One of the best things about travel in Japan is the onsen experience(hot spring). However many foreigners don’t know fully what to expect, or how to behave in them.
That will be explained here as well as some of the best Japanese onsens you can 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 best Japanese onsen experience.
The Best Japanese Onsens
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.
However you can find mixed onsens in Japan in places. Just don’t expect to share with your opposite sex friend/lover/whatever!
Many of the best Japanese onsens are the outdoor ones.
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.
After enjoying the hot therapeutic waters you then relax in your yukata robe and chill out.
Where to Go for a Japanese Onsen
Many hot spring resort towns are scattered throughout Japan.
People walk the streets in their yukatarobes 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.
These cover most areas of Japan that you are most likely to visit and some of the best Japanese onsens.
Tattoos in Onsens
Despite Japanese tattoos being regarded as some of the most beautiful in the world, tattooing is not big in Japan and tattoos in the past have been regarded as being part of the criminal class, the yakuza.
So basically many onsens refused people with tattoos because of the links with criminals.
These days tattoos are more tolerated, especially with foreigners, as they are known as just body art and not associated with criminals.
That being said some onsens still deny people if you have tattoos.
One way around that is if you have tattoos that are possible to cover up with bandages for example you could try that so as not to show them.
I personally have numerous tattoos and never had a problem entering an onsen.
On one occasion I’m pretty sure I sat next to someone high up in the yakuza as he was covered shoulder to ankle in Japanese tattoos and two ‘bodyguards’ stood outside the onsen looking over him.
Some Of The Best Onsens in Japan to Visit –
Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama
Some onsens are famous, such as the Dogo Onsen.
It’s the oldest onsen in Japan with over 3000 years of history.
This is my favourite indoor onsen in Japan by far and definitely one of the best Japanese onsens you can go to, for the history, and relaxation.
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 four levels with the average time there being 60 minutes.
The simplest level starting at 410 yen and the top one being 1550 yen.
If you’re into getting a real Japanese experience try a traditional Japanese Inn (ryokan) for a place to stay and enjoy going to Dogo Onsen from there.
Beppu Onsens in Oita
Beppu onsen is located on Kyushu Island and is well known as an onsen town. There are several areas in the region to go to that you can have an onsen in.
The onsens are good but very popular.
Don’t be confused with some of the onsen’s in the area that are too dangerous to bathe in as they are so hot, but are good to view.
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 Ibusuki onsen is definitely a unique onsen experience to have. It is around a one 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.
Kusatsu onsen has the largest flowing water of all the onsens in Japan. It’s around 200km from Tokyo and is a relaxed little town.
The Kusatsu onsen waters are highly reputable for their healing properties and you should definitely visit if you have any bacterial problems!
Apparently it’s been voted one of the best onsens in Japan for a long time now.
As far as looking for onsens near Tokyo go this is a very good option.
If you’re in Tokyo and wanting a hot spring experience then Hakone onsen 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.
Noboribetsu onsen is located in Hokkaido in the far north of Japan and is the most popular there.
It’s located in the south of Hokkaido so easy to get to from the main city of Sapporo.
There is a valley above the town called “Hell Valley” where much of the hot spring water in the area comes from.
Kinosaki onsen is one of the best onsen resort towns for a onsen spa.
It has a very historic atmosphere with its three 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
Ryukyu onsen is one to have 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.
- More on what to do in Okinawa.
Onsen in Tokyo
Even in the massive city that is Tokyo you can find hot spring bathing.
You can find this at Maenohara Onsen.
I personally didn’t make it there but get asked a bunch about whether there are onsens around Tokyo area so am adding it here for you.
This is a good video about the place that also shows some of the onsen etiquette I talked about earlier:
What is the Onsen Temperature?
This is a question I’ve been asked a few times about Japanese onsens.
I guess mainly because some people are worried about it being too hot and others worried it may not be hot enough.
The simple answer is that it varies from place to place.
It goes from around 25 degrees for the cooler ones to 42 degrees upwards for the very hot!
But most onsens have a cooling down pool of cold water to bathe in if you get too hot.
Or just lounge around outside the hot spring to cool down.
Actually one of the best onsen experiences is an outdoors onsen, especially if the weather is cool.
It’s such a cozy feeling being warm in the onsen temperature and then cooling down in a fresh cool breeze outside.
Have One of The Best Onsens in Japan
To put it one way:
A true visit to Japan would not be complete without at least one onsen bath.
You can even day trip from Tokyo if you leave early enough.
So go and treat yourself to some local culture and soothe your body and mind in an onsen experience.
Want more of Japan?
Take a look at my guide for Japan.
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