Every visitor to Japan should experience an onsen. These uniquely Japanese baths will rejuvenate you after a long journey. The onsen themselves are an attraction, located in areas of great natural beauty or charming historical buildings.
Relax and strike up a conversation with a local. Japanese bathers are more likely to chat with a stranger in the bath than anywhere else. In rural communities, onsen are a social ritual, with locals greeting each other as they arrive.
Any of these 10 onsen could be Japan’s best. Chosen for atmosphere and water quality, you will never want to leave these baths!
1. Kurokawa: Relax in a Timeless World
High in the mountains of Kumamoto, Kurokawa Onsen boasts pristine forest and a beautiful river to offset its charming traditional buildings.
Wandering the narrow, stone-paved streets, you discover delightful cafes, shrines, and of course, Kurokawa’s famous baths. Choose from outdoor baths in open-air bamboo groves, milky white mineral water, or peaceful riverside baths.
My recommendation is Sato no Yu Waraku, whose cave bath is a truly unique experience!
If you can’t decide which to visit, buy a wooden “onsen meguri” pass from any of the thirty participating onsen which gives you entry into three baths at a reduced rate. If you’re on a budget, tiny Anayu Onsen, built right on the river is a bargain at only one hundred yen!
Kurokawa Onsen – Official Website
Sato no Yu Waraku – English Homepage
Onsen-Hopping Pass – Information
2. Spa World: Around the World in 8 Baths
Osaka is known for its showy, in-your-face type of attractions that visitors from all over the world come to see. The onsen at Spa World is no exception.
Spa world is located in the now-retro Shinsekai (New World) district, whose grungy 1950s vibe contrasts interestingly with Tokyo or Kyoto.
Spa world is as far as it gets from a traditional onsen.
A bathing extravaganza, it contains two floors of gender-separated onsen style baths, a restaurant floor including a gym, a swimming pool floor (bathing suit required), and a hotel.
The baths are divided into two zones, Asia (featuring baths inspired by Persia, Indonesia and Japan) and Europe (Italy, Greece, Spain and Finland). Check their website before you visit to see which floor is open to which gender, as they change every month. Or you could make a second trip to experience both the Asian and European baths.
Spa World – Official Homepage
3. Beppu: Bathe in Hell
With steam rising from the pavements at night, Beppu is an onsen enthusiast’s dream.
The main attraction are Beppu’s hells, multi-colored pools where volcanic minerals produce eerie effects. You can’t bathe in the hells, but you can eat eggs boiled in them or view alligators raised in the warm water.
There are many public baths in Beppu city though.
The historic Takegawara Onsen, near Beppu station, is a gorgeous old building, with no modern trimmings. With no showers, you wash by scooping the onsen water out with a Japanese style bucket.
The water is hot, so if you can’t handle the heat, maybe try the sand bath instead. For a luxurious, ultra-modern bathing experience, Hyotan hot spring has it all—including 3 Michelin stars.
If you’d like to try a mud bath, walk uphill to Hoyoland for a truly unique experience.
Tiny neighborhood baths also dot the Kannawa suburb, many dedicated to the healing of a particular ailment.
Beppu Jigoku Association – Homepage
Takegawara Onsen – English Information
Beppu Beach Sand Bath – English Information
Hyotan Hot Spring – Homepage
Hoyoland Mud Bath – English Information
4. Hirauchi: Seaside Serenity
The island of Yakushima is better known for ancient cedar forests than onsen, but if you find yourself on this tiny island off the coast of Kagoshima, you must visit Hirauchi Onsen.
Located on the seashore in natural rock pools, Hirauchi puts you directly in touch with nature.
Be sure to check the tides before you visit—at high tide the bath is covered by the ocean! For a hotter bath, it pays to time your visit after low tide.
There are no washing facilities and payment is through an honesty box.
Hirauchi is open to both genders, but if you prefer a separate bath (or misjudge the tides), head to neighboring Yudomari Onsen.
Hirauchi & Yudomari Onsen – English Information
5. Dogo Onsen: Baths fit for an Emperor
One of the “great old baths” of Japan, Dogo’s history spans 3000 years of bathers.
The beautifully maintained bathhouse is as big an attraction as the onsen itself and often hosts art exhibitions.
You can buy a cheap bath-only ticket, but for the full experience go for the next ticket up. This includes yukata rental, access to the gorgeous lounge and a cup of tea and rice cracker.
Or why not splurge on the private room, tour and colorful tri-colored dango (sweet Japanese dumplings)?
