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
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
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
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
So here are some places I have
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
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.
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
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.
- 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
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,
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
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
[Foot Onsen. Photo Credit Buck82]