The Japanese have perfected the art of visiting an onsen—a Japanese hot spring. Read on for our picks for the best Japanese Onsen.
For centuries, the Japanese have perfected the art of visiting an onsen—a Japanese hot spring. There is a theme park type of onsen, such as Norboribetsu in Hokkaido, or the small town onsen like Kurokawa in Kyushu. Some onsen provide lodging onsite, while others, like Kurokawa, require you to choose your hotel and visit up to 18 public baths.
On my first trip to Japan, I went with my wife and met her family in Tokyo. To have locals show me around and translate was the easiest way to learn about Japan. Even though I didn’t get to visit an onsen on that first trip, I fell in love with the country and its people. An onsen visit was included during the subsequent nine visits to Japan.
My First Japanese Onsen Visit
The first onsen I visited was Norboribestsu, south of Hokkaido. Our family friends drove us over the mountains and down towards the ocean. This large resort is situated next to a dormant volcano and intrigued me from the start. The modern hotel rooms were comfortable, and the soaking pools featured inside or outdoor areas. One of the most memorable aspects of my stay was an elaborate clock in the shape of a warrior’s club featuring a fantastic automated show on the hour. A piper would play a tune, and several elf-like creatures and a club-wielding troll were part of the show. Another highlight was walking around Hell Valley, the active volcano near the hot springs.
Good Advice From a Philosopher About the Japanese Onsen
By 2016, I’d been to several onsen, but the best was yet to come. In the 16th century, the poet-philosopher Hayashi Razan wrote about his top three onsen—Arima, Gero, and Kusatsu. I’ve been to all three, thanks to trips in 2017 and 2018, and I agree with the esteemed poet. Read on for my three favorite Japanese onsen.
I was excited to be able to visit two of the top three Razan onsen in one trip. It was 2017, and after a couple of days in Kanazawa, we took the train to Kyoto. From Kyoto, we hopped a bus for the 70-minute drive to Arima Onsen. We stayed at Arima Gyoen, a hotel with onsen onsite. It might seem odd to onsen newbies that the hot spring water is pumped up to the top floors of a modern hotel where two segregated pools are open most of the day and night.
High above the mountainous town of Gero is Yunoshimakan, an onsen ryokan. I loved being above Gero and hiking the ancient forest. As we were being briefed in our room, the employee told us there was a trail into the woods we could hike. She said, “Be careful because there are dangerous wild boar and bears in the forest.” That’s all I needed to hear to know I wanted to hike in the forest. Sometimes, our trips to Japan offer little opportunity to walk on the wild side, even though the country has plenty of undeveloped mountains to hike.
After an hour-long hike, I saw no boar or bear but enjoyed returning to our room and soaking in the private hot springs bath on our deck. The view looked out over the town of Gero and the mountains beyond, reminding me of my former home in Colorado.
The food was exceptional at Yunoshimakan. We ordered the in-room kaiseki—multi-course dinner—and dined like kings and queens. This type of multi-course dining should be part of a newbie’s onsen education as it immerses you in the culture in a tasty way. Plan on spending $175-300 USD per night in a similar onsen hotel with dinner and breakfast included. Some luxury hotels/ryokans charge way more; I recommend the upgrade if you can afford it.
In 2018, we returned to Japan and took a trip to Kusatsu because my wife and I wanted another big onsen trip. We took the bus from Tokyo and saw parts of the big city I’d never seen before entering the countryside. After three hours, we started climbing into the mountains. I saw colorful persimmon trees almost bare of leaves but showing off bright orange fruit destined for someone’s lucky kitchen. Taking the bus instead of the bullet train allowed me to see Japan better at a slower pace.
As we neared Kusatsu, I detected the smell of rotten eggs, indicating the hot springs were near. Kusatsu was underdeveloped compared to some onsen towns I’ve seen. In the city’s center, a steaming field of hot springs waters coursed down wooden channels to be collected for use in many hotels, public baths, and even a cooking pot.
Mixing the Water
On our morning walk, we saw a shop selling boiled eggs cooked in the 90-degree centigrade hot springs water. Since the water was too hot to use as it was, the villagers learned to mix the water with cold water long ago. This mixing method is reenacted daily. Tourists pay a small fee to see women dressed in traditional garb singing and stirring the hot water with cold water in preparation for bathers.
We stayed at Kanemidori Ryokan, just a short walk from the town center. The bathing pools at this posh hotel were quite good, with my favorite being the outdoor pool. This triangular pool, with a six-foot-tall rock and small waterfall, was a slice of paradise. Bamboo fencing enclosed this garden area pool, and I was lucky to be the only one bathing then.
The peace and quiet, combined with the healing waters, had me drifting off to a happy place. Soaking in hot water for more than 20 minutes is unhealthy; I had to break the spell and sit on the rock ledge for a while before entering the hot-water bliss again. When our one-night stay was over, my wife and I agreed Kusatsu was our favorite onsen and reluctantly departed for home the next day.
Articles Related to Visiting Japan
Last Soak in a Japanese Onsen
If you go to any of the above onsen, I recommend staying at least two nights. Each onsen and the town they are in offer plenty to do, and you wouldn’t want to depart too soon. Check out my hotel articles on kurttravels2.com for more information on lodging and things to do. We also invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more things to do when you visit Japan.
Onsen Travels in Japan