Hot springs, or onsen (温泉), are a must-have on your to-do list during travelling in Japan. Whether you go to one purely for the experience or just want to let your muscles rest after an intense day of sightseeing elsewhere, you are guaranteed to leave feeling relaxed and very possibly wanting more.
As Japan is an archipelago of volcanic islands, there will be plenty of hot springs wherever you go. But just like sushi may be better in one place than another, some areas of Japan are particularly known for their onsens.
Below are some of the most popular hot spring destinations in Japan categorised by the island they are on. There are always more onsens to be discovered, so on maps and signs look out for the kanji 湯 or the hiragana ゆ (both read as yu), meaning “hot water”. However, these are some of the places that both tourist guides and local Japanese people agree that are incredible and worth visiting.
Onsen Recommendations on Kyushu
Some of the most well-known onsen-specific destinations are on the island of Kyushu, and Oita Prefecture (大分県) should be noted in particular. The hot springs there are very hot, just how the locals like them – some are so hot they work only as tourist attractions, like Beppu’s Hells (別府地獄めぐり). However, there are plenty of regular hot springs to choose from, as well as some unusual ones, such as sand onsens in Beppu or hot springs with different coloured water all over the prefecture: white, gold, blue and brown. A Visit Oita website will give you all the details you need.
Onsen Recommendations on Honshu
Another good hot spring hotspot is Ishikawa Prefecture. You are spoilt for choice almost as much as in Kyushu, but two places are especially worth noting: Kaga (加賀) and Yuwaku (湯涌). Both can be easily reached from Kanazawa City via bus or train, however, as their hot springs belong to various Japanese ryokan inns, stay overnight to add to the experience, if you can. The historic villages make your onsen dip feel like a trip to Japan’s past, and Yuwaku was an inspiration for the location of the anime series Hanasaku Iroha, giving it a connection to the present as well.
Travellers to Tokyo should visit Hakone (箱根) in the neighbouring Kanagawa Prefecture. While you may have to plan this trip carefully (for example, by going on a weekday, to avoid weekend crowds flocking from the capital for a bit of relaxation), it is a famous hot spring location in that area, and rightfully so. Its beautiful surroundings have been helping people to unwind for centuries, and although you can extend your visit to stay in a ryokan, many onsens also allow walk-in daytime visitors too.
Kinosaki (城崎) in Hyogo Prefecture is another popular destination, though this time for people coming from Kyoto and Osaka. With seven public onsens to choose from it can be hard to decide, but for tourists staying in some of the Japanese inns there is a possibility of getting a pass allowing entry to all of them. This is also an amazing opportunity for those with an interest in Japanese literature to explore the place that inspired Japanese writer, Naoya Shiga, to write his famous novel, Kinosaki nit e (translated as “At Kinosaki” or “In Kinosaki”). Maybe read it while you’re there to really feel a connection with the place?
Onsen Recommendations on Shikoku
Although the island of Shikoku may not have a lot to offer besides beautiful landscapes and nature when compared to other islands, it is home to one of Japan’s oldest hot springs, the Dōgō Onsen (道後温泉) in Matsuyama City. References to it can be traced as far back as to the ancient collection of Japanese poetry, the Man’yōshū, compiled in the 8th century AD! This is exploring Japanese history at its best, as well as its most relaxing. Given its age, it has also some legends attached to it, which you should explore once you get out of the hot water. Moreover, this is the inspiration for the main onsen building in Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning film Spirited Away, so any anime or Miyazaki fan simply has to include it in their trip!
Onsen Recommendations on Hokkaido
Last, but certainly not least, is Hokkaido’s Noboribetsu (登別), the most famous hot spring resort on Japan’s Northernmost island. While it may be less traditional-looking than some of the other onsens listed here, given that most of them are attached to hotels, there are as many as eleven different kinds of thermal waters to be tried there, as well as another natural “hell”: the Hell Valley (地獄谷). Besides this, Noboribetsu, as well as other hot springs in Hokkaido, have a significant advantage over most other ones: you can lower yourself into hot water whilst overlooking snowy landscapes in the middle of winter – even better when the onsen is an outdoors one! Although Japan has cold and snowy winters, there isn’t one quite like winter in Hokkaido.
Tips on Making the Onsen Experience in Japan Most Enjoyable
- Hot springs are a place of relaxation, so be respectful: try to keep the noise level down, and definitely don’t run around or jump or dive into water. If in doubt, follow the example from the Japanese people bathing with you.
- Unlike baths in the West, in Japan they are not a place to clean yourself. Wash and rinse yourself thoroughly in the shower section provided before getting into water. Soap, shampoo and conditioner will be provided for you.
- Most onsens don’t allow tattooed customers. While you may get away with covering small tattoos up with a plaster or bandages, it is more respectful to follow the facility’s policy and try someplace else. For a list of places that do let tattooed customers in, go to Tattoo-Spot.jp (Japanese only).
- Be comfortable with nakedness. The majority of hot springs are gender-separated, or will have different times for male and female customers, and strictly no swimsuits are allowed. But you shouldn’t worry about nudity – there is no reason to be ashamed, and some Japanese people even believe that onsens are beneficial not just for their natural waters, but also to help people realise that bodies differ between people and at different stages in life – and that that’s ok.