These are what I've found to be the world's most memorable hot springs and baths. Sometimes they are just the only one I went to in that country.


Like the great Alan Bishop, whose web page served me and others well, I like a more natural-style hot spring -- I don't much like spas with the water piped in. Most of all I am influenced by how memorable the place is. Sometimes that can have to do with a strange location, or gerat water, unusual people, or whatever else. Here are 3 general guidelines:

1. Water. How strong? What color? How much volume of movement?
2. Development. Generally, the less developed the better. Who wants to sit in a stupid plastic bathtub? However, developed springs can be okay if they happen to be ottoman ruins, or feature monkeys or a great ryokan, etc.
3. Intangibles. There's no other word. Some places just leave you wanting to come back. Connected strongly to who goes to the spring.

Overall, I'm quite tolerant of different types of spring, bath or onsen, and their quirks. In the end, how bad can it be to sit in hot water and look around?


Comments, suggestions and corrections much appreciated. Email wu AT pobox.com.

The World's Most
Memorable Hot Springs



Western China





California (including Nevada) is the place for the lover of natural hot springs -- that is, hot springs with minimal human involvement. The drawback is that hot springs that aren't always as pristine as their Japanese brethren. Either you go for that or you don't.

Three things distinguish Californian baths.

First, California has alot of places that are either completely natural (i.e., no facilities, just a pool of water somewhere in the wilderness). It also has lots of places that are nothing more than few huts or a small inn to stay in.

Second, California places are idiosyncratic. Unlike other countries, no two places are really alike, and each has amusing, and not-so-amusing quirks. That makes exploring new places a constant adventure.

Third, the kind of people who show up are completely unpredictable. Hippies, bikers, carpenters, mormons, the works. Once, we met elves.

Hazards. No utopia can exist, it seems, without at least a few too-grumpy hippies. Now and then you run into people for whom everything you do ruins their day in one way or another.

Californian hot springs can also get overrun, as supply is much less than demand. That's particularly true of places anywhere near San Francisco. For that reason, the prices can also get really high.

There are way too many places to discuss here. If you want to get serious, buy

Hot Springs and Hot Pools of the Southwest


Sykes Springs
These springs, inland from Big Sur in the Ventana wilderness, are at the end of about 6 miles of hiking that is pretty painful in parts. The good thing is that acts as a powerful filter of people -- not everyone is quite willing to do the hike, and the springs attract a fitter crowd. The springs themselves aren't world class, though I love the one up the cliff that is basically built into a tree. A great weekend trip.

On my hike back from Sykes Springs we were unable to drag ourselves out of the springs, started back late, and became lost in a redwood grove (flashlight broken). That was a bit scary, especially when our lighter exploded and started a small forest fire. However, camped on the path and survived to tell the story.


[Near Sykes Springs]

Wilbur Springs
Wilbur is pretty flawless. It has one of those nice late 19th century Inns that are common to California resorts. Its baths done up in that kind of quasi-Japanese style favored by asiaphiles everywhere, and they look good.

What's worth writing home about is the water. Its a funny kind of green, and it is powerful and very hot. There are even more powerful baths in California (some too powerful) but within striking distance of San Francisco this is a good bet.

Wilbur has a well-equipped communal kitchen.

[Main pool]


[Outside of pools]

wilbur inside

[inside inn]

Orr Springs
Orr has a relaxed feel, good springs, and great proximity to redwoods. However, as some report, it also can be a little heavy on the attitude -- it doesn't necessarily have the feeling of radical inclusion. It is possible to feel a little unwelcome, and you can meet some major grumps here.

One great thing about Orr is the chance to visit the nearby Montgomery Grove, a little-known redwood grove that has some of the tallest trees in the world. For a while it had the tallest known tree in the world, but someone found a higher one.


[Orr. Photo Credit]

Harbin Hot Springs is probably the best known place near the Bay area.   People have a love/hate relationship with it; whatever you think, you have to admit it does not hold back, but rather represents California indy hippie culture in all of its glory.   I sort of feel like everyone who likes hot springs should give it a try.

Harbin tends to be a bit more crowded than other places, and consequently, you see alot of people.   It also is nuder than any other place, if that's an adjective, and so when I mean you see people, I mean you see them, in every sex, size and age.   Depending on your approach to life that's either refreshing or terrifying.

Harbin can also be more social than other places, which can either be refreshing or terrifying.  Finally, there is much more massage going on Harbin, including the famous Watsu or water massage.

I particularly like the setting of the cold plunge with an indoor hot pool; you can sort of do a cycle. 

Vichy Springs
Vinchy isn't for everyone. It is kind seem like the upper-west side answer to the new-ageynes of Californian hot springs. It is also kind of pricey. So if you want a hot spring that embodies a true spirit of wild abandon, Vichy might not be for you.

