine a visit here with a ski trip and feel the wonders of the Japanese onsen after a long day skiing!
Beppu Onsen (Oita)
Now in all seriousness – there is no onsen lover who goes to Japan and doesn’t visit Beppu. Beppu is the onsen region, amongst Japanese and tourists alike. There are hundreds of onsens throughout the region, but most of them are collected into 8 different regions.
You can enjoy steam baths, mud baths, sand baths… You name it, you bathe it!
Beppu Onsen region has the highest concentration of onsens in the whole of Japan! Make sure to stay here for a few days and soak up all the sulphur you can.
Kurokawa Onsen (Kumamoto)
Outdoor baths in a very nature rich and traditional area. This onsen is great to visit if you’re on a trip to Kumatoto Castle. It’s located on the south island of Kyushu, which is certainly worth a visit if you have the time! The food and culture all change a bit, and it’s said that the people of Kyushu are very warm and friendly.
Arima Onsen (Hyogo)
Whilst we’re in Hyogo, don’t miss out on Arima Onsen, either!
If you’re in Hyogo, a region about 2 hours from Tokyo, where you’ll find Osaka and Kobe, and not far from Kyoto, pay a stop at the Arima onsen. A beautiful, traditional area where you can take a walk and pick your bath house. It’s one of the oldest onsen regions throughout Japan.
Sunamushi Onsen (Kagoshima)
Truly a different, bizarre, “this is Japan” kind of experience. This onsen experience is like no other and is on this list purely as something a bit odd and different to do apart from the rest. Instead of bathing in water here, you’ll bathe in… sand! Yes, that’s right – sand. And hot sand, at that! Head down to the beach at this onsen area and have the staff wrap you in a sand blanket (bury you in sand) where you will then remain for 10 or 15 minutes – and that’s it! Quite the experience, apparently with tons of health benefits, too!
Visiting an onsen in Japan can be daunting, but you’ll regret it if you don’t try it once.
It’s truly a wonderful and unique experience, and something I really miss about Japan!