Tours of the private imperial bath in the annex are also available. As a major tourist attraction, Dogo can be crowded. It pays to visit early in the morning.
If you want to enjoy Dogo’s famous waters in a less crowded setting without losing your sleep-in, Tsubaki no Yu, just around the corner from Dogo Onsen, is fed from the same waters.
An industrial style building, Tsubaki no Yu attracts quirky local retirees who bathe here every day.
Dogo Onsen – Homepage
Tsubaki no Yu – Japan Travel Page
6. Funaoka Onsen: Tattoo? No problem!
Eclectic Funaoka is the oldest public bath in Kyoto, and one of the most foreigner-friendly in Japan.
While most onsen ban patrons with tattoos, Funaoka welcomes them. Local bathers are used to foreigners, and a tattooed friend found herself in conversation with a friendly Japanese grandmother curious about the meaning of her Celtic knot.
Funaoka is a mixture of styles. Its traditional front leads into a changing room with carved wooden panels reminiscent of a temple—until you notice the panels depict cannons in action!
The baths are a similar mix, including deep wooden baths, shallow, tiled baths and showers, and even a small, outdoor bath made from stone.
Funaoka Onsen – Japanese Homepage
7. Noboribetsu: Nine Kinds of Thermal Waters
For serious mineral addicts, Noboribetsu in Hokkaido is the place to go.
Famous as Hokkaido’s best onsen, Noboribetsu is a highly developed resort, marred by large hotels. What it lacks in natural beauty, Noboribetsu makes up in the quality of its waters.
Most popular is the sulfur spring, but the alum spring, thought to promote beautiful skin, also has a big following.
The majority of Noboribetsu’s onsen are hotel-owned, but it is possible to visit them without staying at the hotel. Make sure to choose an onsen with an outdoor bath for the chance to sit in an onsen with snow falling all around you, a definite onsen highlight.
Noboribetsu Onsen – Japan Guide Page
8. Odaiba Oedo Monogatari: Fantastic First-Time Onsen!
Equal parts theme park and bath, Oedo Monogatari is an immersive experience.
Upon entry, you change into yukata and wooden sandals, and wander down a recreated Edo-period shopping street, with restaurants and traditional amusements.
What Oedo Mongatari lacks in authenticity, it makes up for in accessibility.
Located on Tokyo’s Odaiba (a large, man-made island), it offers clear instructions on how to use the bath and other aspects of onsen in English and a host of other languages, making it an excellent introduction to onsen.
After your bath, relax with a quiet stroll in the gardens, or splurge on fish therapy, a special service where live fish clean the dead skin from your feet…definitely not for those who are ticklish!
Check out this cute video that takes you on a tour of the Oedo Onsen Monogatari:
Odaiba Oedo Monogatari Onsen – Homepage
9. Kurama Onsen: Autumn Beauty
Escape the hectic pace of Osaka and Kyoto with a trip to Kurama, a quiet mountain valley.
Surrounded by pristine forest, you’ll think you’re in another world. Beautiful any time of the year, Kurama is especially gorgeous in autumn, when special trains take tourists past landscapes of brightly colored maple leaves.
Make your escape complete with a trip to Houroku-yu, an outdoor bath fed by a sulfur spring. Following the stone path up the hill to the bathhouse, you’ll feel like you stumbled on Kyoto’s best-kept secret. The wooden bathtub complements the surrounding forest perfectly, inviting you to lose yourself in nature’s tranquility.
Kurama Onsen – English Information
10. Yunotsu: Retro Flair in Forgotten Shimane
Yunotsu was once an internationally significant port, shipping silver from Iwami Ginzan around the world.
Now this sleepy coastal town is almost entirely forgotten except by fans of its super hot mineral-rich onsen.
Yunotsu takes pride in the fact that the water in their baths is completely unadulterated, but you might find it difficult to spend more than five minutes at a time in the hot baths!
Yunotsu’s charm has remained untouched by time. The town’s single street is lined with traditional ryokan and small stores, none more recent than the 1950s.
Of the two public baths, Yakushiyu has the most character.
If you’d like a little more privacy, consider staying at one of Yunotsu’s ryokan, many of which offer private baths.
Take a look at this video to get a feel of this quaint town:
Yunotsu Onsen – English Information
With over 3000 onsen resorts in Japan, choosing only ten was extremely difficult. The onsen on my list represent the best Japan has to offer, from water rich with volcanic minerals, to baths set against stunning scenic views.
Are there any onsen you think should be on this list?
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