But I like Vichy anyhow. The water is carbonated, which is hard to find. You fill up ancient tubs, in which you can lie all night and look at the stars as the bubbles cover your body. The water, also, is lukewarm when it comes out -- which sounds unpleasant, and will displease some, but allows for much longer soaking.

I also find the water here amazing to drink. Once I showed up at Vichy feeling so car sick I didn't want to move. I asked for help, and Vichy's owner said "drink from the source." I was skeptical, but was cured.

Vichy has two rules. First, it isn't clothing optional. Second, you can't swim in the "source." Within 5 minutes of arriving you'll be tempted to break both rules. Finally, Vichy also has a nice hike to a small waterfall.


Photo: JJZ

vichy water

Photo Credit JJZ


Sierra Springs

This place is north of North Lake Tahoe and worth a detour.  I made a recent summer trip to Sierra Springs in 2010 and concluded that it is nearly perfect.   

One thing I like about Sierra is that while its close to Lake Tahoe, it is nonetheless in a part of California that feels genuinely lost.   At different times of the year different baths are open.

The meditation pool is slightly cooler, but when its deserted, you can lose alot of time here, with just trees and dragonflies for company.  

Usually I've ended up in the geodesic dome (see below) which has a good, very hot pool with a cold one. It also has a somewhat poorly executed statue of buddha. The bottom of the pool is sand -- nice surprise. Outside there is a larger, slightly less hot pool that affords a view of the stars.

The water has a nice thickness to it.   Sierra also pretty decent accomodations; unfortunately some are a drive away, but nonetheless ina 19th century Inn style. The main lodge is a place that you can imagine sitting in for quite a while. Food, however, is a little complicated.   There is a restaurant open on weekends, and otherwise you're on your own - note that the town does not have a grocery store.


Stewart Springs

The Stewart Springs are just north of Mount Shasta, near the town of Weed. (Watch out, they have speed traps on the road here). This is lesser-known, but great place.

Stewart hits the middle ground between under- and over- development, not an easy task. The springs themselves are not for everyone. They are piped into antique tubs, and the water is the strongest I've ever been in. If you stay in too long, your skin begins to peel off. At its worst, it can be a little like soaking in bleach.

Stewart has a circuit -- you go from the bath, off to a smoky sauna, and into the mountain stream, which is freezing, then repeat. Its a nice experience though the cold water made one of my friends halluncinate. They also have a sweat-lodge though I've never tried it.

Maybe the most important thing is just being anywhere near Shasta.


Mono Lake

Some of the most picturesque natural springs in the world are here. Don't expect any facilities though, and many are hard to find. The Traventine Springs (pictured below) are dead easy, and as you can see, the setting is memorable.


[Tavertine Springs, Karim]

The Buckeye springs have abundant water and a great great feel. I spent hours here once. They are a little harder to find.


[Buckeye Springs]


In style, Mammoth's springs are similar to Mono's. Famous Hot Creek is here (pictured below). It's huge and hot, but usually kind of crowded and not exactly serene. Nature's own public pool.

hot springs

[Hot Creek, near Mammoth]

Numerous other great, but relatively small springs are scattered around Mammoth, most of which require some digging.




Japan is the other great center for hot springs -- on whole, the undisputed champion of the world. Mineral water is seeping out of everywhere. Japan, when you get down to it, isn't much more than a bunch of volcanos connected by shinkasen and conbini.

In alot of ways Japan has no equal. Other parts of the world have, at best, dozens or springs, while Japan has hundreds. They are also pristinely clean, and usually done in good taste. If you look hard, there is also great variety: Baths of many different colors and power, mud baths, and add-ons like sand baths and even all-out bath theme parks.

The tradeoffs. There is, nowadays, too much uniformity among Japan's Onsen. There are hundreds of great baths, but too often one can seem identical to another, as alike as two cars on the Yanamoto line. That's good in the sense that good baths are readibly available and consistent. But sometimes you really need to push hard to find a truly unusual or memorable bath (though they definitely exist).

Second, some of the most spectacular places are also spectacularly expensive -- the ryokan baths in particular. In the United States, hot springs are sort of an unusual hobby, keeping demand down, but in Japan, just about everyone loves their onsen.

Finally, most japanese baths are gender-segregated (some exceptions discussed below), so its more about silent contemplation than chatting with any friends or partners of the opposite sex.

There are certain parts of Japan where there are just high numbers of great Onsen (like near Nagano).

