One of the best things about travel in Japan is the Japanese Onsen (hot spring). However many foreigners don’t know fully what to expect or how to behave in them so I will explain all that here and also recommend some onsens to visit.
Japan has so many onsens due to the high volcanic activity throughout the countries islands..In fact there are thousands of them. There are many hot springs all over the world, but nowhere like Japan is it such a part of their culture.
From cheap local bathhouses to expensive private ryokan inns.
Imagine yourself in the mountains immersing yourself in steaming hot water taking in the views, or in a historical building in the centre of a city relaxing in the natural mineral waters.
The onsen waters are said to have healing properties for all kinds of ailments. However the best properties are just the feeling of bathing in nice hot water, in a cool environment
That’s the Japanese onsen experience.
Japanese Onsen Etiquette and What to Expect
First thing you need to know and what surprises a lot of tourists is simply:
You need to be naked
and there’s no getting around that.
Can you wear a swimsuit? Nope.
Naked. Naked. Naked.
If you are a little shy of your body, don’t worry as no-one cares. The Japanese start taking onsens from a young age and are used to being around naked strangers, so don’t fret and just go with it.
You do get a small towel which you can use to cover your private parts if you wish, when walking around or sitting down. The reality is no-one really bothers with them. When in the onsen no swimwear or towels are allowed, you will have to sit completely naked.
The cultural thing to do is wear the small towel on top of your head, but not many people bother with this.
Before entering the onsen you must fully wash. There will be an area where you sit on small stools and wash yourself down, making sure to get all the soap of before entering.
This way the onsen water stays clean. Many onsens are gender separated, so women in one and men in another.
Many of the best onsens are the ones where you are outside. Whether that be at the base of a volcano in the sun,or up in the mountains in winter with snow falling on your head, it is a very peaceful experience.
You could get lucky and find yourself at a quiet time with an outdoor onsen all to yourself.
Where to Go for a Japanese Onsen – Some of the Best Onsens in Japan
Many hot spring resort towns are scattered throughout Japan. People walk the streets in their yukata robes and geta (wooden sandles), wandering from onsen to onsen.
These can be pricey compared with the more simple onsens that can be found scattered around the countryside, but give a great cultural experience.
You have to love a country where bathing in hot springs is an integral part of their culture. It makes for one of the most pleasurable experiences of any visit.
With so many to choose from there is to many to recommend so I will list some of my favourite experiences.
Also recommended it are onsens I haven’t been to but friends have and loved.
These cover most areas of Japan that you are most likely to visit.
Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama
Some onsens are famous, such as the Dogo Onsen. It is the oldest onsen in Japan with over 3000 years of history.
This was my favourite indoor onsen.
Situated in Matsuyama on Shikoku Island, it is said to be part of the inspiration for the bathhouse in the famed Japanese anime movie Spirited Away (an Oscar winner for best anime).
Dogo Onsen is full of history, and has a separate area just for the Imperial family. After a good soak in the cleansing waters, you can go to the higher levels and relax in a yukata and have a cup of Japanese green tea.
There are 4 levels with the average time there being 60 minutes. The simplest level starting at 410 yen and the top one being 1550 yen.
Beppu Onsen in Oita
This onsen is located on Kyushu Island and is a well known onsen town. There are several areas in the region to go to that you can have an onsen in.
Although this is a well known onsen area it wasn’t my favourite place on Kyushu Island as being popular there were many people around.
It was still good though and if you’re there definitely have one.
In contrast by the volcano across the bay from Kagoshima on Kyushu I had a small simple onsen all to myself.
These quieter onsens are cheaper (sometimes free) and easy to find if you ask the local people. Those are the onsen experiences you will truly love.
Ibusuki Onsen near Kagoshima
Speaking of Kagoshima this is a unique onsen experience to have. It is around 1 hour train journey from Kagoshima city.
I haven’t made it there but a friend did and said it was great.
There is a steam sand bath that’s unique in that there are only a few in Japan. It’s supposed to be very good for a number of conditions such as asthma, rheumatism, and more.
If you’re in Tokyo and wanting a hot spring experience then this is probably you best bet as you can day trip it there.
It’s only one hour from Tokyo by train so is easy to do in one day, but they also have ryokan guest houses (like all hot spring resort towns) to stay in if you want to overnight it.
You also get a great view of Mount Fuji.
This one is located in Hokkaido in the far north of Japan and the most popular there.
It’s located in the south of Hokkaido so easy to get to from the main city Sapporo.
There is a valley above the town called “Hell Valley” where much of the hot spring water in the area comes from.
This is one of the best onsen resort towns as it has a very historic atmosphere with its 3 storey traditional wooden houses and people walking around in their yukata robes.
Certainly not a cheap place to go but worth a visit even if you weren’t going to take an onsen.
You could technically day trip there from Kyoto or Osaka as it’s located just north of them by the Sea of Japan. Although in order not to rush it could be better to stay the night.
Ryukyu Onsen Ryujin-no-yu
This one is if you are in Okinawa, one of Japans most southernly islands.
You can relax in a bath with a view out to the turquoise tropical waters of the small island it’s located on, just a short way from the main island.
Paradise views while healing the body in the warm therapeutic waters of hot spring water brought up fro over a thousand metres below the island.
Have an Onsen in Japan
To put it one way:
A true visit to Japan would not be complete without at least one onsen bath.
As mentioned many of these places can be done on a day trip from some of the more popular places you will probably end up, such as Kyoto.
So go and treat yourself to some local culture and soothe your body and mind in an onsen experience.
Want more of Japan? Check out 10 of the best foods to eat in Japan.