Onsens, a Japanese term that means natural hot springs or public baths, are not only a cornerstone of Japanese cultural identity but are also an essential experience when traveling in Japan.
For Westerners especially, the idea of bathing publicly can seem exotic or wild, but when in Japan, for the sake of relaxation, health and spiritual renewal, you won’t regret doing what the Japanese do. Here are seven of the best onsens in Japan that are ensured to maximize your natural bathing experience.
Only a short JR (Japan Railway) ride away from Tokyo and at the base of Mt. Fuji, this onsen is Japan’s most popular. Despite potential crowds, a wonderful bathing experience is a guarantee at Hakone. See the legendary cherry blossoms blossom in April, or come in autumn to witness the miscanthus sinensis in full bloom. If you can’t make it during either, no worries! Hakone is beautiful year-round. Only a short walk or cab-ride from the Hakone-Juku rail station, the onsen at Hakone is extremely accessible.
In the idyllic mountain town of Nyuto, Akita, the Tsuru-no-yu onsen’s milky white waters never fail to renew the soul. Come during winter when snowfall has turned the baths into a warm, natural haven from the cold. These co-ed baths are always in a beautiful setting, offering a year-round view of the gorgeous Lake Tazawa.
It is said that in the 2nd century a wounded Japanese warrior had drawn an arrow out of his side and bathed in the Zao hot spring to clean his wound. Miraculously, the waters of Zao not only cleaned him, but healed him entirely. This is just one of a series of legends rooted in the waters of Zao. How true are these stories? There’s only one way to find out. Situated in northern Honshu, the Zao onsen is accessible via the Johoku Expressway.
A series of eight onsens have been built extremely close to each other in the small town of Beppu; each of these baths is exquisite and beautiful. A day can easily and enjoyably be spent visiting each different one, walking from one to another. The most well known of these baths is the Beppu onsen, located conveniently close to the Beppu station at the center of town.
Also located in Beppu, the Kankaiji onsen is the most naturally endowed of the hot springs in the Beppu Hatto. Known for its multi-colored waters beset by plants and rocks of tremendous natural majesty, the Kankaiji onsen radiates a wonderful, yet sulphury aura.
Kurokawa is a charming and small onsen town beside a smooth-flowing river. With multiple onsens clustered together, visitors often walk from bath to bath. Three-day passes are also available for overnight lodgers.
At 350 yen, Hakkaido’s most famous onsen is a value luxury bargain. A 15-minute walk from the Noboribetsu station, the hot spring is easy to get to. It can get busy in the evening hours, though, so get there early in the day to ensure maximum relaxation in the natural bath’s sulphur-laden water that is hot, smelly and fantastic.
For the most part onsens require a one time fee. Some offer 2 or 3 day passes if you’re staying over night. Don’t worry too much about knowing what to do when you get there – all signs indicating important rules/policies are in English.
But please do remember to always acknowledge common courtesies and etiquette when bathing:
- clean yourself before entering the bath (baths are for soaking only)
- dry yourself before walking away from the bath
- always have your towel with you (towels are provided)
No matter which of the onsens, mentioned above, you choose to visit, you are guaranteed a profoundly relaxing and almost spiritual experience.
Photo Credits CC: ??, Jrim (flickr), cmbjn843 (fotopedia), benzpics63 (flickr), wikimedia, lazy fri13th (flickr), wikimedia