What follows is extremely incomplete. I simply haven't spent enough time in Japan - yet - to visit all of the great onsen areas. If you are serious about this,I am a devotee of the book, by Robert Neff, entitled Japan's Hidden Hot Springs. Neff's springs aren't the fanciest and while many are famous, they often aren't the most famous. But he has found the places with a true soul and that's the greatest challenge in today's Japan.

So here are some places I have been.


I did an onsen tour in hokkaido - coupled with some mountain hiking - that I regard as one of the best times of my life. And along the way I had the chance to drop by a few memorable Onsen.

In general hokkaido does not have the traditional japanese style Ryokan / Onsen that you might be hoping for. But what hokkaido onsens do have is mountain charm, dramatic landscapes, and a remoteness that can't be beat.

Naka-dake Onsen


This wild onsen can scarcely be found in the books. Yet it is a fabulous wild onsen that is part of one of the best hikes you'll find in Japan or anywhere.

This spring is located in Daikatzakan national park, Japan's largest national park. It forms part of a trail that crosses Hokaido's tallest peak, dramatic Asahi-dake (pictured below). The spring itself can be visited as part of a 7 hour hike that climbs Asahi-dake, circles a nearby crater, and descends into the valley where the spring can be found.

The setting could scarcely be better: a stone lined valley surrounds the spring, which is fed by natural pools and is a beautiful chromatic blue. The spring is acidic but not dangerous.



Yamanouchi Town, Nagano - Monkey Hot Springs

In Nagano prefecture there's a great place to watch the monkeys hang out in the hot springs. (Jigokudani Yaen Koen). It is so inspirational that you'll easily spend hours there. The monkeys basically eat, sit in the bath, and go for some monkey-shiatsu (grooming). They really seem to have life figured out.

Since the monkeys are similar to us, you can learn alot from them. But once you see the o-saru-san soaking you'll want to go yourself. I can't remember the name of the one I went to unfortunately, but it was a nice Ryokan.

Note that most places segregate between man, woman, and monkey. If it has always been your dream to sit in a hot spring with a monkey you may have to go somewhere else.


Yakushima - Kaichu Beach Springs

The island of Yakushima is off the South of Japan, and is home to giant cedar trees that the Japanese claim to be more than 7,000 years old. Well that's true or not, Yakashima like everywhere else also has a few hot springs. Not the best in japan but memorable in a different way -- they are free, open to the public, and natural.

The location cannot really be beat, and is especially memorable at night. Also unusual for Japan, men and women are unsegregated, or segregated only by a kind of screen, so if you're particularly modest keep that in mind.

Beppu - Mud Springs

Beppu is famous for springs, but also overrun with tourists, gimicky stuff, and bland onsen places. However there are certainly some interesting places, such as sand onsen, and especially the mud springs north of town. The mud springs I visited were a bit run down, but lying in the hot mud is pretty memorable.

This fellow spent 3 weeks in Beppu doing nothing but going to springs, so maybe you should follow his advice.


[Mud Springs, Beppu]

Oedo Onsen Monogatari, Odaiba, Tokyo

Okay, so no purist would include this place in any list of onsens. It as to great Onsen as Rocky is to Raging Bull, or as Disneyland is to the Loire Valley. But it has a kitchy, only-in-japan feel that is irresistable to people like me.

At the entrance are large "no tattoo" signs. (people break this rule). Inside you have to wear Yukata -- you get to choose between 18 or so outfits.

Inside, the onsen has tried to recreate the look and feel of an Edo-era town. Since everyone's in costume, it works a little better than you might think (see below). People look good in Yukata, as you'll know if you ever go to fireworks in Japan.

Inside you can eat various things, throw shuriken, fire a bow, or do one of a hundred other odd things. Friendly ninjas, right out of daredevil, help out.

The baths themselves are okay, but obviously not up to the level of the better onsen. They are similar to the baths in the Tokyo Dome / Big Egg. Nice materials, basically, but no real charm. However, cold pools, hot, outdoor, everything you'd like

One memorable feature is the foot onsen, an outdoor onsen that is a "path of health" for the feet (see below). Basically you walk on a bumpy surface creating great pain for your feet while they are under water.

One of the oddest parts about Oedo Onsen is that you can, spur of the moment, spend all night there. (Much cheaper than taking a taxi home!). I did this once, and slept in a giant back room on tetami with all of the ヤンケエ。 It was an unusual evening.

foot onsen

[Foot Onsen. Photo Credit Buck82]

[Odeo Onsen]




Hungary -- Budapest

Budapest is a must on any world tour of the best baths. While not natural, they are hard to beat for that sense you are bathing in a palace or a roman ruin.

There are alot of baths in Budapest, so many people wonder which one to go to. They're all pretty good, but very different. The big difference is between the Ottoman baths, which are tranquil, and the more modern baths which feel like giant art museums filled with water.

Szechenyi Baths

These are the largest baths I've ever been to - sort of the Louvre of the hot-water world. They don't really have a super-tranquil atmosphere, but they're lots of fun. You can easily spend hours or a whole day here just sort of going from place to place and it feels great. You'll also be inspired by the locals, who are really into this place.

There are over 20 baths, saunas, various exercise rooms, chess, mud pack, wierd electrical treatments etc. etc. I really didn't understand everything going on here.

Also the architecture can't be beat, even by the Gellert.


The Gellert

There's nothing wrong with the Gellert baths. But I don't think they are as much fun as the Szechenyi baths, above, nor as traquil as the Ottoman-style baths you can find in town.

Rudas Baths

These are great. Built in 1550(?!) and you have the sense things haven't much changed since. Men-only baths, quiet. You feel like a roman.




Virginia has alot of pontential as for springs. The blue ridge mountains have there own kind of lost-in-time deal. However things are not quite as they were back at the founding. Some of the springs are piped into "spas" at expensive hotels aren't aren't any fun at all.

Jefferson Springs - Warm Springs, Bath County
These aremost memorable springs in Virginia. An ancient wooden structure, in style not unlike Monticello, with light filtering in through a preforated roof. You float underneat in slightly carbonated water, warm but not hot.

The town of Warm Springs, in Bath country, is full of charming small inns, and B&Bs, so accomodation adds to the experience. You can also hike around here, or drive into West Virginia to see what that's like.

warm springs





In addition to the ubquitous turkish-style baths in Moroccan cities, there are also some memorable baths in the desert. Enroute to the dunes I went to the unnamed place below. Inside were men sitting around a pool -- no one was actually in the pool. I didn't understand why at first.

Until I realized how hot the water was -- scalding.

The game was lowering yourself into the water to see how much you could bear. It was sort of a test of manhood, submission or who knows what. The pain was acute and unlike cold water, you don't get used to it. We left that place mildly burnt all over, though it did make the desert seem cool by comparison.





Taiwan is a former Japanese colony, and the hotspring legacy remains.

Taiwanese water tends to be great. But the baths, unfortunately, are not always the best, especially compared with their cousins in Japan. Too many big swimming pool like affairs full of kids running around, or overdeveloped "spas" with water that goes into a bathtub.

Over the last few years there's been a little more development of more Japanese-style places, especially near Taipei, Yangmingshan. There's a (uncritical) guide here. There are also more and more hotels with mineral water, which I don't like all that much. Finally, there are probably great natural springs but I haven't found them.


[Locals cleaning baths, Peitou]


[through the fog]


Peru - Machu Pichu

The baths near the "town" of Machu Pichu won't win any awards.But they feel pretty good after days of hiking the Inca trail. Best of all, if you can whistle loudly, a nice fellow will bring you the cold drink of your choice.

Near Machu Pichu

Colorado & New Mexico

   Colorado / New Mexico rival California/ Nevada as the hot springs center of the United States.  I've been to fewer places in this part of the country, but they've got much to be said for them.

Strawberry Hot Springs

The Strawberry hot springs are just outside of Steamboat Springs.   I have been to Strawberry many, many times, and I always like it here.   There is a ton of water and the architecture is done in extremely attractive fashion.   There is nothing quite like sitting in hot water near the snow, looking up at aspens and blue skies. There is also a spring which is cold but not fatal, and hence refreshing.

The only bad part about Strawberry is that during the day it can get quite crowded and chatty, rather taking on the aura of a municipal swimming pool now and then.  (Colorado pools tend to be much chattier than Californian).  But if you don't mind some chatter you'll like it here.   Also, I haven't been at night. 


Orient Land Trust / Valley View Hot Springs

These springs make you feel like you stepped into another planet with its own rules.   There are, I think, 6 springs, including one on a mountain high up, lots of cabins, and in the summer at least, lots of people, making the whole thing feel like a kind of colony.

Quite a few things make Orient Land Trust distinctive.   Its bigger than most places, and sometimes you have to hike between pools.   The pools themselves are much more natural than any I've seen, including some, ironically, in nature -- meaning that they have sandy or muddy bottoms, and sometimes even moss. Orient Land Trust also has a sauna with something I've never seen before:   a cold plunge that is built right into it.

All these make Orient Land Trust great.  My only complaint is that it is a chatty, chatty place, even in the pools.  You can expect to hear everything you might want to know about what everyone in the pool is up to.  


10,000 Waves

Holy cow, a japanese onsen in New Mexico.   Like American-japanese restaurants, the feeling is different in certain ways, but still worth a visit.   The accomodations are beautiful, and the private baths are something quite rare in the United States.    And you get to wear Yukata.

ten thousand